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SmartPort Project to Collect Crowdsourced Sediment Data

The Lower Mississippi River SmartPort and Resilience Center project will collect crowdsourced sediment and shoaling data from eight ports along the Mississippi River to gain insights into obstacles affecting river traffic.

Grain terminal at Mississippi River bank in Louisiana
The Mississippi River winds its way through Louisiana, functioning as a major thoroughfare for river traffic.
Ports along the Mississippi River in Louisiana will begin working with the Water Institute of the Gulf, an applied research nonprofit in Baton Rouge, to better understand shoaling dynamics — the movement of all of sediments — and create a technology tool to share the shoaling data with river operators and researchers.

The project, known as the Lower Mississippi River SmartPort and Resilience Center — or SmartPort — will establish what organizers are calling “America’s first smart port.” It will take depth and shoaling data collected by the many vessels on the river, like tug boats, barges and others, along with official survey-grade data, to develop a crowdsourced tool using artificial intelligence to help predict when and where shoaling will occur.

“We use artificial intelligence and machine learning to correct for the imperfections that we’ve collected from these working vessels, so that we create a virtual army of data collectors from the vessels that are working the river every day,” said Justin Ehrenwerth, president and CEO of the Water Institute.

“We’ve developed an app to harvest that data, beam it up to the cloud,” he added.

The two-year project received a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, which was met with $1.4 million in matching funding from the state of Louisiana and other partners. The project will collect shoaling and sediment data from eight major ports along the Mississippi River stretching from northern Louisiana, near the Arkansas border, to the Gulf of Mexico.

The raw data will be made available publicly, allowing it to be used for other uses beyond the SmartPort application. The data can be used in other water-related projects, like the state’s sediment diversion program and other areas.

“We’re confident that there will be application and use of this data that we are not imagining today,” said Ehrenwerth.

The project marks another example of using crowdsourced traffic data — in this case, river traffic — to gain insights into overall river conditions.

“There is a remarkably large amount that we do not understand about the movement of sediment on the Mississippi River. It is incredibly dynamic. The advantage of this crowdsourced methodology is that we will be able to have a very good look at a pretty significant stretch of the river,” said Ehrenwerth.

And since the buildup of sediments on riverbeds and in ports is an issue common to all water commerce operations, the potential to scale and develop this project in other locations is generous, say officials.

“You see these issues in the Missouri [River], the upper Mississippi [River], the Ohio [River], and in rivering environments all over the world,” said Ehrenwerth. “We hope that we can develop something that is useful to all of us here at home, but also can be shared broadly around the country and beyond.”

In Louisiana, port activity is a significant contributor to the state’s economy, where the port system and port-reliant industries contribute more than $180 billion into the economy annually, according to Louisiana Economic Development (LED). Louisiana ports generate about $60 billion annually in export business.

“The technological efficiencies that SmartPort will bring to maritime commerce are bound to provide tremendous benefits to multiple layers of Louisiana’s economy,” said Don Pierson, secretary of LED, in an email to Government Technology.

The project has also been heralded for its collaboration among ports, research organizations and state agencies, with the Water Institute at the center.

“What we try to do is be a collaboration and innovation hub, bringing together folks from the university community, from government, the private sector, to try to forge solutions to some of the biggest water-based challenges that we face,” said Ehrenwerth. “Everything from coastal hazards to inland flooding. And a real focus for what does this mean for our communities? What does it mean to be resilient? How do you measure that?”

The data collected from numerous vessels traveling the river will also be shared with the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) for the research into land loss and other areas it is involved with.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.