Letter from the Director, Feb. 2011

Dear Friends of CITRIS:

In “Water Sense,” Gordy Slack describes water as “California’s lifeblood” and the state’s water infrastructure as its circulatory system. Extending his metaphor, I would say that information and IT make up California’s brain and nervous system. For the last decade, we at CITRIS have focused our efforts there, developing intelligent technologies that help measure, track, and manage water, energy, and other key resources in innovative ways that benefit the economy, the environment, and our quality of life. 

Last month, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST)—an important body in Washington that has historically helped shape federal policies and strategy—published a major report entitled “Designing a Digital Future: Federally Funded Research and Development in Networking and Information Technology.” The report makes an urgent plea for the U.S. to redouble its R&D investment in “networking and information technology for health, energy, transportation, and cyber-infrastructure.” The recommendations unequivocally support our investment in research that strengthens the state’s IT nervous system. The report’s prescriptions also closely reflect our plans for progress in the next five years.

Professor Roger Bales at UC Merced is one of the leaders in monitoring the snowpack and understanding its effect on the state’s water availability.

The water monitoring work by Roger Bales and Steven Glaser reported in this issue of the newsletter is a good example of the synergy between CITRIS and PCAST. The Council writes that: “By developing rich ecological observing systems, we can create accurate high-resolution models that support forecasting and management of increasingly stressed watersheds and ecosystems.” The Sierra project does exactly that.

California’s cities, farms, industries, and natural ecosystems all depend on a reliable water supply.  Without this “lifeblood,” none of them can survive for long. Yet we know surprisingly little about how our biggest water storage system—the Sierra Nevada—works or even how much water it contains.  

The wireless sensor networks described in “Sensing Water”  fill that knowledge gap. Employing core CITRIS technologies, researchers will soon be able to study, track, and predict the movement of water stored in the Sierran snow pack.  This capability may be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the state’s economy each year. Possibly much more.

Water is only one of many PCAST-like foci of CITRIS researchers across our four campuses. The Council also recommends developing, for example, IT networks in healthcare. The California Telehealth Network (CTN) is leading the way in this area by linking top urban medical centers to rural clinics and doctors’ offices around the state, thereby addressing access and quality issues in these areas.

CITRIS also focuses on IT that will improve the way we generate and use energy.  For example, CITRIS helps fund and support several energy efficiency testbeds, each with a strong IT network component. These provide more than just a context for research; they also empower collaboration among scholars in the fields of policy, law, and privacy to study the societal issues engaged in real-world applications of new technologies. Three important examples of these projects, which are right in line with the PCAST recommendations, are a) the UC Merced campus, b) West Village at UC Davis, and c) Cory Hall at UC Berkeley. All three have been recently covered by the newsletter.

Dozens of our projects fit the PCAST profile. But I will only mention one more, another important water project at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and LBNL. The Floating Century uses new sensors, deployed as a network of directable buoys in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which enables Delta currents to be monitored in real time. 

Information from the mobile sensors will eventually aid in managing the efficient transfer of fresh water from the Delta to Southern California, the protection of the Delta’s vulnerable system of dikes and levees, the monitoring of water quality, and the management of the area’s endangered species and ecosystems. It is another great example of how sensors and IT networks can be fused to save money for Californians, develop new products and industries, improve quality of life, and help protect the environment.

Using the PCAST report as a framework for future investment in this kind of work will yield enormous benefits to society. What a wonderful endorsement of the vision behind CITRIS!

Paul K. Wright
Director, CITRIS and the Banatao Institute at UC Berkeley