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Innovators Try to Solve California Drought During 'H2O Hackathon'

Teams had 9 hours to come up with an creative and practical way that Californians can limit their water consumption to help alleviate the effects of the drought.

by Alex Breitler, The Record, Stockton, Calif. / October 12, 2015

(TNS) -- Eight teams. Nine hours. One monster drought.

Stockton’s first “H20 Hackathon” ended Friday with some creative plans to slay that monster drought — ideas like text messages that warn you in real time if you’ve exceeded your water use goals, or games you can play on your smartphone as a reward for taking shorter showers.

If you’ve never been to a “hackathon,” imagine brainiacs buried in their laptops, at tables covered with energy drinks, scribbled-upon notepads and half-empty pizza boxes.

The concept is simple: If you've got a problem, 50 heads are better than one.

And deadlines are good motivational tools. If you’ve got nine hours to put together a proposal and present it to a panel of judges — starting essentially from scratch — you might be surprised how much you can accomplish.

“I’m not a tech person. I am so out of my field,” 19-year-old Elizabeth Diaz said with a laugh as her team from San Joaquin Delta College put together the finishing touches on its plan on Friday afternoon.

But that’s what the day was about — learning and sharing.

Diaz’s team whipped up a conceptual app that water users could load onto their smartphones. The app, “Shower Power,” would entice people to spend less time in the shower each morning.

First, it would play their favorite song while they shower so that they know exactly how long they’ve been in there. No excuses.

Second, and more importantly, users would earn points for taking shorter showers. The points are applied to a game designed by Diaz's team. The more points users gain, the longer they can play the game.

“We just wanted something very simple, and the best way we could think of was to bring a fun game into it,” Diaz said.

That was just one idea sprouting from Friday’s hackathon, which was planned for the better part of a year by San Joaquin County government officials, educators, business groups and entrepreneurs.

One team of seven high school students from across the county worked with IBM experts to devise their own water-saving app. The students had no coding or programming experience at 8 a.m. Friday, but by 5 p.m. they were sharing a detailed PowerPoint presentation with the judges.

Their plan calls for placing sensors on shower heads, faucets and sprinklers. The sensors would track water use in real time, sending text messages or tweets that let users know how they're doing.

“You conserved 2 gallons today! Keep up the good work,” one sample tweet trumpeted.

The tweet for those exceeding their goal was less positive: “Save your water or we will contact the authorities." The tongue-in-cheek message cracked up the judges.

Some plans were grandiose in scale. Stockton inventor Derric Juano suggested using geothermal heat to desalinate ocean water, by digging a shaft plunging miles below the Earth's surface and sending the saltwater through a reverse osmosis filter on its way toward the bottom. The brine would be pumped back to the surface, while the intense heat would transform the remaining freshwater into steam that would spin turbines to generate the power needed to run the system.

There’s no shortage of creative thought when it comes to California water.

“I heard quite a few great ideas today. It got people thinking," said Bill Ries-Knight, a Stockton computer tech who suggested an app giving farmers real-time information on stream flows, water conditions and the nature of their water rights for whatever parcel of land they happen to be standing on.

Friday’s ideas are just that — ideas. Creating a real app is a whole different task.

But don’t be too surprised if, one day in the future, you find “Shower Power” on your phone in the app store.

“We did all of this today,” Delta student and team member Gabriel Marrujo said. “And we’re very proud of it already.”

©2015 The Record (Stockton, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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