Trawling the bay for streams of data


A technology project in Galway is set to benefit tourism, climate research, fishing and the environment, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON

AS A fisherman miles off the coast of Galway hauls in his nets and assesses his catch, he pulls out a mobile phone and sends off a quick text before getting back to work. Back on shore, a Galway chef planning her daily menu checks a website.

At a glance, she sees the fisherman’s take, decides on the evening’s fish entrees and contacts him to buy directly. She gets the fish at a better price than buying at the docks, while the fisherman pockets a better margin.

That’s just one of the many practical uses of a major collaborative pilot scheme on Galway Bay called SmartBay, which is using a range of technologies to produce and collate useful marine and coastal data for businesses, researchers, local authorities and beachgoers. The project could benefit aquaculture, tourism, climate research, fishing and the environment.

“SmartBay is really moving us into the age where people can look at very complicated data sets in the way they’d like,” says Robert McCarthy, IBM innovative environmental solutions manager, working out of its Dublin Innovation Centre.

IBM is one of the key partners in the Marine Institute-driven project, which draws in data from everything from sensors attached to anchored buoys out on the bay, to weather gauges, to simple text messages from fisherman about their catch or boaters regarding potentially dangerous floating objects.

Other contributors to the project include Galway Bay’s harbourmaster and commercial fishermen, Bord Iascaigh Mhara, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Irish Water Safety Council, the Hydraulics Maritime Research Centre at University College Cork, and the IDA. Dublin City University, University College Dublin and the Tyndall National Institute in Cork are also involved, working to develop smarter water management systems.

“We’re bringing together many data streams,” notes McCarthy. Sophisticated sensors attached to devices that read oceanographic data such as climate, wave and tide activity and upload data directly, 24 hours a day to the internet, are a basic part of the SmartBay initiative.

But these all generate large amounts of data, he notes, which could take hours of analysis on standalone computing systems. With SmartBay, data streams are analysed and interpreted rapidly on the fly using IBM-developed technology, over a large distributed network of computers – a “cloud computing” approach where vast amounts of data can be divided among computers based at data centres around the globe.

The data is then made available at a portal site to users in a range of easily interpreted formats, including graphs, lists and pie charts.

The portal offers over a dozen “widgets” – small software programmes that present different types of data in different ways – that a user can pick and choose from to access the information they wish. Users can also drill down into data sets to get more complex information, which is particularly useful for researchers.

“We said, is there some way we can link all this stuff up and then build a portal in the way that suits them, so that the data becomes intelligent for them,” McCarthy says. One idea was to add in an alerts system that can notify users when certain events occur. For example, a real-time alert could be sent to Galway’s harbourmaster if water levels start to rise, indicating a potential flood.

The system could also be used by a family trying to decide whether to head to the beach for an outing. A quick check could determine which beaches have a blue flag rating, whether a lifeguard is on duty, and if the weather at the coast warrants a trip there. Fishermen are already contributing to boating safety through a SmartBay application that lets them text in the co-ordinates and details about floating objects that could be hazardous to boats.

IBM got involved because it recognised the value of pulling together related sets of complex data and presenting them in useful ways to a variety of users, says McCarthy, and also because the project allows it to try out potential applications and services.

The SmartBay project is one of the first to emerge as part of IBM’s Centre of Excellence for Water Management, established in Dublin last summer. The concept was initially one of the ideas that came out of a 2006 IBM “idea jam” – a massive online brainstorming session done using social networking technologies for thousands of participants, which has become an annual IBM event.

“We wanted to do something interesting for IBM, but also Ireland Inc,” he says. “We didn’t want to go out there and just do a technology push, saying ‘here’s the products and services we have and here’s how to use them’.”

The partners seem happy with the results from the pilot and the Marine Institute hopes to expand the pilot into a full-fledged national project.