Researchers win with teamwork in H2O Hackathon

A team of postdoctoral researchers at The Fenner School and The Institute for Water Futures have taken Second Prize (Team OzRiver), and Fenner School PhD Scholar Chitresh Saraswat recieved Crowd's Choice alongside his team (The AquaTarpas), in the H2O Hack competition.

The hackathon is a competition of teams, supported by a collaborative group of institutions led by the Centre of Entrepreneurial Agri-Technology and the Canberra Innovation Network.

Team OzRiver - made up of Dr Siyuan Tian, Dr Pablo Larraondo and Dr Jiawei Hou - were awarded Second Prize for developing a web app that uses satellite observations to help Australian farmers better manage water use and storage for irrigation. The trio jumped at the opportunity to play with this year’s hackathon theme: solving water challenges using space technology. The team are all part of the remote sensing research group and ANU Water Futures and The Fenner School, but work across different topics - ranging from global surface water monitoring, continental soil moisture modeling, to large-scale software system development. It was this difference of expertise that inspired Dr Hou [centre] to form a team with Dr Tian [right] and Dr Larraondo [left].

 Dr Larraonndo, Dr Hou, Dr Tian

“When I realised there was a H2O Hack competition focusing on solving water challenges from space, I was thinking about what kind of miracles would be if we could combine our strengths. So I got in touch with Pablo and Siyuan immediately and it was surprising that we were all very keen on this opportunity for collaboration. By fusing our expertise, we could create a comprehensive and pragmatic satellite-derived product that is useful to address practical issues in Australia.” Explains Dr Hou.

Dr Hou completed his PhD at The Fenner School in 2020, coming here because of what he saw as a multicultural and diverse research environment, and staying to thrive under the supervision of Prof. Albert Van Djik and Dr. Luigi Renzullo, whose experience, passion, and knowledge have inspired him to unlock his potential, and now, the potential of teamwork.

Dr Tian, who came to the The Fenner School in 2018 as a Postdoctoral research fellow after completing her PhD at the Research School of Earth Sciences, adds, “We all work with different satellite data and keen to develop our own solution to increase water use efficiency and improve the sustainability.”

That’s exactly what the app Team OzRiver developed, does.

“The web app we’ve designed in our H2O project is a user-friendly tool for Australian farmers in the process of understating and better managing water use and storage for irrigation. It can be also useful for water managers and regulators to understand how much water is stored in the river, floodplains, wetlands, and on-farm storage. Thus, they would benefit from using this easy and simple tool in guiding their decisions in water management and implementing better targeted on-ground activities.” Explains Dr Hou.

To achieve this feat, the team took very large, very complex datasets that are open and available to the public, but are difficult to extract meaningful information from without the kind of expertise the team holds.

“Our tool allows anyone to play and interrogate with these huge datasets interactively and get accurate information about the water capacity and irrigation needs for any farm in the region around Bourke. We would like to continue exploring the possibilities and better understand the needs of farmers so we can offer information that is better suited to them.” Explains Dr Larraondo, who joined Alber vanDijk’s remote sensing research team three years ago, just as he was finishing his PhD on machine learning. Initially, he says, the Team OzRiver decided to participate in the hackathon for fun - without a clear idea of what they wanted to do. 

“As the week progressed and we talked to the different mentors about our ideas, we realised the challenges of turning research ideas into viable products. The good part was to find how well received our ideas were and how important is the contribution that we can make for solving real problems related to water use.”

Currently the app is a demo that the team developed over a week during the competition. Dr. Tian explains, the functionality, interface, and the data used by the app need further refinement to be realised as a product, but you can take a look at the app here

“We hope it can become a go-to tool for farmers and agribusiness and support their decision making in irrigation and water trading under different climate conditions.” She adds.

The AquaTarpas was formed by team leader Chitresh Saraswat, a PhD Scholar in Fenner School of Environment & Society, under the guidance of Dr Katherine Daniell. Mr Saraswat’s team was an interdisciplinary powerhouse consisting of Dr Mina Henein, PhD in robotics and a post-doctoral fellow at the ANU School of Cybernetics, Wageesha Manamperi, sensors/signal expert, current PhD at ANU School of Engineering, and Yan Sun, a current post-graduate student at ANU School of Computing, who brought his business intelligence expertise to the team. Their goal was to develop a commercially viable solution to solve water leakage challenges.

“Water leakages cost massive economic and environmental losses to water utilities and nations around the world, including Australia. In developing and underdeveloped countries, this cost 40-50% water losses (non-revenue water) yearly. Even in the driest continent on earth, Australia, 10-28% of water losses occur due to water pipe leakages and bursts.” Mr Saraswat explains.

Leaning on their respective strengths, The AquaTarpas used the week of competition to innovate a system of SAR satellite imaging, an AT Hydrobot Gen1 (robot), and predictive analytics that collectively reduced the time taken in leakage fixes, and actively sought out potential leakages and prevent them before they happen. This design won the team the 2021 Crowd's Choice Award.

So what did the competitors come away with? To Team OzRiver, the best part of the competition has been realising how research can form tangible community outcomes. 

“I think the most exciting finding in the H20 Hackathon competition is that we can potentially apply our scientific methodology to solve practical issues in the agricultural industry in Australia.” Says Dr. Hou.

The significance of winning, Dr Larraondo explains, comes down to appreciating and celebrating the creative capacity of teamwork, resourcefulness, and research.

“Winning this prize in the hackathon is a great and a great boost in our confidence about the importance of the research that we are doing at the ANU, and our capacity for creating an impact.”

You can learn more about the projects these incredible researchers support by visiting the ANU Centre for Water and Landscape Dynamics.