Guest Column | December 19, 2016

Driving Your Digital Roadmap To The Future

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By Jennifer Rusch

KC Water transforms otherwise ‘useless’ zeros and ones — i.e., raw data — into invaluable intelligence for improved utility operations.

It’s the same old story: Water and wastewater utility leaders are presented with incredible challenges. Aged and crumbling infrastructures, along with heightened regulations, are creating capital needs that far exceed available revenues, and mounting utility rates are generating fatigue and frustration in ratepayers. Leaders are caught in a constant balance between the need to address existing issues and the responsibility for planning for the future. Terms such as “smart infrastructure” and “data management” are floating around like solids in a clarifier.

The mortgage and the dream vacation aside, how does a modern utility manager resist the urge to walk — no, run — away from it all? The answer may be simpler than you realize.

“I am in the business of legacy building,” states KC Water’s chief engineering officer, Andy Shively. “We are the stewards of the people and gatekeepers for tomorrow’s generation. People are our most precious resource.”

Leaders are caught in a constant balance between the need to address existing issues and the responsibility for planning for the future.

Shively’s approach has been referred to as the “people paradigm shift” — and it’s the catalyst that drives the application of massive amounts of data in Kansas City, MO. KC Water has collected more than 30 terabytes of data, and the department is adding over 200 additional gigabytes each month.

Data Management
With this quantity of records, it is not a surprise that many utility directors across the nation are now including the management of data as part of the capital improvements planning process. Technology companies, such as Microsoft and Esri, are rising to meet this need by providing suites of application products or “apps” specifically designed to help water and wastewater utilities collect, analyze, and share data. Industry organizations such as the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) and the National Association of Sewer Services (NASSCO) have also responded to this trend by releasing standards by which that data should be collected, formatted, and coded.

“The water and wastewater industry is experiencing an incredible shift in the use of information and maps,” states Mark Robbins of Esri’s Global Water Practice. “Four years ago, utilities were primarily focused on mapping their assets and tracking some information on leaks and breaks. Now, utilities are collecting and analyzing even more information as they respond to ratepayer pressure for greater transparency in proving the value of their work.”

Data management may be a hot, new topic, but Shively believes that data management is not a new practice. “Simply put, data is information. Our forefathers used information, or what we now call data, to make important decisions about our nation’s infrastructure.”

Shively further states that the smart use of data has a multigenerational effect. Like a time capsule, our nation’s aging water and sewer lines contain a deep history of information laid by the stewards who managed the infrastructure generations before.  This data is the key to unlocking answers to today’s increasing number of challenges. 

The People Principle
This brings us back to what Shively says is our most important resource: people.

“Data alone is a useless collection of zeros and ones. Our infrastructure is literally a digital road map to the future, but we need drivers to find solutions,” states Shively. ”To function, data requires the element of people — those who are willing to apply critical thinking to our collective history of infrastructure and connect data with real solutions that impact future generations.”

Kansas City is on a mission to become the most connected Smart City in the world, and Shively serves as part of the city’s Smart City Advisory Board, representing the caretakers who are helping to build the smartest city on the planet — from the ground up.

Working The Numbers
In Kansas City, Shively and his team examine all possible impacts to determine the reasons for systems failures and to make smart decisions about future investments. The first step for the team is to collect information, or data, about all aspects of the city’s water, wastewater, and stormwater system. This data includes the pipes’ dates of installation, diameters, and break histories. Shively’s team then adds people to the equation by rating the consequences of failure each pipe segment will have for the residents of the city. Through this approach, Shively has helped find multiple solutions that have proven to increase service reliability, reduce expenditures, and create smart plans to address the city’s specific infrastructure needs.

By analyzing more than a century of data, Shively discovered that certain water main segments carried higher likelihoods of failure — those segments included pipe 6” and smaller, pipe installed from the 1940s through the 1960s, and segments with histories of multiple failures. This data was used to strategically and proactively replace the city’s most critical and break-prone water mains. This 100-year plan has already reduced water main breaks from 1,839 in 2011 to only 746 in 2015.

The city’s private inflow and infiltration program, considered to be among the largest in the nation, also makes smart use of system data and feedback from residents. The program, called Keep Out the Rain, was developed using a combination of data collected through smoke testing, dyed-water testing, and closed-circuit television (CCTV) work. The data pointed Shively’s team to the areas of the city most impacted by inflow and infiltration issues. Keep Out the Rain teams are now targeting those areas to perform free sewer connection evaluations and provide free plumbing repairs that will reduce the amount of stormwater entering the system. Data helps customers find out if they are within the work areas simply by entering their addresses online. On-site evaluation teams are able to access data in real time to immediately calculate whether or not repairs are cost-effective for the city; and outreach teams use real-time data entry from the evaluators to catalog customer feedback and adjust communication efforts, which encourage participation in the program.

In 2012, Shively worked closely with the city’s information technology team and with Esri developers to create a solution to the city’s annual hydrant inspection process. The team customized an “off-the-shelf” Esri application to eliminate a paper process that was resulting in delayed repairs to hydrants. Inspection teams can now locate hydrants using a GIS and instantly upload inspection reports and pictures of hydrant defects. Work orders to repair damaged hydrants are automatically generated. This process has dropped the percentage of out-of-service hydrants from 4 percent in 2011 to a consistent less than 1 percent out-of-service number since 2013.

In 2016 Shively and his team completed a 100-year plan for strategic sewer main rehabilitation based on information provided through CCTV video data, NASSCO coding, and pipe maintenance history. The team is also launching a data-driven water main repair application which helps inspectors triage break situations in the field and quickly and accurately locate the correct valves to shut.

In Kansas City, data is a key element in providing responsive and reliable service to customers, and it supports the framework for the city’s 100-year water and sewer infrastructure investment plans. Still, the equation is not complete without industry leaders, such as Shively, to find and implement solutions that will have multigenerational effects.

“Everyone has been to the school of hard knocks, but unfortunately there is no alumni association,” remarks Shively. “We each have a responsibility to share successes and learn from failures so that we can all build a legacy for the next generation.”

Building A Better Future
This year, Shively initiated a national challenge to city leaders and utility contractors encouraging them to be proactive in finding the strategic and data-driven solutions necessary to relieve future generations of the crisis of infrastructure funding gaps that cities face today. Kansas City’s billion-dollar smart infrastructure challenge includes the use of data management to find and implement these solutions.

More information about Kansas City’s smart city approach can be found at kcmo.gov.

About The Author
Jennifer Rusch is a strategic marketing professional at Burns & McDonnell, specializing in communicating complex infrastructure programs in relatable and understandable ways. She lives and works in Kansas City, MO.