DataBay Challenge: Using Data to Save the Chesapeake Bay

While some headed to the beach during the first weekend of August, eighty policy makers, scientists, activists and students put their heads together for the first DataBay Challenge at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland.

Hosted by the University of Maryland’s Future of Information Alliance (FIA), the Chesapeake Bay-focused programming competition sought out new ideas to creatively use data gathered about the Bay to inform the local community and encourage participation in protecting it.

“It’s an issue that is near and dear to many people’s hearts, and generally when people think about helping and reclaiming and cleaning up the Bay, they don’t necessarily think about how information can help the way people behave toward the Bay,” said Dr. Allison Druin, one of the co-directors of FIA.

Other partner organizations included Governor O’Malley’s office, Hack Baltimore, Maryland’s Department of the Environment, the Department of Natural Resources, the National Aquarium and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

“With what I would say are sort of weekend-long events, we can show that in a very short period of time, when people are brought together on a focused task, we can get a lot of good thinking done together,” said Druin, who is also a professor for the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland (UMD).

Dr. Antonio Busalacchi, director of the UMD Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center and chair of the Council on the Environment, was a kickoff speaker for the weekend event, setting the tone and talking about what the future will hold for the Bay into the decades ahead.

“The DataBay Challenge is very interesting in that it draws on various sorts of expertise and perspectives regarding the Bay,” said Busalacchi.

“In the end, the challenge will result in different modes of communicating the challenges confronting the Bay and, in turn, increase awareness about the Bay and what every citizen of the State can do in their own way that when scaled up across neighborhoods, cities, and counties can make a real difference,” he continued.

At the end of the weekend event, four teams- BayBucks, MyBay, ChesaPeaks, and EcoSleuth- were chosen as finalists. The finalist teams received $1000 to continue to develop their application until their final presentation in front of Governor O’Malley and a panel of entrepreneurs, investors and environmental scientists on August 27, 2014.

After presenting the tweaked version of the final four apps, BayBucks was named the winner of the Governor’s Cup, receiving an additional $4000 cash prize.

Kristen Houser, a sophomore electrical engineering and computer science major, was on the ChesaPeaks finalist team with fellow UMD student KC Wayman.

“Most people who live around the bay aren't going to go download spreadsheets of fish-health data because pragmatically speaking it won't help them make informed decisions about where and when to fish and what fish are safe to eat, which is information they definitely need to know,” said Houser.

The goal of ChesaPeaks, said Houser, was to offer an intuitive interface for deciding where it is best to swim and fish, and also shows people what they can do to improve the bay's health. Her team wanted their website to be a hub for bay health information and activism, which she said she believes go hand-in-hand.

“It was great to see people of many different backgrounds come to the hackathon, their involvement made the experience that much more enriching,” said Houser. “It was a lot of fun. I met many people who do research on the Chesapeake Bay, and their enthusiasm was very inspiring.”