The digi­tal cour­se of water

In the future, cities will face the chall­enge of opti­mi­sing and digi­tal­ly con­trol­ling their water sup­p­ly. The Pots­dam-based com­pa­ny Vrag­ments is deve­lo­ping spe­ci­fic apps and aug­men­ted rea­li­ty appli­ca­ti­ons to take us on a vir­tu­al tour to the groundwater. 

Water is the most com­mon natu­ral sub­s­tance on the earth’s sur­face. The salt water of the world’s oce­ans accounts for 97.5 per­cent, the remai­ning per­cent are accoun­ted for by soil mois­tu­re, ground­wa­ter, lakes and rivers, the atmo­sphe­re and living orga­nisms. Howe­ver, water does not dis­ap­pear, but has been cir­cu­la­ting in all kinds of cycles sin­ce time imme­mo­ri­al. In order to ensu­re our water sup­p­ly, this cycle must be well orga­ni­zed, espe­ci­al­ly in urban cen­tres. Yet, the water infra­struc­tu­re of cities is usual­ly almost com­ple­te­ly hid­den from us. Most of it takes place many met­res below the earth’s sur­face and com­ple­te­ly invi­si­ble to us. We turn on the tap and get our drin­king water.
But how is the cities’ urban water sup­p­ly orga­ni­zed? The cen­tres are facing a chall­enge against the back­drop of cli­ma­te chan­ge and popu­la­ti­on growth: new digi­tal solu­ti­ons are nee­ded in order to install an intel­li­gent water manage­ment sys­tem for the future in the cities.
The EU pro­ject digi​tal​-water​.city (DWC, Grant Agree­ment No. 820954) is con­duc­ting rese­arch on this issue across Euro­pe based on the examp­les of the five cities of Paris, Sofia, Copen­ha­gen, Milan and Ber­lin. The project’s coor­di­na­tor as well as initia­tor is the Kom­pe­tenz­zen­trum Was­ser Ber­lin (KWB).

The tasks and solu­ti­on approa­ches for digi​tal​-water​.city are dif­fe­rent in each city. In gene­ral, water com­pa­nies sup­p­ly house­holds with drin­king water, con­trol qua­li­ty of the water and sewer sys­tems, clean, main­tain and ope­ra­te sewers, was­te­wa­ter tre­at­ment and its reu­se. They take action when sewers are over­loa­ded or floo­ded and mana­ge our was­te­wa­ter tre­at­ment plants.
Work is under­way within the Ber­lin pro­ject to opti­mi­se the main­ten­an­ce of the drin­king water wells and redu­ce mixed water over­flows in Berlin’s sewer sys­tem – by using visua­li­sa­ti­on tech­ni­ques such as aug­men­ted and mixed reality.
And this is whe­re the start-up Vrag­ments from the Media­Tech Hub Lab comes into play. The com­pa­ny from Pots­dam-Babels­berg is made up of a team of jour­na­lists, deve­lo­pers and sto­rytel­lers who crea­te aug­men­ted and vir­tu­al rea­li­ty expe­ri­en­ces. They are now working on two apps for digital-water.cities - one for the gene­ral popu­la­ti­on and the other for Ber­li­ner Was­ser­be­trie­be and urban decision-makers.
What is spe­cial about Ber­lin is that the water sup­p­ly main­ly comes from are­as within the city and needs a high level of pro­tec­tion. The app for the popu­la­ti­on com­mu­ni­ca­tes how the drin­king water cycle works. What hap­pens in Berlin’s sewer sys­tem during hea­vy rain­fall? How does bank fil­tra­ti­on work at the Wann­see, for exam­p­le? What pro­ces­ses the water goes through befo­re it rea­ches the drin­king water wells? Thanks to the visua­li­sa­ti­on of under­ground simu­la­ti­ons in the app, users can look deep under the sur­face of the metro­po­lis and fol­low the pro­ces­ses of water tre­at­ment. This is inten­ded to sen­si­ti­se citi­zens to the value of drin­king water.
The second app which Vrag­ments is curr­ent­ly working on is spe­ci­fi­cal­ly desi­gned for pro­fes­sio­nal use and will sup­port the main­ten­an­ce work of water companies.
At pre­sent, drin­king water wells are che­cked and main­tai­ned at sta­tis­ti­cal­ly deter­mi­ned inter­vals, regard­less of whe­ther the­re is an actu­al need. Orders and docu­men­ta­ti­on are usual­ly paper-based pro­ces­ses whe­re the water sup­p­ly ope­ra­tors make a note on-site of the latest values or main­ten­an­ce events, such as repla­cing a device , and record the­se later in the company’s data­ba­ses. “With our app, we want to move away from calen­dar or time-based main­ten­an­ce plan­ning toward demand-ori­en­ted main­ten­an­ce plan­ning,” says Ste­phan Gensch, co-foun­der and Head of Pro­duct Deve­lo­p­ment at Vrag­ments. This works when data is coll­ec­ted and pre­pared quick­ly and effec­tively at a cen­tral loca­ti­on: “The app enables data to be made available more quick­ly and syn­chro­nis­ed imme­dia­te­ly wit­hout manu­al input when the­re is an Inter­net con­nec­tion. This would save a lot of orga­ni­sa­tio­nal out­lay on main­ten­an­ce in Ber­lin whe­re the­re are about 650 acti­ve wells. The­r­e­fo­re, data and busi­ness pro­ces­ses of the various acti­vi­ties and main water­works have to be coll­ec­ted in advan­ce and pre­pared for prac­ti­cal deploy­ment in the app. 

