Big Data Making Waves in Utility and Investment Communities

WEFbanner2columnBy Barry Liner, Ph.D., P.E.

Smart water infrastructure and big data are starting to attract funding both from investors and utilities after years of capturing the water sector’s imagination. Automated Meter Reading (AMR) and Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) have been around for decades, but improved sensors, advanced analytics, and visualization tools are now enabling utilities to better partner and interact with their customers.

Smart water infrastructure technology has the potential to reform delivery of services while raising the quality of life by helping to make cities more sustainable and resilient. The smart city movement encompasses many facets, such as smart buildings, energy management, transportation connectivity, information connectivity high speed data networks, and, of course, water management.

Opportunities from smart city programs are exciting to contemplate, but two factors really serve as the primary drivers for a city or community to implement smart city initiatives – achieving cost efficiency and sustainability. In terms of actual implementation, water utilities trail natural gas and electric utilities in the implementation of smart initiatives. About a third of all natural gas utilities and one quarter of all electric utilities report being engaged in a smart city initiative, while only 15 percent of water utilities claim to be.

While smart water practices are increasing in adoption, the barriers to implementation in the water sector are generally well known and include siloed communication within the utility and between infrastructure sectors, the need to justify ROI, lack of budget, and lack of resources and expertise. Additionally, at the municipal level, sometimes short-term, high-visibility smart infrastructure projects such as street lights, digital kiosks, and electric vehicle charging systems may gain funding approval more easily than water-related initiatives. Master planning efforts to integrate water, energy, communications, and transportation systems are complex and come with a longer time horizon, which might make them comparatively more difficult for decision makers.

Opportunities abound, however, such as the potential of cloud-based platforms to facilitate implementation of these big data solutions at utilities of all sizes.  Small investments in hardware and software are required for cloud-based computing which aligns well with resource constraints of small and medium-sized utilities.

Utilities implementing smart water practices must consider six key aspects of a big data platform: integration, analytics, visualization, development, workload optimization, and security and governance. Integration is critical to have one platform managing the data, as separate silos of data only create separate silos of insight. An integrated solution has to be bigger than one technology. Analytics tools are used to analyze the data, providing more sophisticated, accurate, and actionable information. Visualization tools bring the information into a form that is understandable by decision makers, be they utility managers, government officials, or customers. Development tools are needed to enhance the analytical and visualization engines as well as support the overall platform. Workload optimization focuses on efficient processing and storage of the data. Security and governance are critical for maintaining the sensitive data that must be protected, which is especially important for public sector agencies including many water utilities.

As more and more utilities implement smart water practices, the opportunities to harness big data are growing rapidly. In March 2016, Imagine H2O announced the winners of its Water Data Challenge competition. These innovative startup companies provide an indicator of the momentum toward providing big data solutions. While water and many other resources have been called “the new oil,” big data has earned this cliché moniker for nearly a decade as well. The big data analogy to oil is quite appropriate since oil has little value in its raw form, but when refined, it can power the world. The same can be said of big data. The water sector has a huge amount of data, but that data must be refined into information to spur utilities and customers to knowingly take action.

Sensors are one of the biggest sources of big data, and the water sector is particularly rich in sensor data. Smart metering, inventory management and asset tracking, fleet management, SCADA systems, and water quality instrumentation are major sources of sensor data.

The Nutrient Sensor Challenge exemplifies one effort to advance sensor technology. The Challenge is an innovation effort to accelerate the market for the development, adoption, and use of sensors to measure nitrate and orthophosphate in water. The goal is to encourage development of sensors that are affordable (less than US$5,000 purchase price), reliable (unattended operation for 3 months), and can provide accurate real-time data. The Challenge, which seeks to accelerate these new technologies to commercial availability by 2017, is being sponsored by Alliance for Coastal Technologies (ACT). ACT is a partnership of research institutions, state and regional resource managers, and private sector companies, supported by US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Environmental Protection Agency funding, whose purpose is to develop, improve, and apply sensor technologies to study and monitor coastal environments.

Private investment from venture capital firms are helping companies that provide solutions associated with many aspects of big data platforms to advance at a rapid rate. For example, XPV Water Partners (Canada), one of the world’s leading institutional water funds, counts the US firm FATHOM as one of their portfolio companies. Based in Phoenix, Arizona, FATHOM is a software-as-a-service, cloud-based, geospatial data integration platform helping to enable water utilities of all sizes to unlock the power of their meter and customer data in order to increase revenue, decrease costs, and delight customers. Emerald Technology Ventures (Switzerland) recently invested in Optimatics, an Australian firm providing infrastructure planning software that uses genetic algorithms to optimize capital investment for water and wastewater utilities.

Imagine H2O, a global water innovation accelerator, conducts water infrastructure challenges that produce companies advancing technologies for analytics, sensors, and visualization. From the analytics arena, 2015 winner Valor Water (San Francisco, California, USA) provides customer sales analytics software to water utilities to address revenue risk, affordability, and supply management. Finalists included FLOWatch (Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, USA), which provides integrated asset management software for water and environmental systems operators, and Dropcountr (Redwood City, California, USA), who uses data analytics and mobile apps to communicate water usage and metrics to consumers and utility staff. On the topic of sensors, finalist Lumense (Atlanta, Georgia, USA) is developing a real-time, continuous sensor platform for monitoring chemicals and biologicals in water, while fellow finalist Aquarius Spectrum (Israel) features a near real-time, automatic water pipe monitoring tool for leak detection based on acoustic sensing.

Like Imagine H2O, The BREW accelerator program at the Water Council in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA has seen an increase in big data-related participants from the city. The most recent class included Optiktechnik, which makes laser-based, optical sensors and instrumentation to improve monitoring and control of key particle processes in water and wastewater treatment. Radom creates instrumentation to identify toxic trace metals in water, wastewater, industrial processes, and food and drugs. Current Data is a watershed-focused water quality data collection and information system using a sensor array and mobile app with cloud storage and analysis tools to lower the costs of data collection and increase its use in critical water quality decisions. In the BREW’s inaugural class, Meter Hero focused on water consumption data and social networking to drive conservation programs.

Drinking water and wastewater are not the only categories of water sector advances in big data. On the groundwater front, Wellntel, provides a real-time understanding of well and surrounding water table dynamics, provided through constant measuring and reporting of water levels. Both Imagine H2O and the Water Council’s BREW program recognized this firm for its innovation. Managing stormwater in real time is the focus of both EmNet and OptiRTC, while companies like H2Ometrics provide cloud-based visualization tools to better plan stormwater and sewer operations.

Cloud-based solutions provided by innovators will help water utilities of all sizes advance smart water infrastructure. Smart water innovation has even emerged from firms better known for other IT sectors such as network giant CISCO or mobile devices leader Qualcomm.  With innovations developed by entrepreneurial startups and large companies including IBM, GE, and OSIsoft, an exciting future is already underway for big data solutions in smart water infrastructure.


Authors Note

Barry Liner

Barry Liner is the director of the Water Science & Engineering Center at the Water Environment Federation (WEF).

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Megan Barillo

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