Data-driven path to water security

Schneider Electric

By Simon Zander, Water and Wastewater Segment Manager, Schneider Electric
Monday, 21 September, 2020

Data-driven path to water security

Water is the critical component of life, underwriting food security and economic productivity. As the United Nations warns, water scarcity affects every continent with more than one in five people impacted by water shortages. Therefore, water utilities have a responsibility to champion innovation to deliver sustainable water services and safeguard water security.

With the recent pandemic added to the equation, water networks are under even higher pressure with increased and variable demand profiles.

To generate the insights needed to drive a sustainable shift, data is being used to uncover potential savings and efficiencies. Being ‘data driven’ means an organisation is using trusted, quality data to inform decisions. This is not a new concept — it’s a concept that has been around for decades.

At a recent industry panel with Karen Davey-Thorpe, DAMA, and Jacek Krutak, Department of Transport for the Queensland Government, we discussed some of these challenges and the potential solutions. One of the core themes was data driven, which is a popular phase now because marketers are using it to sell a range of tools. The truth is that while many tools are more readily available, organisations continue to fail to be data driven because tools on their own can never enable this. The path to becoming data driven is much more complex than that.

Remote and continuous monitoring of operations can enable digital solutions to provide data-driven preventive adjustments as part of the proactive management of systems.

So it is not the technology holding us back, the real factors preventing businesses from being data driven are predominantly organisational.

In order to have data that is both secure and suitable for supporting optimised performance and informed decision-making, an organisation needs to ensure it recognises the need to have the right skills and capability to support the lifecycle of good data management located throughout their business (vertically and horizontally). That is, it needs to build data management quality and security practices into the organisation so it’s the ‘norm’ or ‘the way it’s done around here’.

Many global companies plan their data management and systems to take into account the cost of these over time. These companies budget for people, processes (training) and platforms over the whole lifecycle of their needs. For many companies, this is in perpetuity; however they use the life of the software system as the planning horizon. On the other hand some organisations fail to plan adequately. If only the capital costs of the platforms have been budgeted and the management of the systems (people and processes) are not taken into account, companies are less successful in achieving their efficiency goals.

We know our water utilities need to be more efficient. Many still have very manual processes and a basic level of data management and security practices and capabilities. There is a significant opportunity for the industry as a whole to leapfrog other industries. Utilities with an outwards focus will do this by learning from the experience of others within and outside the industry across areas such as data definition and design, tool selection and cybersecurity.

However, they also run the risk of repeating the mistakes of the past. By trying to purchase tools that retrofit into the existing process they run the risk of using technology to remain trapped in the past. Secondly, many companies that embrace data-led approaches overstep in the collection of data. It is often viewed as more is better so companies over-collect from customers, leading to a breakdown in trust.

While the efficiency of data collection has been debated for many years, the efficiency of installing the instruments to collect that data is probably a more important fact to consider. For example, the Water Corporation of Western Australia is the largest water authority in the world by area served. They have invested heavily in remote monitoring systems due to their broad area of operation.

So when a new asset is brought online, the actual act of installing the monitoring equipment can be expensive, due to travel times needed for highly qualified resources. In this case, monitoring more signals than usual can be used to reduce the need for costly site visits. The first wave of monitoring in the water industry was purely for operational needs; however, the next wave of monitoring will be for asset management benefits as well. Schneider Electric can offer many different connected products, that is, typical electrical products that can be connected to the internet, which can provide an indication of the assets’ health.

By connecting these products to apps and analytics that are hosted in a cloud computing system, asset performance information can be gathered. Many water utilities are geographically spread out, such as the Water Corporation of Western Australia, or are in highly congested areas, such as Sydney, where travelling across the city can take hours. Having access to this asset performance data saves unproductive human visits to the assets. The assets can be managed centrally, so that human visits are programmed when absolutely required.

It’s disappointing to see organisations repeating the mistakes of others. They always think they can do it fast or cheaper, but history shows that’s not true.

You can’t really ‘digitally transform’ if you don’t know what your desired end state in terms of customer outcomes is. Designing an organisation around that outcome which is data driven will allow you to exploit the value of the various digital technologies.

Lastly, cybersecurity is a board-level concern and risk to manage, so it needs to be considered as a critical part of not only transformational activities, but also BAU. Unfortunately, cybersecurity is often undervalued or overlooked as a key foundational block.

Scalable, smart solutions can meet customer needs using modular systems to select the functions they need to tackle the problems they are facing, whilst being scalable to meet the changing needs over time.

By using the data available, we can build water infrastructure that is more sustainable and efficient than ever before. This is a challenge that all the companies that support the water industry globally are tackling together.

Note: This article is based on a panel discussion by myself, Karen Davey-Thorpe and Jacek Krutak.

Image credit: ©

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