By Evelina Pärnerud
Submitted by IBM
Originally published on the IBM Blog
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Maintaining good water quality is crucial for the overall well-being of people and the environment. Yet, reports have said that one in four people do not have access to safe drinking water. The world is making progress on clean water and sanitation, but is still far behind its target to meet Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: ensuring access to water and sanitation for all.
Agriculture is one of the main sources of contamination in the water we use to drink, fish, participate in recreational activities and more. According to reports, 78% of global ocean and freshwater pollution with excess nutrients is caused by agriculture.
Nutrients, pesticides and other harmful chemicals commonly used by farmers enter the water through various channels, including runoff from fields and irrigation systems. This results in eutrophication: the over-enrichment of water by nutrients such as nitrogen, which can create severe ecological and human health consequences. For example, too much nitrate in water will stimulate algae growth, which can then deprive the water of oxygen needed by fish and other organisms that live in the water.
Farmers also want to optimize their fertilizer use for economic reasons. In an ideal situation, they would be able to track the amount of fertilizer they need in order to make the best use of their resources, helping them to save money.
Fortunately, there is a solution in development, all thanks to the power of data and human-centered design.
A solution to improve farming’s impact on water quality
Monitoring nitrate levels is critical to managing and improving water quality.
That’s why Deltares, a non-profit research organization based in the Netherlands, teamed up with IBM to enhance and expand the reach of its Aquality app: to find a tech solution that helps farmers monitor nitrate levels and give insights into nutrient losses and local water quality.
This app, originally created by Deltares, is free for users and can help farmers improve water quality, protect biodiversity, save on fertilizer costs and make farming practices more sustainable.
Deltares joined the IBM Sustainability Accelerator to implement a new user interface designed to make the app more accessible for farmers, add more value to the user, and increase adoption. After completing the first phase with the IBM Garage, a new version of the app will become available in the next few months with enhanced user experience, measurement recording and information sharing capabilities.
This solution is being developed to support farmers with the intention of using IBM technology, such as artificial intelligence, to provide an easy and accessible platform to engage with other farmers and to share water quality knowledge with communities.
“The main goal is to provide farmers — even those who aren’t the most technologically savvy — with a tool that helps them to optimize their resources, which is advantageous to both the farmer and the planet,” said Joachim Rozemeijer, a water quality researcher at Deltares. “IBM’s technology and expertise has been instrumental in helping us achieve this mission.”
Improving water quality with human-centered design
Another key component of the project is the use of IBM’s Enterprise Design Thinking framework to create value for the business, people and the planet. The framework was applied to assess the app from a user perspective to bring more value to communities.
“We’ve been doing a lot of research, talking to farmers, but also agricultural advisors, people from water authorities, and even researchers who use the app currently,” said Michelle ten Pas, a UX Design Consultant at IBM helping with the redesign of the app. “We translated those needs that we identified through the user research, and we implemented them by redesigning the app in a way that meets their needs.”
Many enhancements have already been made to the usability, accessibility and functionality of the Aquality app. For example, to make it easier to understand how the app works, the team added instructions in the app that explain how to take measurements, which is particularly helpful for first-time users.
Other new functionalities that the team hopes to add based on farmer feedback include the ability to measure nitrate in soil, adding measurements of phosphate and ammonium in water, setting location labels that can be reused by farmers, enabling users to share measurements within groups to ease collaboration and even adding a page within the app for farmers to order the equipment they need. The new version of the app is expected to go live in the coming months.
The global Aquality app user community currently consists of over 600 active users and thousands of direct beneficiaries, in particular in the Netherlands. For example, measurements from the App inform environmental monitoring and management efforts in the provinces of Limburg and Zeeland. Further, the App is now being piloted by users in Denmark, France, South Africa and the United States, which provides an opportunity to continue testing the app with more farmers to increase awareness and address a greater variety of needs.
Solutions for real-world impact
To help protect our environment and aid farmers around the world, utilizing sustainable agriculture systems is critical. This project is a great example of how technology and partnerships can help solve some of the most urgent environmental challenges.
“What makes me proud about this project is that I can really contribute to something that matters,” said ten Pas. “I think you see a lot that people from my generation are looking for meaning in their work, and something where they can make an impact. And I think this project is exactly that.”
But progress can’t end here. IBM announced in March that it is currently accepting proposals for its third cohort focused on water management solutions, providing more opportunities to support solutions like the Aquality app. Nonprofit and governmental organizations are encouraged to apply by May 31, 2023.
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