Photo by Michael W. May

Protecting health and water with an open standard for automated data exchange

Welcome! Swim Guide, a program of Swim Drink Fish Canada,  developed the first every standard for exchanging recreational water quality data.


  • Create a single standard for presenting recreational water quality data, so that different people monitoring different waters can share their results

  • Make the standard open, so that everyone can see it and shape it

  • Ensure data is shared in a machine-readable format (i.e., not pdf, not csv, not RSS) so that sharing is easy and automated

We are always looking for input to refine the standard for the automated exchange of recreational water quality data. 

Read on for more information.

About the Open Data Standard for Recreational Water Quality Project

The purpose of recreational water quality monitoring is to protect public health from contaminated water. Even where water is tested, however, it can be very difficult for the public to get an answer to the question “is it safe to swim?”

Hundreds of counties, municipalities, park organizations and nonprofits regularly test water for indicator bacteria, algae, and/or other harmful pollutants. The data should be shared quickly (within 24 hours) and with as wide an audience as possible in order to help people avoid waterborne illnesses; yet, this rarely happens.

The public faces four common barriers when they try to understand the health of their beach or swimming hole:

  1. Access. Much of the water quality information collected is never published. It lives in data silos that are not accessible to the public.

  2. Ease of Access. Public water quality does exist, but it can often be hard to find. It may be buried on websites or phone hotlines that aren’t easy for people to locate.

  3. Clarity. The data is presented in a way that is difficult for the general public to understand and usually differs from place to place.

  4. Age. When data is shared, it is often very out of date. Many places, for example, still only publish annual or monthly testing results.

Lack of water quality information means that people - often unknowingly - swim in contaminated waters. Studies from the Environmental Protection Agency estimate the between 3%-8% of people experience acute gastrointestinal illness (AGI) after swimming. An estimated 3.5 million Americans get sick each year. In Canada, the number is approximately 400,000.  Children are the most likely to get sick.

The main reason water quality is not shared more widely is because there is no standardized way to present data.

Since 2011, Swim Guide has spent thousand of hours each manually compiling water quality information from websites (some using legacy technologies), phone hotlines, and spreadsheets so that nearly 3 million people can access beach water information. Meanwhile, regulators in different countries struggle to consolidate water quality results from different communities to inform policy and funding decisions.

That’s why we decided to develop an open data exchange standard for recreational water quality information.

An open data standard will increase data exchange, improve public awareness of water quality, and aid researchers trying to protect recreational waters. The initiative will reduce the number of people getting sick from contact with polluted water and increase the number of environmental protection plans for communities affected by pollution.

The Open Data Standard for Recreational Water Quality project is funded by the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA)’s Community Investment Program.