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Making a splash with the RiverData - Wharfe Unconference

#RiverData - Wharfe
Credit: ODI Leeds

On the 20th of July 2021 Yorkshire Water and ODI Leeds held the first #RiverData Unconference focussing on the Wharfe. This was the series' second event after testing the waters in the Warm-Up session on the 7th of July, which helped outline the priorities for the unconference - Identifying data wants and needs, and discussing:

  • Policy and investment,
  • Data quality,
  • And local perspectives surrounding water company data.

Yorkshire Water is keen to look into these topics as their continued push for openness made them more interested in releasing even more useful and usable data. The water company already openly releases some great data on Data Mill North, which you can find mapped on our data mapper. But of course, they want to do more for water quality and their customers. So what better to do than directly ask experts and those who use this data daily how to do better.

It felt fitting to make a splash talking about swimming waters, water quality, and related data on one of the hottest days of the year. With everyone in the right headspace, we jumped straight in and explored the topics mentioned above in Zoom breakout rooms. As always we tried to make this virtual event as close to the real thing as possible, so we used a digital Miro whiteboard to allow people to put up post-it notes to pool their comments.

Check out the Miro Bord we used for the #RiverData - Wharfe Unconference here!

Miro Board Example from the #RiverData Unconference
Credit: ODILeeds

Top 5 data sets that Yorkshire Water should make available

As mentioned above Yorkshire Water already releases a lot of data openly. Nevertheless, we asked one fundamental question ahead of the breakout sessions, to help everyone dip their toes into the discussion:

What else would you like to see when it comes to water quality and the impact of discharges?

Following a short deliberation period post-it clusters formed covering the following categories:

  • Contamination/illness data
  • Ecological/water quality monitoring data
  • Sewer maps/maintenance information
  • Agriculture/land-use data
  • (Time series) spill and forecast warnings
  • Data on public use of rivers
  • Information to educate the public
  • Investment information and cost of fixing spills

Breakout discussions

Policy and Investment

The discussion of the policy and investment breakout room was threefold: One strand of conversation was focussed on legislative change like harsher pollution laws and more frequent overflow site permits. Another on the internal improvement of event management systems and technical capabilities. Among other things, contributors highlighted the need for more agile systems and more Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS). And finally, the importance of stakeholder engagement and education, for example through operational transparency and community involvement actions like a swimmers' code of conduct.

Find more detail on the Policy and Investment Miro board!

Data Quality

The data quality breakout room addressed that water companies need to not only aim to clear up the outliers in their data but do this by understanding the broader environment they collect their data in. This means measuring the impact, outside forces like livestock and exceptional weather conditions may have on data consistency. Misinterpretation of fluctuations, however, aren't contained to water companies but also the public. Contributors pointed out that the communication and publication of water quality data needs to be more meaningful and engaging, for example by adding more narrative context and involving citizen scientists.

Find more detail on the Data Quality Miro board!

Local Perspectives and Citizen Science

The breakout room covering local perspectives and citizen science believed that water quality measures should go beyond focussing on isolated incidents. An integrated catchment planning approach needs to be pursued to prevent wider ecological impacts of harmful overflow events. This, however, requires sufficient funding for more preventative rather than reactive interventions, effectively allocated based on long-term monitoring through models and real-life observations. On top of this, contributors highlighted that an open data standard or health index for rivers could help enable the open publishing of more river data and work, preferably all in one place.

Find more detail on the Local Perspectives and Citizen Science Miro board!

Afternoon Discussion

The breakout room discussions brought up a few recurring themes, which we decided to dive into a bit deeper in our afternoon discussion. The topics and outcomes were as follows:

What do customers want and what are they willing to pay for?

Consumers are expecting increasingly and visibly high water quality that is maintained by quick response to pollution incidents. Water companies need to publicly demonstrate their high-quality services and the effectiveness of their water processing to keep consumers informed and satisfied.

Swimmers code of conduct

As numbers of wild swimmers have increased, people need to be educated on their environmental impact or potentially harmful water conditions. In fact, this information is already out there but it's often decentralised and potentially dramatised. We all and not just water companies need to put the word out there in the right forums.

Whole catchment view of quality

There are already existing vehicles for managing the quality of the whole catchment - Catchment Hosts. So rather than searching for new systems and data, these should be grown and used to their full potential, potentially by following the example of Germany and France which have very mature bathing waters.


Improving water quality is a large-scale issue that requires change from the top-down, e.g from the environmental agency and ministers. In future years this needs to come with more urgency, more frequently reviewed permits, and potentially an increase in water bills to accommodate necessary upgrades and interventions.

Data, publishing, funding, and visualisations

There is already a lot of water quality data on the web but there is still more room to ensure that it is appropriately licensed, create a hub for the decentralised data, and create a comprehensive data standard. This goes hand in hand with the need for clear metadata to maintain transparency and avoid misunderstandings.

What's Next?

The work we did at the #RiverData - Wharfe Unconference is only the tip of the iceberg. We had some great discussions and (for the lack of a water-related pun) unearthed important issues and actions that can be taken. But there is still more ground to be covered! The Miro board captures some great realistic actions that we at ODI Leeds, Yorkshire Water, and maybe even you are going to look into to improve river data quality and how it's being used. Developing an open #RiverData standard seems like a great point to start and we'd love for you to get involved!

For now, we'll reflect on this great session (maybe even in the waters of the Wharfe) to see where our #RiverData event series is heading next. But I can confidently say that the next event is just around the riverbend.