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From Streams to Stories: Niagara College students visualize water data

32 students delved into an open water database to transform the data into visually engaging environmental stories.

From the moment we wake until we sleep, data and information permeate every facet of our lives. Like scattered puzzle pieces, data is raw numbers that need context to become useful. Once organized, analyzed and contextualized, data transforms into meaningful information, much like a complete puzzle that reveals a full picture. 

At Niagara College, 32 students delved into an open water database to transform the data into visually engaging environmental stories. As part of their postgraduate business analytics certificate, they’re required to complete a Data Visualization and Communications course. Here, students learn the art of translating data into insightful information through the creation of data dashboards — a type of data visualization that uses tools such as graphs, charts and tables to distill complex data into digestible forms. 

The instructor, Lee Doucet stumbled upon the Columbia Basin Water Hub through his work as a board member with the Canadian Open Data Society. It inspired him to design a new and meaningful assignment for his students. 

The Columbia Basin Water Hub is an open database that houses diverse water data on streams, groundwater, lakes, wetlands, glaciers, climate and more. Built and operated by Living Lakes Canada, an award-winning water science and stewardship NGO, the Water Hub houses 6.8 million data points from more than 830 resources uploaded by over 50 contributors across the Columbia Basin region. 

“Given the mounting pressures on fresh water, it’s critical to ensure water data is available to various stakeholders, including students, and to encourage diverse ways of visualizing and communicating the information,” said Maggie Finkle-Aucoin, GIS and database manager with Living Lakes Canada. 

An expert panel from Living Lakes weighed each student’s dashboard against a set of criteria, including design and aesthetic, and the story told through their data interpretation. Ultimately, the panel selected two outstanding dashboards. 

Riley Bennet’s winning dashboard used water data sourced from tributaries across the Elk River Valley, B.C. Riley’s analysis focused on determining the duration of ideal water temperatures for the survival of three key fish species: westslope trout, rainbow trout and bull trout. Each year analyzed (2021, 2022, and 2023) experienced eight months with temperatures outside the ideal range for westslope trout and nine months for rainbow trout and bull trout.

“I feel that highlighting climate change’s effect on water temperature and showing how it disrupts natural species is often overlooked in the climate change conversation,” said Riley. "I envision that this project could be used to monitor species in aquatic eco-systems and be used to help preserve natural species in an area.” 

The data used in Riley’s dashboard was collected by the Elk River Alliance, a community-based water charity based in Fernie, B.C. The organization focuses on aquatic health in the Elk Valley where metallurgical coal mining is responsible for high selenium levels in the Elk River and affected tributary stream.

The second winning dashboard developed by Manjinder Kaur showcases data from the National Lake Blitz, Living Lakes Canada’s citizen science volunteer program with the goal of encouraging the widespread monitoring of lakes across Canada. 

“Visualizing data, especially National Lake Blitz data, is super valuable because it makes it easier for people to grasp the big picture and engage with the information,” said Manjinder. “Instead of just looking at numbers and tables, they can see trends and patterns immediately.” The dashboard can also “help raise awareness about the situation of the lakes and encourage further steps to protect them.”

Lee received positive feedback from the students regarding the value of the assignment. “Openly accessible water data housed on the Columbia Basin Water Hub empowered students to explore real-world datasets,” he reflected. “It not only enhanced student learning experiences, but also allowed them to utilize environmental data and understand its critical importance in fighting climate change.” 

The water hub’s commitment to high quality and accessible water data was recognized with an Open Data Quality Award by the Canadian Open Data Society in 2023. The award is a valuable acknowledgment of the work that’s been invested in standardized templates, quality assurance practices, data grading schema, and making the hosted data machine-readable, all of which play a pivotal role in the platform’s success. 

To learn more about the Columbia Basin Water Hub, visit:

For additional information about the water hub, please contact [email protected].