Tackling drought with big data

3 February 2016

Water scarcity is a global problem, and climate change is making it worse.

Recent droughts have shown that some regions of the world are much more resilient than others - but this depends on a complex set of factors, and it's hard to know in advance which areas are particularly vulnerable. Making better use of environmental data - for example, rainfall records - could provide early warnings of drought, letting consumers and suppliers change their behaviour accordingly.

Earth cracked due to drought

NERC is providing funding alongside partners in industry for the water scarcity hack-week, a five-day event in March that aims to help do this. It will bring together experts from diverse fields to create innovative new ways to predict and manage the growing problem of water scarcity by drawing on the vast amounts of environmental data that NERC and other organisations hold, alongside information gleaned from social media.

The hack-week is a collaboration between NERC, Unilever, the Big Innovation Centre - which seeks to help partners in industry, academia and the public sector solve the challenges they face through innovative thinking - and Hackmasters, a tech company specialising in rapid concept development, prototyping and testing. It will bring together experts including environmental researchers, data scientists, designers and technologists to explore possible new ways to combine the data we have to predict droughts further in advance. This knowledge could be used to help cope with future water scarcity. They will look at the range of data that's available, and at how it communities could be used alongside information from social media and machine-learning techniques.

If possible they will compare these techniques' potential in different places: in the UK, in California - where a current long-term drought means there's plenty of social media data on water scarcity - and in a developing region, perhaps in Brazil, where lack of good long-term environmental data means they'll have to rely on social media data alone. The comparison will help them understand how much each type of data can contribute to the overall goal of better drought prediction.

This is the latest of NERC's initiatives aimed at increasing the economic and social benefits we get from the environmental data we have already collected by using it to solve business challenges. The hack-week will take place in London from 7-11 March. If you have expertise that could help and want to take part, please read the call for applications and apply by 15 February.

Further information

Tom Marshall