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Hacking to save H2O

Some of SA's top IT talent put their heads together to come up with innovative solutions to water-related challenges this week, as part of a 10-hour “water hackathon”, held at the African Utility Week conference.

The hackathon aimed to address utilities' biggest challenges relating to water, with three teams battling it out to develop the best application for the given problem statement.

According to Schalk Heunis, a participating developer and member of House4Hack, the challenges covered three different water-related problems. One was called “Map the poison”, which required a Web-based application for mapping spots along a wetland system where potentially poisonous effluent was being discharged into the system.

The program needed to specify which kinds of toxic effluent are being discharged and where. In Africa, industries release poorly treated effluent directly into wetland systems, which largely goes undetected, because there is no GPS system to track these activities and apprehend the parties involved, said the challenge brief.

Another challenge was called “Power surge prompt”. It required developing a system that alerts the plant operator on duty via their mobile phone whenever there is low, high or fluctuating voltage that could cause damage to pumps and other equipment in the plant. It needed to include the ability to report to technical supervisors daily, indicating the time, nature of occurrence, and action taken, as well as when the system normalised.

Finally, the “Water usage map” challenge was aimed at helping managers understand water use patterns and how they vary geographically. A mapping application, such as Google Earth, linking water meter data with meter GPS co-ordinates, for example, could inform planning and investment decisions for areas with low consumption (typically poorer neighbourhoods and marginalised communities). The ability to visualise this data on an interactive map would assist managers in decision-making around demand management and distribution losses.

With just under 10 hours to develop their solutions, the developer teams worked through the day and presented their concepts at 7pm, Monday evening. The winning application, called H2O Detective, came from a combined team from Sowertech and Enerweb, which received a Galaxy Note sponsored by MTN and gift vouchers from House4Hack.

The solution used open source framework e-breadboard, as well as an Android app, that fieldworkers could use to identify and manage consumers' water consumption using geo-positioning and historical water consumption patterns. The team consisted of Marius Kruger, Lawrence Matjeni and Nathi Tshabalala.

Heunis says the dedication and commitment from the teams made for a truly enjoyable hacking experience. “What really stood out was the spirit in which it was tackled – everybody was there to make a difference.”

Having the challenge “owners” (who initially submitted the problems) on site was also very helpful, he adds, as teams could constantly interact with them as they worked on the solution.

Heunis notes that the development of some of these challenges will be rolled over to the Random Hacks of Kindness Pretoria event, on 1 June, being held at Unisa's Muckleneuk Main Campus.

Organised by Unisa's School of Computing, CSIR-Meraka, House4Hack and Pretoria-Google Technology User Group, the event will see developers programming solutions around local challenges in the fields of education, water and sanitation, citizen reporting, and other “hacking for humanity” topics.

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