In River Notes, his elegiac book on the Colorado River, author Wade Davis goes through the natural history of the region. About a million years ago, volcanic activity created hundreds of miles of natural dams formed of solid magma, thousands of feet high, blocking up the river for hundreds of miles. They all eventually eroded away. The river won.
It seems weird to talk about the power of nature, especially the Colorado River, in an article about the drought in California that has led to massive, state-wide water restrictions. But no matter how man-made the crisis is, it serves as a reminder that there are natural powers that can dominate our lives and our history, rendering our technology useless. However, we can still make a difference. Mobile tech and the Internet of Things give us an advantage and can help us reverse the horrible impacts of the California water crisis.
The Internet of Things and Massive Data Collections
Our story starts with the exact opposite of the ancient and elemental forces that shaped the land and gave rise to the valley: the Internet of Things (IoT). This is the next step in the technological and mobile revolution. What the IoT is, essentially, is every device being internet-enabled and able to communicate with other devices, smartphones, and people. It is what allows you to jog and have your mobile health tracking device talk to your computer about your health measurements while the GPS tracker lets the coffee machine know you’ll be back soon so it can start brewing.
We all know the cool stuff about the IoT, but what we don’t think about is the amount of data it collects. There are massive amounts of information streaming from every device and there will be exponentially more as more things start to be connected. Businesses are beginning to wonder how they can use this data.
IBM, specifically, wants to show them how. It is investing $3 billion in a unit that can analyze the vast and disparate reams of data collected by the Internet of Things to help businesses come up with new ways to use it. There will be more information than ever before in human history. Luckily, there aren’t just business reasons why this is important.
The California Water Crisis and Mobile Technology
All this data exists to analyze behavior and to discover patterns. We can discern patterns on how we shop, eat, travel – just about anything. Whether or not we should uncover all those patterns is a different question for another article, but the point is that we are increasingly able to. Because of this, it will make it easier to both understand how and when people use water, as well as how we can get them to use less of it. Mobile tech will also help people understand what they should do.
We already know a good deal about water use on the macro level. We know, for instance, that agriculture uses 80% of California’s water supplies. However, we don’t understand water use as well on an individual level. Imagine being able to get a real-time analysis by compiling your dishwasher, sink, shower, toilet, and hose data? It’s my contention that awareness modifies behavior, so I think that would be a start to help people understand their water consumption. You will be able to check your usage against neighborhood averages and see what percentage of water you are using.
We can also use this for more information. We’ve talked about geo-targeted weather alerts, but what about water alerts? You can get a text to alert you when you can’t water your lawn, or if you are traveling, you could be notified if you’re entering a more or less severe drought region. All the data about water usage and restrictions can be compiled and adjusted in real time, allowing people to understand what they can do and what they shouldn’t do.
Computer Morals and Human Ethics
If the crisis gets even more severe, it is possible to imagine showerheads and hose faucets being regulated so households don’t use more than is sustainable. That is a tricky slope, of course. It’s hard for a computer to make a moral choice, as the automated car ethical dilemma argues. Suppose one family argues that they need water to do laundry because the mom has a job interview, and another says that they need to water the plants in their sustainable garden? Can a computer decide what takes precedence? Probably not. Ideally, we will never get there. However, the point is that we aren’t far from having the technology to do so.
Droughts are real and we need to make hard choices. Luckily, we have the technology to help us conserve. Obviously, it takes more than smartphones. If a dam can’t hold back a river forever, a tablet can’t refresh it. There need to be policy shifts. But within those shifts, we can use our technology to analyze and modify our behavior. It might be our last chance.