Building Effective Water Data Platforms

June 08, 2020 | Water in the West | News

Megan Glatzel

Much like solving a mystery, making informed water management decisions in California involves finding and investigating all necessary information. With data scattered across multiple locations, the process of accessing and analyzing the information can be an arduous task. To remedy this challenge, California passed the Open and Transparent Water Data Act (AB 1755) in 2016 calling for the creation of a “statewide integrated water data platform” to help inform water management decisions. Analyzing 12 existing water data platforms, a new study from Stanford’s Water in the West Program informs development and implementation of water data tools, like the one required under AB 1755, finding clear plans and cooperation among essential players are key to successful adoption.

“While a variety of data platforms have been created to help water management decisions, not all are successful,” said lead author Tara Moran, sustainable groundwater lead at Stanford’s Water in the West Program. “We wanted to study how these tools are developed and implemented to pinpoint the factors contributing to their success, as well as identify common challenges.”

Using a combination of analysis methods including document review, meeting observations and interviews, the researchers initially followed the development and implementation of two water data platforms: the Shasta Operations for Winter Run and the Groundwater Recharge Assessment Tool. In order to ensure their findings were consistent with other tools, the researchers analyzed an additional 10 water data platforms.

The researchers found keys to successful water data platforms often include legislative support, clear development plans with milestones and long-term funding to support and maintain tools over time. Additionally finding a “champion” who can advocate for the tool can help foster platform adoption long-term.

In contrast, they found tool developers may struggle in identifying key decision-makers due to the complex nature of water management in California. Overlapping jurisdictions and authorities also make it hard to discern factors likely to hinder adoption of tools. In addition, they found agencies are often reluctant to make their data publicly accessible. This can be due to a number of reasons including a lack of capacity to release the data accurately, as well as concerns over misinterpretation of data and model outputs.

“These findings highlight not only that diverse water data platforms can face similar challenges in development, but the reasons some succeed are also consistent,” said co-author Janet Martinez, director of the Gould Negotiation and Mediation Program at the Stanford Law School.

Based on their findings, the researchers also make a series of recommendations to help future development of water data platforms, including:

  • Tools should have a clear objective co-developed with decision-makers and end users.
  • Developers must understand and mitigate concerns to make data publicly available in a timely manner.
  • Tool developers and decision-makers should jointly create a plan detailing project milestones, long-term tool housing, maintenance and funding prior to tool development.
  • Finding a data advocate within an agency or across agencies is essential in driving the project forward, helping navigate potential political barriers and alleviating tensions between project partners.

In addition to making these recommendations, the researchers developed a template Request for Proposals (RFP) as a framework for soliciting requests for future decision-support tools. While intended primarily for data platform funders and developers, state and federal agency representatives and others involved in the tool development process may also benefit from the findings and methods captured in the RFP.

“This work clearly demonstrates the value data has in supporting sustainable water management. But it also provides a cautionary tale about the time, resources and ongoing commitment necessary to ensure the development of successful water management tools to support decision making,” said Moran.

Photo credit: Tulare Irrigation District

Martinez is also a senior lecturer at the Stanford Law School and director of the Gould Alternative Dispute Resolution Research Initiative.

This work was generously funded by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.