Article written by: Heather Montague.
Main picture: In this picture you see why people have been drawn to the Nile River in Egypt for thousands of years. Green farmland marks a distinct boundary between the Nile floodplain and the surrounding harsh desert, copyright USGS
In recognition of Open Education Week (1 – 6 March 2021) and Open Data Day (6 March 2021), we explore how IHE Delft is putting open education and data into action through the project lens of WaPOR - WAter Productivity through Open access of Remotely sensed derived data.
Open education is about expanding access to the learning and training traditionally offered through formal education systems, in a sense, democratising knowledge. Open data is the idea that some data should be freely accessible to be used, shared and built upon by everyone.
Remote sensing for water productivity
According to the UN, agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of worldwide freshwater use. Therefore, careful monitoring of water productivity is critical when it comes to achieving food security in a sustainable way. Through WaPOR, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) aims to monitor and improve water productivity via a portal of remotely-sensed data. And IHE Delft’s Water Accounting and Water Productivity group, led by Associate Professor Marloes Mul, is helping to make this happen.
The first phase of WaPOR, which recently concluded, focussed on creating a database using remotely sensed data for Africa and the Middle East. Mul said that a lot of time was spent on the calibration and validation of the data. The resulting database offers a high resolution (250m) database containing not only information related to water, but also combines it with biomass production, something that other databases have not done. Ultimately, this portal gives open access to near real time, pixel-based information that can be used by farmers, irrigation managers, river basin organisations and governmental agencies to improve water productivity and allocation on the ground.
Putting the data to use
The main purpose of the second phase of the WaPOR programme is therefore to support people to use the data. With support from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, IHE Delft, together with project partners FAO and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), are working to identify possible applications for using WaPOR data to improve agricultural water management. “There’s a portal, but the data is often not presented in a way that is insightful for the end users,” said Mul. “So, we’re developing tools and scripts to make the transition from what is in the database to nice figures and ways to analyse the data depending on the needs of the end users.”
The Gezira Scheme in Sudan, one of the largest irrigation projects in the world, is one of the places where the WaPOR database is already being utilised. IHE alumnus Dr. Yasir Mohamed, Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources for Sudan, said that they are currently ‘training the trainers’ on how to use the portal. “We are looking forward to some final outputs to support policy making on irrigation water management,” he said. “So far we are getting preliminary results, for example, how big the cropped area in Gezira is, which is already extremely useful information to improve water resources management in Sudan.”
Capacity building through OpenCourseWare
Another important aspect of the WaPOR project involves outreach and capacity building. Having conducted trainings in some 15 countries, the team decided that putting the tools online would make them accessible to a larger audience. In order to reach and teach more end-users how to actively use the WaPOR portal for their own needs, IHE Delft and FAO developed an open online course.
The course, which is designed for practitioners and academicians in water resources management and related fields, focusses on how to search, download, and apply WaPOR data for water productivity and water accounting studies. “It’s quite exciting to see this course online and the outreach that it generates,” said Mul. To date the course has seen more than 900 students enroll from dozens of countries across the globe.
Hackathon goes online and global
As another means of outreach and capacity building, the WaPOR project team planned to host hackathons in three countries. The idea was to have teams create real world applications using the WaPOR database. But when COVID-19 forced the cancellation of live events, it presented another opportunity to take things online.
The idea was fully supported by Hans van der Kwast, IHE Delft Senior Lecturer in Geographic Information Systems & Spatial Data Management. Having plenty of experience with in-person hackathons, he explained the importance of not simply replicating things online as they would have been done offline. “You need to pull out the aspects that are key for a hackathon: you want creativity, to share knowledge, to connect people and create a community,” he said.
Through a collaborative effort by WaterPIP Project partners, MetaMeta, IHE Delft, and Wageningen University & Research, the hackathon was launched in November 2020. Over 250 people registered, resulting in about 30 teams at the start. “The interesting thing was that the WaPOR database is currently only available for Africa and the Middle East, but we had people joining from all over the world,” said IHE Delft project assistant Lauren Zielinski.
Database in action
Each hackathon team was asked to tackle a problem around one of four themes: communications to smallholder farmers; big data for water management; remote sensing for environmental issues; and monitoring the SDGs. After the initial team pitches were made, a panel of judges chose five teams to proceed. Over the next couple of weeks, these teams fleshed out their ideas with help from coaches and experts from industry and academia.
In the end, two winning teams were chosen. One team created a QGIS plugin for the database to make it more user friendly. The other, a group of students from Tarbiat Modares University (TMU) in Iran, came up with an idea they called WaPOR for Sustainable Ecosystem Management (WaPOR 4 SEM).
Their supervisor, Assistant Professor Somayeh Sima, explained that they want to improve water productivity to increase farmers’ income and improve their livelihood, but not at the cost of damaging the environment and losing their lakes. “So, we are going to develop a web-based platform that uses WaPOR products together with in-situ and radar altimetry data to track historical trade-offs between wetlands and agricultural revenue in a river basin,” she said. “This will help farmers to see how their water use and crop management decisions have been affecting their surrounding natural lakes and motivate them to take wiser actions.”
The hackathon was a success from the project perspective said Zielinski, noting, “It was nice to see the cultural exchange as well as the knowledge exchange, with everyone bringing their own perspectives to this challenge.”
The value of open
As the WaPOR project has demonstrated, there are leaps being made in the realm of open education and learning. But van der Kwast said there is a need to provide more equal access to software, journals, and education. To get there, he noted that it’s important to zoom out and see the impact of the things currently being done. “We often work in the Global South, and sometimes we provide courses, software licenses or books that people can’t afford on their own,” he said. “We have to be very conscious about the cost of these things.”
Putting his words into action, last year van der Kwast launched a 100% open source GIS platform, which is supported by IHE Delft. All of the free course materials, including videos and tutorials, are about open source GIS software and tools. It provides a place for people to share their own training materials as well as contribute by translating existing materials into other languages. “Our alumni are even contributing to that,” said van der Kwast. “Every few months, we get a new translation and that means we can share the materials even further.”
“It’s rewarding to see that people, without any incentive other than wanting to learn, are joining these courses”, said van der Kwast. “They are active on social media and webinars and sharing things that they made with my course, and being proud of what they achieved. It’s not about the certificate at the end, it’s about them wanting the knowledge and being part of this community of people in the world who work in this way.”
With the second phase having kicked off on January 1, 2021, the WaPOR project continues to evolve. It will now focus on country level, demand-driven, applications of the database. It also aims at expanding beyond Africa and the Middle East to become a global database over the next five years.
Ultimately, the WaPOR project and database represent a world of possibilities. Mul said: “I think it’s important to mention that this water database is truly an open access database where you can actually download the data and do whatever you want with it. It’s not just an image or a picture, it’s the raw data and anybody can do anything with it. It was set up for a specific purpose, to improve water productivity, but if you want to use it for a hydrological model or climate change model, you can do that.”