As sensor technology becomes more prevalent throughout the water utility industry, the need for software systems to make sense of this flood of data is becoming increasingly critical. Data presentment and business intelligence tools that provide new insights to improve operations may leave utility managers with a broad set of competing priorities. In addition, the adoption and implementation of these new technologies can be both expensive and disruptive to long-standing business processes.
As a software provider to the water utility industry, WaterSmart has a front row seat to these challenges as well as the benefits that new data and communications solutions may offer. We regularly field questions from utilities interested in learning more about the state of ‘Smart’ technology adoption across the industry and whether their utility is keeping up. This led us to initiate a project to learn more about the leading trends related to ongoing technology transitions throughout the water sector.
"We regularly field questions from utilities interested in learning more about the state of ‘Smart’ technology adoption across the industry and whether their utility is keeping up."
In practice, dealing with large quantities of data is not new for water suppliers. In fact, water consumption data has been around for a long, long time. Excluding early prototypes described by Frontinus in ancient Rome, the earliest commercial water meters were designed in the mid-nineteenth century and became widely deployed by the 1890s. Well before the advent of interval meters, radio enabled meter registers, and fixed wireless networks that form the basis of modern Advanced Metering Infrastructure, utilities were capturing information on water consumption, leaks, distribution pressure, water quality and turbidity, customer bills, and many other data points that impact the operations and business of nearly every water utility.
There are some well understood characteristics of data and how it informs decision making. Most importantly, the more information we have access to, the more we understand the potential for what we can know, and that in turn generates demand for more information. We are also able to make better decisions with higher quality information, which leads to improved efficiency and better outcomes. Finally, more quality data leads to new, innovative solutions to what were previously considered intractable problems.
As outlined by Charles Fishman in his 2016 New York Times article, ‘Water is Broken. Data Can Fix It,’ our collective lack of visibility into water information is one of the largest impediments to improving the reliability of our national water system. By gathering, integrating, and analyzing information from across various functions within the water utility, we collectively have the opportunity to drive new innovative solutions and help deliver improved water services, while enhancing system resiliency. This recognition is one of the primary factors leading to more interest in, and demand for, new information technology solutions across the industry.
While dealing with data is not a new discipline for water utilities, there are two recent trends that are making the craft of data management increasingly difficult. First, the quantity and frequency of data that modern, digital utilities are forced to deal with is exponentially greater than it has been for previous generations of managers. More sensors and radios throughout procurement, treatment, and distribution systems means an order of magnitude greater volume of information to contend with.
This makes deriving insights from such data that much more challenging. Second, the challenge of growing amounts of data is compounded by the increasing siloization of the information. Point solutions are often deployed by different departments throughout the utility to address individual challenges related to specific data sets. However, this data is rarely integrated in a meaningful way to make it possible (if not easy) to make holistic, informed, data-based decisions across the utility.
For example, a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system is used by the operations team to monitor water production levels and manage the health of the distribution network. This system relies on sensor information that resides in the treatment plant, throughout the distribution pipes, and at the lift gates and district pump stations. The customer service and billing teams, however, rely on entirely different technologies and data sets such as the Customer Information System which is generally the ‘system of record’ for all meter-to-cash related operations.
Since these two data sets live in isolated silos, it is very challenging to cross reference production and consumption data to support water balance reporting, leak detection, or how water operations impact revenue collection or customer satisfaction.
Data storage, business intelligence software, and other advanced analytics packages are not typically within the domain expertise of a water utility manager. Even larger utilities that have the luxury of dedicated IT resources struggle with the increasing complexities of data management and associated technology systems. Let’s face it. This stuff is difficult, and only a persistent and dedicated investment to realize the benefits of data will realize the promise of the modern, digital, water utility.
"Even larger utilities that have the luxury of dedicated IT resources struggle with the increasing complexities of data management and associated technology systems."
To better understand how utilities are thinking about ‘smart’ technology from Advanced Metering Infrastructure, to meter data management, to customer self-service and engagement, WaterSmart initiated a survey of dozens of water suppliers to learn more about the state of their current technology investments, the challenges they are facing, the reasons for those investments, and, particularly, how they are using modern communication technologies to engage with their customers.
Take a look at the report and see how you fit into the adoption curve and how you might overcome some of the inevitable challenges faced by utilities when deploying new technology solutions.