Green examines water data as part of UMSI theme year

September 13, 2023

“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,” said Cliff Lampe, professor of information and associate dean for academic affairs. 

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, with Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist II giving a keynote speech on September 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,” said 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 said 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 said.

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

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,” said Ben Green, assistant professor of information and assistant professor at the Ford School. “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,” said 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 said. “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.”

This is an excerpt from an article written by Abigail McFee, UMSI marketing and communications writer. The original can be seen here.