2018 California Safe Drinking Water Data Challenge


4 months, 25+ machine-readable datasets, 15 events, $12,000 in ‘big checks’, and 20+ open data projects


These are (some!) of the numbers, but they don’t tell the entire story of the California Safe Drinking Water Data Challenge and the immeasurable energy, enthusiasm, interest, collaboration, momentum, and as one organizer put it, “heart” that resulted from it.   

The California Safe Drinking Water Data Challenge kicked off in June as a collaborative effort to engage the data community in the fight to bring safe, clean and affordable drinking water to every Californian. This confluence of factors from the 2012 Human Right to Water bill, California’s 2016 Open and Transparent Water Data act, the heightened awareness of unsafe water via the crisis in Flint, MI and the proposed Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, led to a recipe for action.


An Opportunity to Address Water Challenges


On any given day in California, around 200,000 Californians turn on their taps and the water that comes out is unsafe to drink and may be unsafe to use for basic needs like bathing. Annually, up to 1 million Californians lack access to clean, safe drinking water at some point during the year. Droughts and other disruptions in water supply can limit or eliminate access to safe drinking water for days, months, or years. Some communities have been exposed to unsafe water for more than a decade.

Small water systems and domestic well users are particularly vulnerable to disruptions in their access to safe drinking water. While the most publicized examples are in rural areas of the state, delivering sufficient, safe, and affordable drinking water poses a challenge to small systems and domestic well users in almost every region of the state. Many of the most vulnerable systems and domestic well users rely primarily on groundwater for their water supply.


Why Data?


Data can take many forms, but at its core  data are pieces of information. This Challenge highlighted ‘Open Data’ — pieces of information that have been made digital, machine-readable, and public — that can be leveraged to gain insights, develop tools, and identify new approaches or solutions.

Mountains of data are collected everyday, at every level of governance, but they are often siloed and used for a singular purpose, such as regulatory compliance. This Challenge aimed to demonstrate the value of open data, and highlight opportunities to creatively collaborate. Existing state efforts around open data through data.ca.gov and the data.cnra.ca.gov portals were the starting point for data discoverability for challenge participants.


Data Can’t Do It Alone – It Needs Agents


Combining the value of this data with the idea that the most innovative and implementable solutions come from a collaborative effort, the Challenge brought together impacted community members, local & state government leaders, innovators, and data scientists to demonstrate data’s role in supporting access to clean drinking water.

Joone Lopez, General Manager of Moulton Niguel Water District noted at the Awards Summit:

“Data is nothing without people. It’s really important that we figure out who else we need to bring into the fold.”

Participants were encouraged to collaborate broadly to design and build tools that would empower our community to better understand, communicate, and visualize, and anticipate and hedge against vulnerabilities.

Over the course of 4 months, a series of events and community-led activities such as the National Day of Civic Hacking, online tutorials, fireside chats, and hackathons bridged these often disconnect groups to build better tools, together. The most powerful submissions were those that used a user centered design approach and addressed an issue identified by the people actually experiencing it.



A Large (and Still Growing) Community of Support


Launched by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research and partners West Big Data Innovation Hub, Water Foundation, Imagine H2O, Bay Area Council, and the State agency stewards of water data such as State Water Resources Control Board and Department of Water Resources. A host of additional partners signed on and were pivotal in the success of the Challenge, including The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, Code for America brigades across California, WELL, and Government Operations Agency (GovOps), among others. This is the third and largest water data challenge the state has coordinated, starting with the GovOps GreenGov Innovation Challenge in 2015 and the Waterboard’s 2016 White House California Water Data Challenge.

A call for commitments – new, specific, and measurable actions taken by community stakeholders in support of demonstrating the power of civic engagement and open data to improve access to safe drinking water – was met with gusto as the list grew to more than 30 commitments between the kick-off in June to the Awards Summit in October.



Some highlights included:

  • ImagineH2O was the first to commit a $1,500 award in addition to their accelerator services. 
  • The California Water Service (CalWater) donating $1,500 to each of the 7 general awards increasing the total award amount to over $12,000!
  • OpenOakland dedicated its National Day of Civic Hacking to the Water Data Challenge along with participation from other Code for America brigades including Code4Sac.
  • The Berkeley Division of Data Science announced the launch of the Berkeley Water Data Collaborative, a new initiative for interested students and State agencies to continue to drive innovative solutions to water-related issues across California.
  • The Government Operations Agency in partnership with CalHR announced the establishment of a Research Data Analyst Classification in Civil Service to provide an entry point and a career path for data specialists in state government.  


The Summit and Awards Ceremony


The Awards Ceremony and Summit was held on October 18th at the Los Angeles River Center to recognize teams and partners that worked hard throughout the summer to develop relationships and products that help us get closer to a solution. We were joined by Honorable Mike Eng, the author of the Human Right to Water Bill, to speak about his journey of the passage of the law. When describing the impact of legislative work he said:  “we are giving voices, power, and credibility to people who normally don’t have anyone to stand up for them.”

Key Challenge participants had the opportunity to showcase their submissions in front of the 80+ attendees to the Summit and hundreds more online.



“These projects, and the meaningful connections formed throughout the challenge, were possible because of dozens of partners and sponsors with concrete commitments to action,” notes West Big Data Innovation Hub Executive Director, Meredith Lee.  

Seven award categories and a special prize from Imagine H2O each came with a $1,500 prize, courtesy of Cal Water and IH2O. Thanks to an incredible group of judges, the following teams went home with a giant check (literally) and a ready network of support to grow and scale their tools.

It is the goal of all involved to grow and scale these solutions. Read about all the commitments, partners, and submissions here at https://github.com/waterdatacollaborative.


Sign up to the mailing list or on Slack to stay in the loop for the 2019 CA Drinking Water Data Challenge and other water data related opportunities.


The Winning Teams

Imagine H2O Award


Winning Team: Lovelace Ladies

Description: Tool for auto-identification of reports submitted with incorrect units and visualization of contributing factors

Project URL

Team Members: Anna Waldron, Elena Smith




Award: Most Data-licious

Winning Team: Function(water,data) {science}

Description: Predicting the impact of future droughts on domestic well vulnerability in California’s Central Valley

Project URL

Team Members: Rich Pauloo, Amanda Fencl, Hervé Guillon, Alvar Escriva-Bou





Award: Most Engaging by Design

Winning Team: OpenOakland

Description: Visualizing exceedance levels of water system contaminants

Project URL

Team Members: Aaron Hans, Robert Gibboni, Rucker Alex, Yotam Hacohen



Award: Moonshot

Winning Team: ARGO

Description: Comprehensive repository of water rates in California — key for ensuring affordable access to clean water for all

Project URL

Team Members: Patrick Atwater, Christopher Tull, David Marulli





Award: Rising Innovator

Winning Team: Code4Sac

Description:Identifying communities with a high risk of shortage using a multifactor vulnerability score

Project URL

Team Members: Jacqueline Barkoski, Chuan-Shin Chong




Award: Team Spirit and Collaboration

Winning Team: Dammed if you do

Description: DAMMS: Dam Assessment Mapping and Safety System: Communicating dam safety through visualizations, building support for change

Project URL

Team Members: Daniel Siegel, Colin King-Bailey, Jessica Rahman, Dan Constable




Awards: Ready to Go and People’s Choice

Winning Team: Get the Lead Out (won two awards)

Description: Where in San Francisco is there lead in school drinking water? How can we take results from SFUSD school lead testing and create a tool to better visualize the scale of the problem.

Project URL 

Team Members: Laura Deehan, Sadie Gill, Lo Benichou