Aquahacking

A Foundation Leads the Dialogue on Freshwater to Shift Environmental Public Policy

Louis-Alexandre and Philippe, the youngest of the de Gaspé Beaubien family, know that Canadians are keepers of some of the largest masses of fresh water in the world.

When they were asked by their grandparents Nan-b and Philippe II de Gaspé Beaubien to identify the most important issue of their time, they didn’t hesitate – water – conservation and access. The de Gaspé Beaubien Family through their foundation decided with the grandchildren’s lead to tackle water issues by focusing on some of Canada’s great waterways, such as the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers.

Through the innovative use of the power to convene, dialogue and network with political leaders, field experts, water experts, NGOs, municipalities, regional organizations and more, the de Gaspé Beaubien Foundation created support for a common vision to protect the Ottawa River in 2015 and the St. Lawrence River in 2016.

Building a “Groundswell of Support” – How the Foundation Rallied for the Ottawa River

The grandchildren, inspired by Robert Kennedy Jr.’s work with Riverkeeper, wanted to collaborate with a Canadian Riverkeeper. As it happens there are two in Canada: one for the protection of the Fraser River and a second for the protection of the Ottawa River.

The Foundation partnered with Ottawa Riverkeeper as a field expert and began with a pilot project on the Ottawa River. They discovered that there was no management agreement at all for the river. The two provinces, Quebec and Ontario, and the 200+ municipalities along the river were not communicating with each other. There was no common vision and they were often operating at cross-purposes.

The Foundation and Ottawa Riverkeeper used a “top down, bottom up” approach to engagement, spurring the creation of a strategy for a first AquaHacking Summit. Not only did this Summit address the most critical issues impacting the river, the Foundation also integrated a hackathon, a coding competition that surfaced innovative technology solutions to a pre-identified set of concrete issues. The Summit was devised by an advisory committee of 23 stakeholders and decision makers, including mayors from Ontario and Québec, many grassroots groups, the Ministries of the Environment for Ontario and Québec, and Environment Canada, among others.

The advisory committee drafted a statement laying out a collective vision for the future of the Ottawa River. The statement also articulated how they intended to work together on an integrated strategy for the River.

The Foundation’s efforts led to a historic agreement — a first — to create a joint Ontario-Quebec committee on Water Management and the Gatineau Declaration Towards an Integrated Approach to Sustainable Water Management within the Ottawa River Watershed, with full support from the Ontario and Québec Environment Ministers.

Bringing Attention to the St. Lawrence River

After the success of the first AquaHacking Summit, the Foundation chose to focus on the protection of the St. Lawrence River, which had experienced a number of challenges.

The Foundation began to engage stakeholders, using the same “top down, bottom up” approach to explore four major topics impacting the river: climate change adaptation, spills and overflows, river accessibility, and how innovation, technology and creativity can contribute to water preservation.

In 2016, the provincial government was rewriting Quebec’s Water Strategy and being criticized by grassroots organizations for a consultation process that was perceived to target specific groups. The Foundation’s Director of Operations, Sandro Di Cori notes that the perspective in the environmental/water protection community was that “they are getting the opinions they need to hear rather than the overall picture.”

To change this perception, the Ministry of Environment of Quebec unveiled the Quebec Water Strategy 2017-2032 and launched an open web-based Public Consultation process on the water strategy at the AquaHacking Summit 2016.

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An Open, Inclusive Approach to Engagement

What is different about the Foundation’s engagement process? What led to environmental public policy shifts in such a short period of time?

Di Cori notes that the answer is two-fold.

First, the Foundation’s open and inclusive approach to engaging decision makers who they define as “anyone who plays a key role in an organization”. For example, the Ottawa River spans 1,271 kilometres, 200 municipalities and two provinces. The Foundation sat down face-to-face with the mayors of all 200 municipalities. They also methodically tackled a master guest list for the Summit, speaking directly with everyone they wanted to have present.

In the case of the St. Lawrence River, the Foundation made efforts to speak to all levels of government, policy experts, industry leaders, water treatment plants, leaders within non-governmental organizations, field experts, and many more. At every meeting with stakeholders, their goal was to express a positive message about the importance of protecting the St. Lawrence River.

Secondly, the ability to take a broad perspective on the issue of water conservation. Most organizations “have a vested interest or care about a particular issue associated with the protection of a water way,” says Di Cori. The Foundation isn’t tied to any specific issue (such as pollution or fish habitat) or tied to an election cycle, which provides the freedom to take the “…50,000 foot view.” In the case of the Ottawa River, he reflected, “we were able to rally a lot of people because we can all agree that we care about the river… Most organizations,” he says, “are absorbed in the details. We look at the whole forest rather than one tree.”

Merging water conservation with technological innovation

The inspiration provided by the youngest members of the de Gaspé Beaubien Foundation pushed the Foundation to find a creative way to integrate technology to help generate creative ideas. The idea that was proposed was a hackathon. Though common in the United States, hackathons are not as familiar in Canada. The Foundation saw this as an opportunity to mobilize all stakeholders, particularly youth, in a way that wasn’t political but that would bring everyone together.

In the first year, the Foundation created an open process that saw citizens submit 153 issues important to people along the river. Teams of coders from various universities and tech companies were tapped to devise solutions. IBM professionals helped devise a map to organize the issues and then mentors were assigned to each participating team. Eighteen hackathon teams worked over three months leading up to the Summit on web applications for each of the 18 issues. At the Summit, ten ideas were presented to a high profile jury and three were ultimately selected for a prize.

The Foundation supported these three winning finalists with implementation. One of the solutions is River Ranger, an app that allows any citizen to take a picture of a problem along the river, like a spill, erosion or dead fish, for example. The photo is geo-located and then sent to the appropriate local response organization. Another solution uses drone technology to collect water samples for testing from inaccessible areas.

Looking Forward

The de Gaspé Beaubien Foundation now sees itself as a steward for Canada’s freshwater resources. Di Cori states, “We need to keep raising awareness, people need to know what is happening to water. If they know, they will be driven to act and get involved.”

More than ever, the Foundation is committed to its “top down, bottom up” open and inclusive approach to engagement. The Foundation plans to expand its partnerships to include organizations in the United States for the next AquaHacking Summit that will bring attention to Lake Erie.

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