Hydrological Sciences

100 Ideas to Communicate the Value of Hydrology

100 Ideas to Communicate the Value of Hydrology

Hydrologists are a pivotal part of modern societies where the delivery of enough clean water to populations relies on their decisions to manage complex systems of resources. Flood hydrologists develop and operate computer models with the aim of meeting the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) long-term ambition that “no one is surprised by flooding”. Despite this critically important dual role of resource and risk management, the value of hydrology, and hydrologists, is not clearly visible to wider society.

In April this year (2021), I started a new role at the Environment Agency in England. Leaving academia after 12 years, I joined a project called the Flood Hydrology Improvement Programme, where one of our key roles is to deliver actions laid out in the UK’s 25-year Flood Hydrology Roadmap. Co-produced by the hydrology community in the UK, the Roadmap identifies key gaps in our knowledge and representation of hydrology, both in research and operation, and a plan of actions to address these over the next 25 years. As part of that Roadmap, one of the first tasks I have been set is to develop an activity to engage people with the societal value of flood hydrology.

This is a challenge, not because flood hydrology has no societal value but because of the position it finds itself in. Whether we are looking at forecasting flooding or planning for future floods, as hydrologists we find ourselves sandwiched in the middle of a modelling chain, with meteorologists upstream of us, providing crucial inputs to our analyses, and hydraulic modellers downstream, using our outputs to create flood maps. Both of these fields have similar messages to hydrology but have the benefit of being highly visual, with naturally engaging data outputs like weather charts and flood maps. In contrast, the humble hydrograph is often the best visual tool we have to share our work.


Humber in a Box’ by my SeriousGeoGames project merged a hydraulic model with software used to make videogames, exploiting the highly visual nature of the model outputs in virtual reality.





Being stuck between these two fields that are so effective at their communications – imagine having a five minute TV slot after each News bulletin to talk about hydrology – my challenge requires me to really be creative and proactive. In her book, How to Save the World, environmental designer Katie Patrick outlines a method called an ‘idea storm’, where you quickly write down 100 ideas. She describes this process as like peeling an onion, the first few will be your most obvious ideas but as you go deeper you make new connections that reveal better and better ones.

This then, was how I came about finding 100 ideas to communicate hydrology and its value to society. You can find the full list at the bottom of this post. There is a mix of new and old ideas. Some have been made before, others are too bonkers to ever be feasible, but hopefully there is something in there that sparks an idea in your head. My next step will be to review this list with my colleagues and pick out a few to explore and develop further.

The goal is to persuade people of the value of flood hydrology, particularly operationally, and communicating how it helps us make crucial decisions that help make sure no one is surprised by flooding. My opinion is that the ideal activity would use self-persuasion, a social psychology concept that involves people forming their own perceptions based on actions they take. Such an activity would use self-persuasion by placing the user in the shoes of a hydrologist, contriving a scenario where they need to make the sorts of decisions hydrologists do every day, using the same data, models, and methods that hydrologists do.

It is no surprise then that many of the ideas are game-based, games are the perfect tool for encouraging players to make decisions and take actions from a new perspective. There has also been a long love affair between hydrology and games – check out the HEPEX games and presentation by Maria-Helena Ramos there. Additionally, for a field that relies heavily on computer models, there is also the intriguing potential offered by the fact that our computer models share many elements with video games, something I explored in a Pint of Science talk last year.

Take a look at the list of 100 ideas below. I am not going to pretend that I fully embodied the theory that the ideas get better throughout the list, I am not sure I peeled back many layers! However, there might be something in here that sparks an idea, in which case why not roll with it and see where it takes you – just make sure you share it with the rest of us. With regards to my challenge, I will keep you posted.

