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Hydrologic Dashboard Tool Washes Out Storm Uncertainties

Hydrologic Dashboard Tool Washes Out Storm Uncertainties

Thursday, June 27, 2013

by Aaron R. Conklin, Wisconsin Sea Grant

Hydrologic Dashboard

Hydrologic Dashboard

Clicking on flag icons brings up a static radar display of the storm. Credit: Wisconsin Sea Grant
Inspiration struck with the large storm that hit Duluth, Minnesota six years ago in October of 2005. The flooding that ensued after this unexpected event caught many off guard, so University of Wisconsin Sea Grant’s David Hart hired several graduate students to create an online tool that would show where and how the storm affected the area, and provide insight to similar events in the future. The students developed a cool visualization platform:  a hydrologic dashboard that let users view spatial, geophysical and temporal storm data in Lake Michigan’s Green Bay watershed, all in a single place.

It was a great idea with an unexpected technological flaw. The dashboard was programmed using Flash, a closed-source platform/plugin that’s largely fallen out of use since 2007. A few years after its creation, the original dashboard was both broken and challenging to update.  

Erin Hamilton

Erin Hamilton

By recreating the water dashboard, Erin Hamilton honed her programming skills. Credit: Wisconsin Sea Grant
End of story? Not quite. Enter Erin Hamilton, a 26-year-old graduate student with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s department of geography. Hamilton spent much of the last year recreating the dashboard in Javascript, an open-source code that can be updated easily on multiple platforms, including mobile.  Thanks to Hamilton’s efforts, the dashboard is back to full functionality.

“The main idea of the dashboard is to give users the opportunity to view a storm event from start to finish,” explained Hamilton. ”We wanted to let people see what kinds of effects the storm has on streams as the water moves through the watershed."

For Hamilton, the experience of resurrecting the dashboard helped her achieve the goal that brought her back to graduate school in the first place—improving her programming skills. It’s also opened her eyes to potential new career opportunities involving coastal resources. She’s now considering a career that involves both GIS and a natural resources focus.

“The best part was seeing what I had built, work,” said Hamilton. “My programming skills improved tremendously, and I learned really important debugging and problem-solving skills. My programming confidence soared.”

Hydrologic Dashboard

Hydrologic Dashboard

The dashboard aggregates more than a dozen years of precipitation data in the Green Bay watershed. Credit: Wisconsin Sea Grant
The dashboard’s target audience is water resource managers, who could use it as a decision-making tool.   The tool’s static radar images of total precipitation from the 2005 superstorm could inform planning and resource allocation for future severe storm events. The dashboard aggregates data from April 2003 to August of last year, giving managers an extended historical view of storms in the watershed over nearly a decade.

Hart sees it as a key part of a much more expansive geographic information system (GIS) toolbox.

“When you put this in touch with other geotools we’re developing, we’re really building a narrative in Green Bay,” said Hart. “It could become part of a solution that would allow people to be much more engaged in stewardship of the Great Lakes.” And when the next storm comes, they’ll be watching.


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