Great Lakes platform aims to be a go-to source for waterway data

Data is everywhere, and more is being collected as sensors and other Internet of Things devices become more common. The Great Lakes Observing System launched Seagull, a cloud-based platform, to give people in the Great Lakes region access to a plethora of real-time data about their surrounding waterways.

Seagull brings together data harvested from the region’s diverse sources into a unified, accessible platform. Some of the hundreds of sources include satellites, models, and sensor-equipped lake buoys. Seagull replaced GLOS’s legacy data portal that was not cloud-forward and had become outdated.

“The infrastructure platform that we had in the past was not scalable or sustainable,” said Tim Kearns, chief information officer at GLOS. “We needed to provide a platform that would meet [users’] needs — and not only meet their needs now, but meet their needs five years from now.” 

GLOS is an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based nonprofit that gathers, synthesizes, and publishes data from local, state, federal, and private groups about factors that affect the Great Lakes, including meteorology, climate, geology, biology, and human behavior. It is one of 11 regional organizations that together make the Integrated Ocean Observing System. GLOS is unique because it is the only regional organization whose work solely focuses on freshwater. 

Technology advancements are reducing barriers to entry for IoT device deployment, which cleared the way for creating Seagull, Kearns said. 

“The prices are coming down, the units are getting easier to operate, and getting the data to the cloud is easier,” he said. “Our potential for acquiring information is going to explode, which is so awesome when we’re looking at monitoring this fairly sensitive ecosystem.”

Making data accessible

Seagull launched in April to about 300 test users and grew to 1,000 registered users by August. The Seagull site had more than 100,000 visitors in its first four months after launch. GLOS would like to grow Seagull to 10,000 registered users and 1 million site visitors by next summer.

The site gives users access to data that might be difficult or impossible for them to find otherwise. It combines legacy datasets pulled from archives with new data flowing in through sources like environmental sensors.

GLOS lets users determine how to put the data into action. But an overall goal is for Seagull’s data to help users make decisions that affect their health and well-being. For example, recreational boaters and fishers could check wave height and weather conditions to determine whether to head onto the water.

The platform also helps with measuring and monitoring changes within the Great Lakes region due to climate change. The available data helps to track shifting weather patterns and fluctuating lake levels. 

Seagull also could assist with tracking conditions leading to harmful algae blooms. The blooms — including the Lake Erie incident in 2014 that caused a tap water crisis in Toledo, Ohio — are correlated with water temperature and have been expanding in number and duration as water temperatures tick up.

“As we see the rise of these blooms — not only in Lake Erie, but now in Lake Michigan as well — tied to warming bodies of water … it’s a pretty clear connection to a changing climate,” Kearns said.

What’s next

Seagull can be embedded into different applications, but it is not yet open source. The team will continue to update Seagull, add features, and fix bugs, because “software is never done,” Kearns said.

GLOS is working to achieve goals established in the five-year Seagull roadmap and will continue to seek funding to grow the platform. One goal is to improve the platform’s search capabilities.

“Humans use ‘search’ in almost all areas of our life when we interface with machines,” Kearns said. “Our plans for search in the future include building that up to be natural language queries in the same way that we would interface with Alexa or Google or Siri when we say, ‘Hey, what’s the temperature today?’ and we get an answer.”

They also expect to add additional observation technologies, such as underwater vehicles and swarm robotics. Ultimately, GLOS would like Seagull to serve as the quintessential source for Great Lakes data.

“My desire is that when someone searches for anything related to data and information about the Great Lakes on Google or a web browser that Seagull will be the result,” Kearns said.

Photo courtesy of Great Lakes Observing System