100 Ideas

  1. A slider tool on a hydrograph that visualises a river level as you move it left and right – could use virtual reality
  2. The above, but using augmented reality so you can stand at a physical location and visualise water levels as the slider is moved
  3. Model of Everywhere game – narrative-led roleplay video game where you are controlling a hydrological system. Takes players through each part of the system and how it is modelled
  4. Tactile tabletop demonstrator, using projection mapping and 3D printing to create an explorable 3D model of system, taking users through different elements of hydrology (e.g., using concept of PARM model)
  5. Minecraft.EDU activity where players have to collect data and build a simple rainfall-runoff model to predict water levels and determine best times to water plants
  6. Escape room where players have to collect information to manually calibrate a rainfall-runoff model in order to escape
  7. Participatory simulation activity where players have to negotiate based on uncertain hydrological outputs – can choose to invest in better data and models to improve outputs
  8. Card game where players trade components to build a functioning hydrological model – possibly linked to a digital and augmented reality version where they see it working
  9. As above, but co-operative
  10. A ‘physical’ rainfall-runoff model to visualise how the models work (like Rolf Hut’s Rube Goldberg machine)
  11. A ‘physical’ model to show how river systems work (like Onno Bokhove’s Wetropolis)
  12. Climate stripes style representation of change in annual maximum or recurrence of 1-1 year floods (as an example) to highlight non-stationarity
  13. As above, but with low flows and droughts. Highlight how climate change is making both extremes worse
  14. Science fiction short-story (or competition) to explore the concept of Models of Everywhere – what is like to be ‘in control’ of a Smart City’s hydrological system. What could go wrong?
  15. Physical model demonstrating the land-based components of the water cycle (like Water cycle in a box)
  16. Citizen inquiry methods to involve communities in the monitoring and modelling of their local catchments
  17. A PARM-style catchment model for a catchment where users can move sensors around to inform a model they set up
  18. A series of well-produced videos introducing flood hydrology and its value – different videos for different audiences
  19. Digital storytelling using Arc Storymaps to visualise and map narratives of the value of hydrology – ie, hydrology to forecast flooding, hydrology to plan for flooding
  20. A series of videos from hydrologists describing their jobs and why they think it’s important
  21. As above, but using digital storytelling like Storymaps
  22. A ‘Geoscience for the Future’ style web site that highlights the value of hydrology, promotes EDI within the community, and provides resources and engagements with schools
  23. Webinar series on the value of hydrology to society
  24. Podcast series on the value of hydrology to society, speaking to hydrologists on the frontline about what they do
  25. Hydrology in a box demonstrators that can be sent to schools
  26. As above, but linked to weather stations schools might have (schools have this but underuse them due to lack of lessons plans)
  27. As above, but expand to get schools to develop and maintain a hydrological model of the school itself
  28. As above, but expand on TAHMO’s school-to-school programme to include hydrology
  29. ‘Hydrology in a box’ demonstrators that can be sent to flood wardens and local groups
  30. A hydrology board game where as you move through the board you collect pieces to build a monitoring and modelling hydrological system
  31. As above, but co-operative
  32. Using an Emriver mini-flume and 3D printed flood management structures to demonstrate ‘slowing the flow’
  33. Live streaming hydrological modelling on Twitch simulating ‘what-if’ scenarios in a gaming style
  34. A museum exhibit on hydrology and its value to society (see Liz Lewis’ Flood! exhibit at the Great North Museum
  35. An art exhibition exploring the value of flood hydrology (see work by Louise Arnal)
  36. Toolkits for community-based monitoring of hydrology (e.g., more work by Liz Lewis)
  37. An RPG-Maker game that explores hydrological themes – e.g. a quest to uncover the historical hydrological data to help save a city from a floody disaster
  38. A game-jam for hydrology-themed games, connecting teams of developers up with hydrologists (could link with Climate Game Jam)
  39. As above, but put these games into arcade cabinets
  40. As above, and get artists to decorate the cabinets
  41. As above, and take these on tour
  42. As above, but an explorable gaming environment (e.g. could use GatherTown to create a hydrology gaming arcade)
  43. Work with games developers and HEPEX to create user interfaces and mainstream games on the HEPEX website
  44. As above, but put these games into arcade cabinets
  45. As above, and get artists to decorate the cabinets
  46. As above, and take these on tour
  47. As above, but an explorable gaming environment (e.g. could use GatherTown to create a hydrology gaming arcade)
  48. Work with Ordnance Survey (UK mapping agency) to create hydrology walking tours of catchment, featuring interactive elements and augmented reality to share information about hydrology and implications for flooding
  49. Use ‘Hello Lamp Post’ to allow people to interact with hydrology features (e.g. gauge stations)
  50. A MOOC on hydrology and its value to society
  51. As above, but also training for participation in hydrology monitoring and modelling
  52. Interactive presentation of the land-based water cycle, allowing people to explore in different levels of granularity
  53. As above, but in virtual reality
  54. As above, but using augmented reality (Magic Leap?) (e.g. WWF’s Free Rivers app)
  55. A lego demonstrator of hydrology – like the Atkins model, but include some sensors and visualisation of flow data
  56. A lego demonstrator of the conceptual elements of a rainfall-runoff model
