Young innovators solve water at the 2023 Xylem Global Student Innovation Challenge

Young innovators solve water at the 2023 Xylem Global Student Innovation Challenge

Winning university-level team uses data science to tackle marine pollution.

More than 1,000 students from 78 countries took part in the 2023 Xylem Global Student Innovation Challenge. The competition, now in its third year, invites young water innovators to solve critical water issues facing communities around the globe.

The winning teams, recognized at a virtual ceremony on June 16, shared a $20,000 prize pool and a place in Xylem’s Ignite Innovation Incubator. The Xylem Global Student Innovation Challenge is part of Xylem’s global youth program Xylem Ignite, which focuses on inspiring and empowering the next generation of water leaders.

Learn more about the 2023 grand prize winner in the tertiary (university) category: The Ocean Rescuers team from India, Hong Kong and Pakistan.

Eighty percent of plastic waste in the oceans comes from land-based sources, including inadequate waste management services that can lead to trash being dumped or spilled into local waterways. The Ocean Rescuers team set out to find new and practical ways to solve this challenge, deciding to focus their efforts on India, where plastic waste generation has significantly increased in recent years.

Drawing from information from Global Plastic Watch, The Ocean Cleanup and other publicly available sources, the group used data science and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to develop an innovative and in-depth scoring system to identify, map and rank high-risk plastic pollution sites or hot spots in the country.

They then proposed simple, practical and actionable solutions for one high-priority dumpsite, including educating the community to segregate plastics at the household level, and separating and securing plastic waste at the dumpsite to prevent it from being blown into the nearby sea during storms.

While the team’s approach initially focused on India, the model they developed for analysis and solution-seeking can be applied to other regions to help communities and concerned citizens identify and mitigate plastic pollution hot spots where they work and live.

Read the full case study.

“The Ocean Rescuers team had a very systematic and comprehensive approach,” said Chiara Lucia Tregnago, member of the Engineering Leadership Development Program (currently in Product Management) and head of the 2023 Xylem Ignite Global Student Innovation Challenge. “They took this problem, fully broke it down, and then proceeded step-by-step in a really structured and sophisticated way to solve it. It was thorough, creative, and easy to follow and understand. And they tackled all the different aspects in the complex challenge statement.”

Meet the Ocean Rescuers Team

Khushi Yadav, an undergraduate studying artificial intelligence and data science at Guru Tegh Bahadur Institute of Technology in New Delhi, India.

Why did you join the Challenge?

Coming from India, I have seen many water challenges. Being from a place where the rivers are worshipped, it’s painful for me to see polluted rivers. So that was the reason for me to join this challenge and bring some change in the world.

Why should others take the Challenge?

You should join the challenge because the process of breaking down a problem, especially a real-world one, is fun! The big problem is made of 100 smaller issues, but then you're so dedicated to it you think about it day and night. I enjoyed looking for solutions. You find more about yourself when you tackle these problems.

What was the best part?

The best part of participating in the Challenge is to make friends from all over the world. Deanna and I both took part in the program in 2022 and have been friends for over a year – what’s better than that?

Deanna Yi Nam Xu, an undergraduate studying land surveying and geo-informatics at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong.

What was the most challenging part about the competition?

The hardest part was how to assign different scores to each dump site… to develop a formula or grading system to rank the highest or most serious dump sites. We tried different methods as this was not our expertise. We spent some time researching online about how to calculate the scores in order to be more objective. That’s how we found we can use some codes to automatically assign different weights and consider different factors, or that some factors may have higher weight. Through this iterative process, we eventually got the final scoring and selected our final dump sites in India.

What did you learn from the Challenge?

You will really grow a lot after participating in this challenge. You learn more skills like how to communicate with different team members or how to deal with data science. You need to know how to collect the data – this is real data not imaginary figures. You are utilizing real data that may be helpful or useful in terms of suggesting a practical solution.

Muhammad Ahsan, a computer engineering graduate from Bahauddin Zakariya University, in Multan, Pakistan, who is currently in an advanced cohort of Amazon Web Services’ Machine Learning Nanodegree program offered by AWS to only 500 scholars.

What helped make your team’s research and analysis so robust?

The beauty of our project was not just utilizing technology but we also considered local information and a variety of local environmental factors that impacted the site.

Where do you want to take this project next?

I think we should have the opportunity to visit the site physically, I believe that it will be more helpful so we can get to know the local environment more. [The team will also continue to advance their model for change through Xylem’s Ignite Innovation Incubator, a program that supports participants in building out and scaling solutions.]

What’s the best part of being on a team from different countries?

The main benefits of including diversity in the team is that we learn from each other – from being with members of different communities.

Stay tuned for part two of this story featuring this year’s grand prize winner in the secondary (high) school category – Team WASTE2H from Porto, Portugal.

Learn more about Xylem Ignite.