As the most bio-diverse and bio-active of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie presents a wide array of unique economic and environmental challenges for residents and businesses in both Canada and the US.
In an effort to solve these various issues, teams from bordering cities in Ontario, Michigan, Ohio, and New York will once again bring their best and brightest together for Erie Hack; a data and engineering competition designed to generate innovative technology solutions for Lake Erie’s most pressing problems, such as water quality, infrastructure, and social awareness.
Since its inception in 2017, this program has leveraged the expertise of researchers, designers, engineers, developers, and creatives across the region to activate, cultivate, and accelerate these hacks.
The multi-month challenge is a collaboration between Cleveland Water Alliance and partners from Toledo, Buffalo, and Windsor-Detroit, including WEtech Alliance and TechTown Detroit. This year’s event kicks off virtually September 21st.
Past Erie Hack events have generated over 80 innovative solutions to water challenges, engaged over 100 partner organizations, and attracted coverage from over 150 press outlets globally as it put over 450 of our region’s best minds to work for our most precious resource.
Despite pandemic restrictions, the third iteration of the regional competition promises to be just as exciting as its predecessors, with teams from both sides of the border developing water tech innovations and competing for more than $100,000 in prizes – including a $50,000 Grand Prize.
“Each year we activate and execute Erie Hack, we bring in a larger constituency to an issue and an opportunity that impacts us all,” says Paul Riser Jr., Director of Detroit Urban Solutions at TechTown Detroit and Cross-Border Advisor to WEtech Alliance’s Board of Directors.
“I love the fact that we are raising the awareness and level of importance and allowing this challenge to serve as a magnet for people of all walks of life; not just environmentalists or engineers, but designers, coders, anthropologists, urban planners and, maybe most importantly, everyday citizens.”
“We treat ourselves like sister cities, with a long-standing relationship that spans research collaboration, student and small business projects as well as deep collaboration in areas such as healthcare, mobility and smart transportation.”
Riser says that although border closures have meant no in-person meetings between American and Canadian colleagues over the past 18 months, the unique cross-border connection between Detroit and Windsor remains strong.
“We treat ourselves like sister cities, with a long-standing relationship that spans research collaboration, student and small business projects as well as deep collaboration in areas such as healthcare, mobility and smart transportation,” he explains. “Since 2017, we’ve been working in this realm of water technology; yet another opportunity for us to build upon our amazing and always expanding relationship.”
Dr. Michael McKay, Executive Director at Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research (GLIER) agrees.
“We have shared challenges and the solutions should be shared as well, and that’s something that Erie Hack does.”
Dr. McKay notes that one of the lake’s biggest issues is dangerous algae blooms; annual formations of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) resulting in discoloured or foul-smelling water, affecting both human and ecosystem health.
“The event is focused on trying to find solutions of the myriad of problems that plague Lake Erie,” explains Dr. McKay. “While the focus is not solely on the algal blooms that tends to be one of the areas people concentrate their efforts.”
Dr. McKay and his team at GLIER are part of province-wide effort to analyze wastewater for COVID. | Image via Uwindsor.ca
While the problem has been studied for more than two decades, Dr. McKay says a lot of attention was brought to the issue in 2014 when the city of Toledo issued a “Do Not Drink” advisory that lasted over 48 hours and affected half a million people.
The algae bloom had encroached upon the water intake for the city and some of the toxins passed into the finished water supply.
“What you’ll see with Erie Hack is a lot of the teams looking to build early alert systems for these kinds of toxins or other contaminants in the lake to prevent another incident like the one we saw in Toledo,” he says. “You’ll see some teams devising ways to actually remove the algae from the lake and transform it to a value-added commodity. But what we really need, and what we’ll see, is people trying to innovate agriculture, which really is the root source of the problem.”
Dr. McKay explains that it is the runoff from the area’s many crop fields that inadvertently feeds the algae blooms.
“We’re blessed by having really good agricultural land, but because of that we have these watersheds that are highly allocated to agriculture,” he says. “For plants to grow you need fertilizer, and unfortunately not all that fertilizer is used by the plants and ends up in our lakes.”
Riser agrees that the innovations created through Erie Hacks will help public agencies on both sides of the border better determine how to approach these concerns in the future.
“The real-time information that can be paired with the historical data allows us to become predictive as opposed to reactive with respect to our infrastructure and our bodies of water,” he says. “Shifting to that more proactive approach to water quality management and anticipating and combating those negative trends before they develop into full blown issues is so critical.”
Although we haven’t yet fully capitalized on Windsor as being ‘The Water Tech Capital of Canada,’ it’s something that could put us on the map as a leader in clean technology.
Both men believe Erie Hack and other similar events highlight the region’s ability to generate the ideas that could be useful for businesses in the water sector across the globe.
“I think these events bring together entrepreneurs and young people who have skills that may not be obvious for their application in water technology,” says Dr. McKay. “Working together with teams and with the mentorship of folks in the region, they learn how to apply their skills or expertise and diverse views to water technology.”
Members of the UWINTeam at the Erie Hack 2.0 Finals in Cleveland in 2019, where they took home the People’s Choice Award.
McKay says that although we haven’t yet fully capitalized on Windsor as being ‘The Water Tech Capital of Canada,’ it’s something that could put us on the map as a leader in clean technology.
“The entrepreneurship that comes out of events like this is very impressive,” he reflects. “There have been a number of groups from previous Erie Hack events that have actually commercialized their products and formed small businesses.”
“We’re glad to bring together the multiple partners around the Lake Erie basin, all working together to improve one of our most precious assets,” echoes Riser. “There’s no one better positioned to drive innovation and change than the people who live here. We want to position ourselves as leaders in this Blue Economy that is so critical to not only us but to the globe.”
Jen Brignall-Strong was born and raised in Windsor and is a graduate of the St. Clair College Journalism program. She has worked in the media for over 15 years, writing for multiple local publications including The Drive Magazine. Jen is currently a freelance journalist and enjoys sharing stories from the many remarkable individuals that make up our region.