Rise water hackathon: how gamification could save us all

wather hackathon

At the end of last month Rise – Barclays Africa’s innovation hub in Cape Town – hosted a water hackathon to help harness the power of technology, innovation and collaboration to find solutions for the Western Cape’s ongoing water crisis.

With dam storage levels currently at 23.5% – more than 1% down from last week, it’s obvious that the City of Cape Town is in a particularly dire situation, especially if rains remain elusive.

Rise’s sprint-like design event – held in conjunction with Woolworths Holdings – convened industry experts, policy makers, conservationists, students, community members, scientists and engineers, and invited them to come up with possible means of alleviating the crisis.

“We are using the Rise co-creation platform to help bring people from various organisations and communities closer so that we can collectively tackle our biggest societal challenges and drive mass implementation of solutions,” said Yasaman Hadjibashi, Chief Creation Officer at Barclays Africa Group. “At Rise, we strongly believe that the most powerful way of finding solutions is to bring together the most diverse people, who would not ordinarily cross paths,” said Hadjibashi.

Justin Smith, Head of Sustainability at Woolworths, said: “At Woolworths, water is a critical input to our products, whether it is food or clothing. The efficient use of water is of utmost importance to enable the business to do what it does.  I believe there is no one entity that can single-handedly come up with a solution to the water crisis we face, but that it is rather through collaborative efforts by stakeholders from all sectors that we’ll find workable solutions.”

Participants in the hackathon event were challenged to generate solutions to improve agricultural, industrial and residential water consumption.

The winning idea, proposed by Water Surge, is to create an online and mobile public campaign that uses gamification and integrated social media to encourage behaviour shifts.

“This is an innovation that could really help drive water-saving behaviour change across Cape Town, and could potentially be implemented in a short timeframe,” said City of Cape Town water and energy efficiency strategist Sarah Rushmere.

Water Surge - the winning team - front and centre on the couch!

Water Surge – the winning team – front and centre on the couch!

Intrigued by the suggestion, we sent off a few questions to Water Surge to find out a bit more and received a response from team member, Graham Mayer:

  1. Who formed part of the team?  What industries do you all come from?
  • Xanthe Adams (Engineering – SRK Consulting)
  • Graham Mayer (Software Development – Freelance)
  • Nicole Mountain (Rise)

2.       What sparked your winning idea? Why did you think gamification would work well?

Xanthe saw a TED talk about Litterati.

Litterati was initially an Instagram account where a guy started posting pictures of litter that he picked up. Some of his friends started doing the same and it just grew from there. He then started plotting where the photos were being taken on a Google Maps. Essentially, the idea was to encourage people to pick up litter by making the collective impact of individuals all picking up small amounts of litter visible.

The City of San Francisco was, then, able to use the data he gathered to win a court case to impose a tax on tobacco companies for cigarette butts that had to be cleaned up as part of the litter.

Given the success of Litterati, we thought we might be able to apply a similar principle to encourage people to save water by making all the small individual contributions that people make to saving water visible.

We felt that gamification would be a good way to encourage people to be part of a cooperative effort of saving water in the same way that Literati encouraged people to be part of a cooperative effort to combat litter.

Xanthe and I had also used gamification successfully in another web application called Water Wars. The idea of Water Wars is for people to enter how much water they had used in the past month, based on their water bill, along with the number of people in their house for that month. People were then ranked on a monthly and overall basis based on how much water they were using per person per day.

This software is currently used to run internal competitions at SRK Consulting. It has raised awareness and reduced water use among the employees taking part and has resulted in at least one person identifying and fixing a water leak.

3.       Can you describe briefly how the app will work?

The app would allow the user to indicate every time they do something to save water, eg taking a short shower, installing a water-saving shower head, reporting a leak, etc. The idea would be to make it very easy to submit a post by having a set of predefined options that the user can select as well as the option to add something that is not on the list of predefined options.

Whatever the user selects, they would then be able to optionally add a comment and/or photo before submitting. They would then be shown an animation with their submission becoming a drop of water and dropping into a large tank of water representing the sum of all the contributions made. If they submitted a photo then it would be added to the photo collection and if they left a comment it would be added to the set of comments as well.

We thought that this could be promoted by running an initiative on the local radio stations in Cape Town for a period of 2-4 weeks encouraging people to participate in what we called “Save It – Surge for Water” (Nicole gets credit for the name) by submitting what they are doing to save water via the website, app or other channels like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

4.       Are there any plans in place to make the idea a reality?

There are currently no clear plans to develop this further. Xanthe and Nicole have full-time day jobs and Graham has other commitments and priorities as well, so it is hard to find time to work on this. The City of Cape Town has shown some interest in pursuing this further but it is not clear at this stage what will happen.

Additional hackathon solutions proposed:

  • A modular water storage system that collects rainwater using panels
  • A big data system to track water usage along a supply chain
  • Partnerships with retailers to encourage shoppers to buy products that are produced using water responsibly
  • Voucher and coupon systems to encourage incentives for partnerships between government and the private sector
  • Helping consumers understand the impact of producing different food groups on water supplies


Featured Image: Yann Macherez

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