Water conservation and access will be yearlong focus at UMSI

Preserving our regional assets

“Water conservation and access” brings a slew of images to mind: wastewater flowing through main lines to a city treatment plant, a fisherman yanking invasive mussels off the hull of a trawler, the installation of filters in communities that lack access to safely managed drinking water.

Most people don’t picture massive datasets or the backend of a website. But these are the tools that students at the University of Michigan School of Information will be using this year to tackle urgent water-related issues in Michigan and around the globe, as part of UMSI’s inaugural theme year.

“The goal of the program is to help students see a broad range of problems as types of information problems and adopt the lens of information professionals as they address challenges,” says Cliff Lampe, professor of information and associate dean for academic affairs.

A view of the Huron River from Argo Nature Area, 2020.

A view of the Huron River from Argo Nature Area, 2020. (Image: Jeffrey Smith, UMSI.)

The fall semester will have a regional focus, as students work with representatives from the City of Ann Arbor, the State of Michigan, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on client-based course projects.

Students, faculty, and staff will be invited to attend theme-related events — including a design jam and lectures by local experts — throughout the fall. Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist II gave a keynote speech on Sept. 28 about water-related issues facing Michigan communities.

In the winter semester, the scope of the theme year will broaden to encompass global projects and partnerships related to water conservation and access.

“We selected this inaugural theme as a result of deep consideration of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and in recognition of our regional asset, the Great Lakes,” says Kelly Kowatch, director of the Engaged Learning Office.

Six of the 17 U.N. sustainable development goals relate to water — from clean water and sanitation to climate action. Kowatch says these goals were important to consider because they represent issues of global concern, a criteria that all of UMSI’s theme years will meet.

“Students will have the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in an important social issue and apply what they are learning in their classes,” Kowatch says.

Project #1: A 500-year storm in our backyard

Water damage -- washout -- on an Ypsilanti Township Road.

Water damage — washout — on an Ypsilanti Township Road. (Image: Washtenaw County Road Commission.)

This summer, after an intense thunderstorm that brought nearly five inches of rain in three hours, many residents of Wayne County and surrounding areas received a push notification on their phones urging them to avoid contact with rivers and flood water due to potential contamination.

“Although it is easy to take water infrastructure for granted, managing water is an incredibly complex task that is central to societal health,” says Ben Green, assistant professor of information. “Climate change creates new challenges — not just higher temperatures, but also more intense rainstorms. A smaller number of more intense rainstorms can lead to flooding and contaminated water.”

This fall, Green is teaching SI 305 Introduction to Information Analysis alongside lecturer III Hanna Hoover. Undergraduates in this class will work with data related to rainfall, water quality, and water main breaks. Using datasets from the City of Ann Arbor, NOAA, and the U.S. Geological Survey, they will look for patterns to inform policy decisions related to storm management, drainage systems, and water quality.

“Water protection, affordability, and infrastructure are areas of growing concern in our region,” says Molly Maciejewski, interim water treatment services manager for the City of Ann Arbor. She hopes the work students do to analyze data and inform policy will also inform their own paths, leading them to “more deeply engage in water protection efforts as they move into their professional careers.”

“I’m excited about having students work with real-world data at the very beginning of their UMSI experience,” Green says. “Making change with data isn’t just about knowing how to program and use statistics. It also requires navigating messy datasets, learning about complex societal domains, and working with non-technical domain experts. SI 305 will push students to focus on real-world impacts as the priority of their information analysis work.”

Project #2: In the Great Lakes, a clear problem

Mussels coat the propeller of an outboard motor.

Mussels coat the propeller of an outboard motor. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

The clear blue waters of Lake Michigan obscure a concerning reality. Over the past three decades, zebra mussels have invaded all of the Great Lakes, establishing themselves in the trillions. Each zebra mussel, striped and about the size of a fingernail, can filter up to one gallon of water a day and, with it, the phytoplankton that forms the base of the food chain for native species.

Clearer water doesn’t mean cleaner water — zebra mussels produce pseudofeces that accumulate on the lake bottom, consuming oxygen and releasing toxic byproducts.

The harm caused by invasive species is also economic. Zebra mussels and their close relative quagga mussels attach to infrastructure like the water intake pipes that carry drinking and irrigation water from the Great Lakes, costing the U.S. an estimated $1 billion per year in removal and repair.

Sturtevant manages the Great Lakes Aquatic Nonindigenous Species Information System, a publicly accessible portal that provides the best available information on aquatic nonindigenous species in the Great Lakes, including species profiles, maps, and risk assessments. The goal is to limit the introduction, spread, and impact of invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels.

This semester, students in SI 307 Introduction to User Experience Design will work to redesign the data portal, making it more accessible. GLANSIS has a wide pool of target users — from a graduate student conducting research on a particular species to a congress member who needs to determine budgetary priorities to a recreational fisherman who wants to identify a species to know if it is “good” or “bad.”

“Each of these individuals would benefit from information stored in GLANSIS, but our usability testing indicates that users often ‘give up’ before finding the information they need,” Sturtevant says. “UMSI students can have a real impact by helping us to redesign the website.”

“I think it’s really cool that we’re using information to tackle invasive species and the climate crisis,” says Deja VanOeveren-Goss, a student in SI 307. “In the past, I worked in nonprofit doing watershed awareness, so this is something I felt really excited to do. It has a bit more soul than the normal marketing redesign.”

Lecturer III James Rampton, who is teaching the course alongside associate professor Eric Gilbert, emphasizes the amount of access students have been given to NOAA’s data, logo, and icons, which will ensure that they can create a high-quality end product.

“Our partner is eager to hear their ideas,” he says.

Project #3: The water we drink

Some 90% of all U.S. freshwater is contained in the Great Lakes. Geographically, Michigan is a state surrounded by water, with borders on Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Erie.

“The supply of source water is plentiful,” Kowatch say. “However, issues such as contamination, water affordability, infrastructure, and conservation regularly affect the citizens of Michigan.”

This semester, master’s students in SI 501 Contextual Inquiry and Consulting Foundations, taught by lecturer III Melissa Chalmers, will work in teams to investigate a problem related to drinking water. On Sept. 11, students attended a talk by Kris Donaldson, clean water public advocate for the State of Michigan. Donaldson’s office was created in the wake of the Flint water crisis, through a 2019 executive order by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. It serves as a resource for the public, ensuring that drinking water concerns like suspected lead contamination can be reported and investigated.

Based on Donaldson’s talk and interviews with subject matter experts, students will identify a project of interest and, over the course of the semester, work to synthesize qualitative data and propose recommendations. As students of information, this is where their power lies: They will sift through the data — however murky or messy it might be — to find specific solutions.

“Water affects everyone. But some individuals, communities, and countries face more adverse effects,” says Elizabeth Yakel, interim dean of the School of Information. “Information professionals can play a role in highlighting and mediating water issues.”

(Lead image: The invasive Zebra Mussel is a scourge on the Great Lakes and other bodies of water. Invasive mussels cost the U.S. an estimated $1 billion per year in removal and repair. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

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