The recent Geovation Water Challenge was sponsored by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Environment Agency, Southern Water and United Utilities; organisations who were all keen to be involved in facilitating innovative ways to solve some of the problems associated with better management of water in Britain in a sustainable way. We asked Nick Haigh, Lead Analyst, Water & Flood Risk Management, at Defra, who was also a member of the Geovation judging panel, why Defra chose to get involved and how they plan to continue to support these innovations as they develop.
Why did Defra get involved in the Geovation Water Challenge?
Geovation’s water challenge fitted perfectly with Defra and Environment Agency’s drive to open up our data as a way of facilitating new approaches to meet key policy challenges. The themes of the challenge resonated closely with our own view of the key issues in water management: too little water; too much water; poor water quality; ageing infrastructure, and how to encourage sustainable water behaviour.
What did you think of the process and Geovation Camp?
The whole process has been fascinating for an analyst from a government department. It’s confirmed for me that we have traditionally had quite a narrow approach to data, both in terms of the models for using it and the constituency of people who get access to it. Geovation has opened up data and policy questions to a new range of people who can deploy data and analytical skills that we don’t traditionally have access to, thanks in part to advances in technology and data science. The Camp was a really interesting way of doing things – basically an intense, deep dive into the data and the teams’ ideas, to stress test them and push forward their development at pace. The energy and atmosphere at the camp was amazing.
Your thoughts on the finalists that attended Geovation Camp and how their ideas developed during the course of it?
All the finalists struck me as being incredibly dedicated in terms of developing highly innovative ideas to solve real problems. The people at the Camp came from a wide variety of backgrounds: from companies and academic institutions, but also people simply pursuing ideas as interested individuals. There was also a real mix in terms of age and experience: people at the beginning of their careers with exciting new ideas, but also those with significant experience looking for new ways to tackle old problems. During the camp, what had been interesting seeds of ideas a few weeks before, really began to develop and turn into more tangible solutions.
How about the winners that were selected? Do you believe their ideas may help solve the problems associated with better management of water?
The group of finalists were all very strong but inevitably not everyone can win. Although of course the judges came from a variety of organisations and interests, as it turns out, the three winning teams that were selected have particularly strong policy relevance for Defra. New approaches to catchment management have moved right up the agenda recently, so we are very interested in the development of the Sustainable Catchments idea. Similarly, Fix Our Water fits perfectly with our open data agenda and could be a platform to see real improvements to the water environment in local areas. And finally, Refillable Cities tackles a growing issue in terms of plastic waste, another key policy issue for us.
How would you like to be involved in the Geovation winners’ future development of their solutions?
We are in touch with all three of the finalists and trying to make sure they get access to people in the Defra group who can help develop their ideas, for example by making sure they are as policy relevant as possible, or advising on public datasets. We look forward to keeping in touch with the teams as they build their solutions.
We are busy planning our next Geovation Challenge which will be focussed on the problems of managing underground assets. We would be keen to hear from any organisations that wish to get involved, so if you’d like to know more please email email@example.com