Social value added thanks to open data: Free Flowing Creativity

The FOEN provides the public with increasing quantities of free environmental data - a “creative asset”: Resourceful people are taking advantage of the data on smartphone applications. Some of the most popular are water temperatures and river levels.

Christian Studer
Christian Studer

Text: Nicolas Gattlen

Christian Studer, founder of the Bureau für digitale Existenz (office for digital existence), can hardly wait. As soon as the Aare River reaches 16 degrees, he will enter it upstream of Marzilibad and let it carry him a couple hundred metres - a tradition and popular sport in Switzerland’s capital city. But for now, the Bern native still has to wait awhile; it is March, and the temperature of the Aare has not even reached 8 degrees. Christian Studer regularly follows it on his mobile app (“Aare Schwumm”), which he himself developed as an environmental informatics specialist. In addition to the water temperature, the app also shows the current discharge of the Aare River at the Schönau gauging station, not far from Marzili.

An incentive for innovation

“The idea for the app came to me in 2009 when I was on the Web site of the FOEN’s Hydrology Division”, explains Christian Studer. “It was during the era of the first iPhones. When I came across the water data of the Confederation, I thought to myself: ‘These could be published in an app.’” So he sent an e-mail request to the FOEN. Its answer “positively surprised” him: The FOEN would provide him with the desired data immediately and for free.

There are several reasons why the Swiss federal government makes data accessible. First, it wants to make administration more transparent and encourage political and scientific discussion. At the same time, it wants to provide businesses with access to raw data so that they can develop innovative business models. In the accompanying text of its Open Government Data Strategy, which it adopted in 2014, the Federal Council estimates the economic potential of administrative data at up to 1.8 billion Swiss francs.

Water data, a rich tradition

The FOEN’s Hydrology Division has a large treasure trove of data. Since 1863, the Confederation has systematically measured the water levels of Switzerland’s bodies of water. Some data streams date back to the early 19th century, when pioneers collected the water levels for Rhine River boat traffic and the first river training structures were built to protect against flooding. Interest in water data grew as hydropower was increasingly exploited: Electric power plants wanted reliable information about river levels so that they would be able to effectively build and run their plants.

After the first national calibration facility for measuring flow velocity began its operations in 1896 in Ittigen (BE), the Confederation continued to expand its monitoring network. Today, the FOEN’s Hydrology Division operates approximately 260 gauging stations for surface water. In addition to lake water level measurements, river discharge is measured at 200 sites, and river water temperatures are taken at 70 sites. 90 percent of the stations have automated remote data retrieval facilities. Depending on the station, the data arrive anywhere from every 10 minutes to every hour at the FOEN’s centre, where they are distributed to various clients and Web portals. A machine-readable XML file is available to interested parties on the Web site hydrodaten.admin.ch.

Openness is an obligation

The FOEN has published water data online for around 15 years. Even more data may be published in the future. With its accession to the Aarhus Convention, which governs access to information, among other items, Switzerland has committed to disclose as much environmental data as possible. Another aim is to increase data sharing between environmental authorities around the world. For instance, data on water quality is already being shared right now. The FOEN receives some of these data from cantonal offices and forwards them along with its own data to the European Environment Agency (EEA). The figures are incorporated in the various EU reports and interactive maps of the EEA. One of these even shows the bathing water quality of 22,000 European rivers, beaches and lakes.

The FOEN also publishes a portion of its hydrological data in the form of thematic maps, such as in the “Hydrogeological Atlas of Switzerland”, on its geographic portal (map.bafu.admin.ch) or on the geoportal of the Federal Office of Topography (Swisstopo) (geo.admin.ch). The Confederation is increasingly using the “Storymaps” portal to develop narratives on specific themes (c.f. the article entitled “Den Gletscherschwund online verfolgen” in umwelt issue 2/2014, pages 46-47). One highly viewed map uses water temperature data to determine “the warmest river in Switzerland” in real time. The ranking is updated every hour.

