In New Brunswick, Open Data Keeps the River on Watch

A civic tech tool that forecasts river levels in New Brunswick has already warned thousands about potential floods in the province.

A screencap of the RiverWatch web app, created by the Civic Tech Fredericton community.

This May, the St. John River saw some of the worst flooding in a decade. News stories featured clips of surging rivers, flooded homes, and New Brunswick residents canoeing down streets deluged with water.

But even before the government’s flood alert warnings went out in late April, a simple web app called RiverWatch was quietly becoming the go-to source for residents looking for up-to-date flood information.

With just a few simple clicks, RiverWatch provides users with a three-day forecast of river water levels in New Brunswick. As users open the web app, they can quickly find their city from a drop down list, or click on the app’s interactive map. The flooding advisory warnings on the app are colour coded, making it easy for users to understand the severity of water levels.

Launched one month before the damaging floods of May 2018, RiverWatch was quickly adopted by users, and has been officially endorsed by the provincial government.

“The River Watch program provides valuable information to residents living along the St. John River Basin,” the province’s Justice and Public Safety Minister, Denis Landry, said in a press release. “Since the best way for residents to be well prepared is to be well informed, we welcome the new application that will certainly become an important tool for New Brunswickers.”

With a user interface as slick as RiverWatch, one would assume the project spent years in development. But that’s not the case. Thanks to community organizing, a newly minted provincial open data portal, and an urgent need to prepare the province for the coming flood season, the project was completed in just six months by volunteers at Civic Tech Fredericton.

A close-up of the mouth of the St. John River viewed from the RiverWatch dashboard. Users can look for flood data from the left hand pull-down menu or click on their location from the interactive map.

“There was great support from the government to get this done. This was a good way to highlight how open data can be used, and how it can benefit the community,” said Bernie Connors, a geomatics engineer who conceived of the initial RiverWatch web app.

Although the province of New Brunswick already had a similar river level forecasting tool on its website, it was only compatible on a desktop computer. Connors wanted to develop a mobile-friendly version web app, but lacked the skills to build the product by himself.

He pitched the idea at Civic Tech Fredericton’s inaugural hack night in October 2017, and was then joined by Christine Harvie, who took on the majority of development duties.

The team was also assisted by the province’s recent open data strategy. “The establishment of an open data policy will enable New Brunswickers to help solve some of the challenges our province is facing,” said Premier Brian Gallant at the 2016 Canadian Open Data Summit.

Harvie noted government cooperation was critical for the success of RiverWatch. “This project was only possible because of the access we had to the water level data the government creates,” she said.

Civic Tech Fredericton co-founder Sandi McKinnon says the speed at which it delivered its first major project is an example of how the city’s tech sector consistently punches above its weight class. “We’ve always been ahead of the curve, we were the first municipality in Canada to have free public wifi. We’re like the Silicon Valley of the east coast,” said McKinnon.

Members of the Civic Tech Fredericton community join a design-thinking session. (Photo: Civic Tech Fredericton)

But RiverWatch is also an example of the city’s indelible commitment to community and volunteering. The group’s next project — The Caring Calendar — also exemplifies those values. Working together with a community foundation, Civic Tech Fredericton built the Calendar to help faith-based organizations in Fredericton coordinate and allocate services for people in poverty.

The group is also working with the local food bank to create a meal planning tool that provides healthy recipes, as well as a costed shopping list.

Not bad for a civic tech community that started less than a year ago.

Check out the Civic Tech Fredericton web page to learn more about RiverWatch and other civic tech projects, and head over to their Facebook page for info about their weekly Tuesday hack night.