Vrag­ments is working direct­ly with the Ber­li­ner Was­ser­be­trie­be and the Kom­pe­tenz­zen­trum Was­ser Ber­lin on the tech­ni­cal imple­men­ta­ti­on of the geo-pro­ject. “Our team has expe­ri­ence in various sec­tors, from the ban­king sec­tor through the gam­ing indus­try to geo­in­for­ma­tics, as well as tech­ni­cal exper­ti­se in data manage­ment and the deve­lo­p­ment of high-per­for­mance backend and mobi­le front­end sys­tems,” says Gensch. Vrag­ments focu­ses on agi­le deve­lo­p­ment and opti­mi­ses the designs after regu­lar feed­back ses­si­ons with the stakeholders. 

The big­gest chall­enge here, apart from the sci­en­ti­fic simu­la­ti­on, is the visua­li­sa­ti­on. Making water visual­ly cre­di­ble is par­ti­cu­lar­ly deman­ding. “Nor­mal­ly, you have some­thing like three-dimen­sio­nal ras­ter maps with some sca­lar values. But that’s not some­thing that lay­men can under­stand. We’­re opting ins­tead for a visu­al expe­ri­ence.” Vrag­ments has two sce­na­ri­os here. On the one hand, the user can view a digi­tal table­top model of the sur­face and sub­sur­face with its net­work of pipes, pumps, and chan­nels, and, on the other hand, it will be pos­si­ble to expe­ri­ence the envi­ron­ment and the under­ly­ing sys­tem vir­tual­ly one-to-one - thanks to the VR app, the user will be able to look under the sur­face with x-ray visi­on. The smart­phone and aug­men­ted rea­li­ty will help open up Berlin’s sub­sur­face through the various lay­ers of sand, earth and rock to the ground­wa­ter for ever­y­bo­dy. The com­plex pro­ces­ses of an urban water cycle will con­se­quent­ly be pre­sen­ted in a playful and enga­ging way, and the­re can be a bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on of the water utilities’s work. The app can also be used for school and tea­ching pur­po­ses. At pre­sent, this visua­li­sa­ti­on is only being plan­ned for the Ber­lin area and sup­port­ed within the frame­work of the EU pro­ject. It is con­ceiva­ble that it could also be imple­men­ted for other cities at a later date.

By Chris­ti­ne Lentz

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About MTH Blog

The media technologies of the future are already being used today – not only in the entertainment sector, but also in a wide variety of industries. Christine Lentz meets up with tech enthusiasts, established companies and researchers for our monthly MediaTech Hub Potsdam blog to tell the stories behind the innovative business models.