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Customised data packets

Different groups are interested in the FOEN’s water data. Data policy is set according to needs: “Depending on needs, we make data available in various stages of processing”, says Edith Oosenbrug of the FOEN’s Hydrologic Information Section. Emergency workers such as firemen and civil protection officers, as well as shipping companies, water sports enthusiasts and fishermen, want to be informed quickly. They can retrieve the updated data on the FOEN’s Web site, by text message or using the Joint Information Platform for Natural Hazards (GIN). “These raw data have not been evaluated and mistakes can happen”, explains Edith Oosenbrug. “It is possible for lightning to interrupt the power supply of a data logger or for a sand-covered sensor to provide an incorrect reading. That is why we check whether the data are plausible, complete and correct”.

It takes several months for the data from the previous year to be cleaned and labelled “definitive” in the data base. The FOEN compiles the data from this data base into “individual data packets” for clients in such areas as hydraulic engineering, planning, hydropower utilisation, water protection and research. For instance, long-term data series and extreme water flow data could be delivered to an engineering firm that is planning to build protective structures along a river in order to prevent flooding. There is a charge for the evaluated data, and their price is determined by the scale, research and amount of processing involved.

Florian Bessière
Florian Bessière

FOEN data for countless apps

The FOEN’s hydrological data have also become a “creative asset” to private software developers. The river temperatures are especially popular. In addition to Christian Studer’s “Aare Schwumm” app, there are dozens of other tools on the market for swimmers, such as “WasserWetter” (Windows), “eiSwim” (Android) or “mAare” (iPhone). Since 2013, apps for kayakers are available based on the FOEN’s XML and other files. For example, “RiverApp” (iPhone / Android) provides updated water levels for around 3,000 rivers in Switzerland and other Alpine countries, plus the USA, and can be consulted using mobile technology. A chart shows changes in water levels in the last 24 hours or 7 days. A “river traffic light” tells you how navigable certain sections of rivers are at a glance. The traffic light colours are red for high water, yellow for medium water, green for low water and grey for not enough water.

The app was developed by Florian Bessière, a 27-year-old computer scientist from Munich. Bessière is a kayaking enthusiast and a frequent user of water and weather data: “They are extremely important in our sport.” He used to check river water levels on his PC before he went on kayaking trips. Now, using “RiverApp”, he can check this information on his smartphone in real time. “The app has been well received in the kayaking community”, says Florian Bessière, as it has already been downloaded 10,000 times.

The app’s developer says its success is due to the “quality of the data” and the “free access”. However, Bessière points out that it is not necessarily free everywhere. Baden-Württemberg in Germany, for example, did not make river water levels generally accessible to the public, and several regions were charging way too much for their data. South Tyrol charges around 200 euros per level. “We cannot afford these prices”, says Bessière, whose main intention is not to earn money, but to help others. He talks about the “social value added”.

Corrections by the community

The “RiverApp” is also an example of how the public can help produce more precise environmental data since interested parties can report mistakes in the information provided and contribute additional information. The kayaking community can also report river navigability on the “RiverApp” and read comments from other users. For instance, other kayakers might report a “tree at the last bend before arrival” or changes in the river after flooding, such as a hard-to-navigate section that has become easier to handle or a siphon appearing in a fairly safe section.

Florian Bessière wants to develop his app further. He is working on an alarm system that automatically informs kayakers of high water. But this raises liability issues: Is the app developer also liable for accidents when the warning system fails? Could he even be taken to court? “No”, says Florian Bessière and points to the source data on his app.

Clarifications upon request

So are the environmental offices that collect the data and make it available to the public liable? “We are in no way liable for our data”, explains FOEN expert Edith Oosenbrug. However, the data have been used, among other things, as a benchmark for diligence when potential liability cases were evaluated. Edith Oosenbrug remembers that once an insurer contacted the FOEN after a boating accident to find out whether the organiser should have expected a high water level based on the information provided by the FOEN.

But there is still one problem: The publicly accessible data that is released can also be misunderstood or misinterpreted. In other words, too much creativity can occasionally cause damage. What is the FOEN doing to mitigate this risk? “Our resources are limited”, points out Edith Oosenbrug. “We gladly explain to interested parties what the data apply to in emails or over the phone and clarify the collection methods to them. But ultimately, these data are free, so anyone can use them however they want.”

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Last modification 11.02.2015

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