  57. As above, but as a kit that can be sent to schools
  58. As above, but local flood wardens and groups
  59. Combination of board game and videogame to allow interactive modelling, through participatory workshops
  60. Street games exploring the hydrology of a local area (e.g. like Downpour! but greater focus on hydrology)
  61. A review of the hydrology in video games, such as SimCity and Cities:Skyline (see Volcano Gameplay for ideas)
  62. An immersive exhibit that allows you to walk through a conceptual hydrological model
  63. A ‘choose your own adventure’ story where you are a rain droplet travelling through a hydro model, with probabilities of where you travel next – you roll a dice to see where you go. As more players play, ie more rain, we begin to build a collective hydrograph together
  64. Hydrology detectives – players must piece together past observations and sources of historical information to uncover the mystery of the flood
  65. Hydrology horse racing – which flood are you going to back in the race? The 2 to 1 favourite or the 100 to 1 outsider. Metaphor to help people understand that return periods are probabilities, not literal
  66. Online game that shows impacts of different decisions on model response – could be like flood defender, but parameter/data choices instead of management
  67. A hydrological model builder set up in a similar way to the Scratch coding language
  68. Using above in combination with a physical demonstrator, like an Emriver, to get people to build and set up a model. What data would they collect, how would they collect it, what are the weaknesses of their model?
  69. Inclusion of modelled forecasts, and the chance to improve their accuracy, in a flood version of EarthGirl
  70. As above, but probabilistic forecasts
  71. A GatherTown hydrology game museum (I’ve already made one of these)
  72. A science sharing session on games and hydrology-related topics (already done, Games 4 Geoscience V coming soon!)
  73. A Games Night for hydrologists (also done, EGU Games Night V also coming soon!)
  74. Establish a community to connect researchers with games developers for environmental issues, like hydrology and flooding (Gaming Environments Discord – join here)
  75. A study into the parallels between models and games? Are they the same thing with different uses?
  76. Of course they are – so let’s just gamify our models a bit more
  77. And games developers could include our models into games!
  78. Resources to help people explore the hydrology of their local area – possibly an app to photograph and map hydrological features. Combine with geocaching?
  79. A Top Trump set for rivers
  80. A community-based project where they create their own hydrological model and only use data they have collected themselves to run it – they share their experiences with a blog and videos.
  81. A documentary film based on the above
  82. Produce resources for individuals and community ‘maker spaces’ for the creation of hydrological instruments – i.e. raspberry pi driven rain gauges
  83. The above, but with a website where people can report their results and visualise them against other, and quality control them against global observation datasets
  84. As above but get Rolf Hut to invent us something cool for it, like his acoustic disdrometer
  85. A ‘wacky races’ style competition to create new hydrometric sensors – the more outlandish the better
  86. Add a hydrology element into ‘Photosynthesis’ to show the value of woodland to flood risk
  87. Discussion pieces about how we would include more environmental elements into games like SimCity and Cities:Skyline – e.g., need to manage surface water flood risk and manage heat risks in the city
  88. Then encourage the developers to add them in! Or find someone who could develop it as a Mod-pack of Cities.
  89. Add a full hydrological cycle to the game, include the requirement to develop forecasting and warning systems (and challenges of running them!)
  90. An online training portal with gamified UI to provide a familiar framework for those unfamiliar with modelling
  91. As above, but make available on gaming platforms like Steam. Let people make, adapt, and use hydrological models on Switch, Xbox, Playstation etc.
  92. As above, but gamify the whole process. A level-based puzzle game where you need to put different elements of a model together and calibrate them to progress.
  93. Build physical rainfall-runoff models for catchments using scaled 3D printed maps and spray coloured water onto it – could also be useful for calibration (where surface flows dominate!)
  94. Twitch series exploring the interface between hydrology and gaming – how is water represented in games? Talk about the science, talk about the games development, as games are played by presenters
  95. Ladybird-style book describing the various roles of hydrologists.
  96. Website of hydrology information and resources for different levels, using Antarctic Glaciers as a model
  97. As above, but ensure that search engine optimisation is embedded throughout
  98. Hydrology Olympics (Hydrolympics?) – competitors have to complete a range of challenges to answer hydrological questions. For example, a timed challenge to see who can manually calibrate a rainfall-runoff model best
  99. A ‘marble-run’ set up to show the flow of water through a hydrological system.
  100. Visualisation that merges scaled hydrographs of different return periods into a 3D model of a river. Could 3D print these.


Edited by B. Schaefli

Chris Skinner is a Senior Hydrologist at the Environment Agency, part of the Flood Hydrology Improvements Programme team. He specialises in numerical modelling and has researched across hydrology, hydrometeorology, hydraulics, and geomorphology. He is a passionate science communicator, having founded the game-based projects SeriousGeoGames and Earth Arcade , and is a co-founder of EGU’s Games 4 Geoscience session and Geoscience Games Night. Views expressed here are his own.

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