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Democratising access to water data with FreeStation open access monitoring technology and the WaterWorld web-based spatial policy support system


Mark Mulligan is Professor of Physical and Environmental Geography at King’s College London and Honorary Fellow of UN Environment – World Conservation Monitoring Centre. He has worked with a large team of PhD students on a variety of topics in the areas of environmental spatial policy support, ecosystem service modelling and understanding environmental change. This research is at scales from local to global and with a particular emphasis on tropical (montane cloud) forests in Latin America and semi-arid drylands in the Mediterranean and Africa. He is developer of a range of open datasets at and open-access web- based spatial policy support systems at These include hydroclimatic and land cover datasets and the WaterWorld hydrological and Co$tingNature ecosystem services modelling tools. His research involves fieldwork around the world and he is also developer of a range of open source, web-connected, instruments for environmental monitoring through the FreeStation and FreeSensor initiatives.


As high quality water supplies dwindle whilst our demands on the remaining resource increase, implementing changing water policy, managing land and water and assessing the effectiveness of grey or green interventions to improve water resources become increasingly important. Landscapes are now complex mosaics of natural and human land uses each with poorly known impacts on water quantity, quality and regulation. These green infrastructures are interspersed with expanding and ageing grey infrastructures including dams, reservoirs, water treatment plants and water transfer networks.

Beyond water companies, there are many newly active stakeholders in water resources management including major commercial water users (agricultural and industrial), conservation and development NGOs and government regulatory authorities. Water information asymmetries between these organisations are significant, with NGOs in particular having limited access to the tools and data that might support efforts for a more sustainable use of water.

WaterWorld is a sophisticated open-access, web-based spatial modelling and mapping tool which provides data and information to help understand the hydrological baseline for anywhere in the world. It requires no user-supplied data and runs entirely in a web browser, making use of vast archives of high resolution remote sensing and crowdsourced global datasets. WaterWorld can assess the hydrological baseline at a local scale (1ha resolution), by major basin or country (1km resolution) or globally (10km resolution). As well as understanding the baseline, it is capable of mapping changes in water quantity, quality and regulation for user-defined scenarios of land use, climate, land management or water management change. WaterWorld democratises access to sophisticated spatial data in a simple, accessible interface, reducing the information asymmetries in water resources development.

However, not all water resources questions can be assessed through modelling. In-field monitoring is sometimes the best or the only option for better understanding current water resources or assessing the effectiveness of a water resources intervention. However, hydrological modelling has been declining over the last 30 years due to reduced budgets for national monitoring agencies and a greater focus in these institutions on short term project work rather than consistent long term monitoring, as well as increasing costs for increasingly specialist monitoring equipment. Even where a significant initial investment in monitoring is made, maintenance costs for equipment are sometimes prohibitive and prone to trade and import challenges, so monitoring networks soon degrade. FreeStation has been developing open-access, low- cost, robust, high-accuracy, reconfigurable, DIY monitoring solutions since 2014. Our designs are easy to build, easy to transport and easy to maintain. FreeStation provides a turnkey solution including hardware, firmware and online data management/analysis platform. Users can build all manner of hydrological monitoring equipment at a fraction of commercial prices enabling much more extensive deployment and greater local control over configuration and maintenance.

Together WaterWorld and FreeStation help democratise access to water data supporting a much broader base of stakeholders to help solve the water resources challenges that we all face.

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