The 7th Annual Smart Water Systems Conference, presented by SMi Group, brought smart water experts from around the world to London for two days in April. As an event partner, Water Online had interview access to event speakers — including those from some of Europe’s largest water providers — who were surveyed on trends and challenges in smart water. With more centralized operations in Europe, smart water practices are a bit easier to implement and therefore further along the curve “across the pond” relative to U.S. adoption. There is no denying, however, that we are all headed down the same path, so it’s wise — even for us Yankee laggards — to pay heed to the words of the European vanguard. Read on to hear the thoughts of four smart water experts on four key questions.
Ben Earl, Water Efficiency Manager at the Southern Water Services1
Bert De Winter, Chief Innovation Officer, De Watergroep2
Kevin Murray, Metering Technology & Solutions Specialist, Irish Water3
Ben Evans, Data Governance Manager for Dwr Cymru Welsh Water4
What are the major trends and developments in the water industry?
Ben Earl, Southern Water: As water companies offer more convenience to customers through initiatives such as paperless billing and direct debit payments, the direct relationship with customers is being lost at the very time we need to have more of an ongoing conversation to solve issues such as water stress or blockages in the sewer network. Ensuring that we continue to offer more convenience to customers but also have the opportunity to develop active relationships is one [area] where new technologies can play a massive role.
Bert De Winter, De Watergroep: An important trend that is reflected today in almost all industries is that data is the new gold. Better exploitation of existing data and the additional collection of data from the primary business process, production and distribution of drinking water through IoT [the Internet of Things] and AI [artificial intelligence] will lead to further optimization of the entire process chain and cost reduction. But it will also lead to new services and possible revenues for the water companies.
Kevin Murray, Irish Water: In my view, the trends are not consistent yet and are often masked by local legal and regulatory environments. There does seem to be a greater appreciation that water services are not isolated from other utility services, possibly as a consequence of the growth of the smart cities initiatives worldwide.
Ben Evans, Welsh Water: The volume of data available within the water sector has increased dramatically in recent years, partly due to the volume of data collected. Water companies collect large volumes of data already, including flow, chemical concentration, laboratory, water supply metering, customer usage, engineering, asset performance, maintenance, and construction data. The major trends and developments for me are around the adoption of geospatial analysis, which in turn increases the sectors capacity to quantify and monitor water supplies and fluxes over large spatial scales; as well as the in-situ technologies emerging, including high-resolution water quality sensors, automated water meter networks, and precision agriculture solutions that monitor hydrologic and meteorological variables such as soil moisture, precipitation events, and snow pack levels. These technologies provide the sector with better information around ‘crop per drop’.
Where do you see the biggest potential for growth and development in smart technologies in the next five years?
Ben Earl, Southern Water: I think it is with making sense of the mountain of data that is flooding into the water companies as more and more metering is rolled out. This information contains masses of detail, but often the key obvious actions that flow from the analysis is not implemented and so the real benefits for customers are lost. A clinical focus on getting to the heart of the message is important, and then really prioritizing what assistance can then follow for customers to ensure success is vital.
Bert De Winter, De Watergroep: I think that the greatest potential comes from the further development of various sensors and lab-on-a-chip technology that has the potential to measure and monitor the quality of drinking water in real time. This offers numerous advantages, both in the classical production process and in the decentralized production of potable water.
Kevin Murray, Irish Water: I think that we may see more integration of multiple water management systems, including revenue metering, at the cloud level — with greater opportunity to turn that composite data into meaningful actions for both the utility and its customers.
Ben Evans, Welsh Water: In my opinion the biggest potential for growth and development is driving the business forward through digital, with many utilities turning to digital strategies in customer service functions to support self-serve and multichannel engagement. There is a cost driver behind this growth: The optimization of customer-facing staff — where they have the most impact — will in turn improve customer interaction and, as a result, performance and credibility within the sector. The opportunities through digital are far-reaching, and the ability to provide maintenance staff with real-time information and updates on job instantly improves the right first-time rate, and customer satisfaction in turn improves due to better information flows.
What are the key requirements, challenges, and successes for handling the data we retrieve from these developing smart technologies?
Ben Earl, Southern Water: Integral to the water efficiency program at Southern Water is the development of meaningful partnerships that increase the spread of engagement and ensure that tangible benefits are realized. We are concentrating on those harder-to-reach customers using smart data analysis to find those with higher consumption and the suitable partners that are helping us to concentrate that support. Crucially, it is about doing this whilst taking into consideration the important changes to data protection legislation that all companies and organizations are going to have to work under in the future.
Bert De Winter, De Watergroep: If we look at the totality of objects that will eventually deliver data over the entire process chain from water source to customer, then the amount of data that we have to handle as a drinking water company will explode. It will be important to use Big Data technology and artificial intelligence to be able to handle this amount of data and to gain new insights from this.
Kevin Murray, Irish Water: I don’t think the major concern is to solve the interoperability challenges between different data gathering technologies, systems, and protocols. This problem becomes moot if we can integrate data harvesting at the cloud level. The major challenges may well be around the areas of cybersecurity, data security, and data protection. More and more, we will be challenged to demonstrate that the data is being used to good effect.
Ben Evans, Welsh Water: The key requirement for me, above all else, is governance. The sector needs to understand three things: where the data is coming from, who has had access to the data, and [whether] the data been manipulated. Only by understanding the answers to those three questions can we equip ourselves with trustworthy data to inform better decision-making. The challenges for handling the data become easier when we have trust in the data we are using, and the ability to aim data at specific problems to resolve becomes clearer and more understandable. The successes of using the data retrieved form smart technologies will change the way the industry works; we will become better equipped with information to drive insight, we will know more about our services and their performance than ever before; and our customers will receive improved services and build a stronger connection with their water providers.
What are the current barriers preventing the water industry become as successful at using smart as other utility sectors?
Ben Earl, Southern Water: The smart water industry offers real cost-effective solutions to assist water companies in delivering key programs of activity. However, in my view the sector is too heavily concentrated on simply analyzing data and creating new gizmos. A focus on psychology and behavior techniques ensures that you take all your customers with you, not just those into the latest technology.
Bert De Winter, De Watergroep: In my opinion, the investment in smart IoT technology is still seen too much as a pure additional cost and too little from the point of view that it can thoroughly improve and automate the entire process chain.
Kevin Murray, Irish Water: I think the biggest challenge for the water sector is to see revenue metering as part of the mainstream of water network management. The development of “Infrastructure of Things” architecture creates the possibility to retrieve a lot more operational data than previously considered possible by the “big architecture” technologies. These new technologies may lower the investment costs for communication systems which have been barriers to investment in extensive monitoring in the past.
Ben Evans, Welsh Water: Current barriers are around data availability and the ability to source the data, interpret the data, and make this accessible for the rest of the business.
1Ben Earl is the Water Efficiency Manager for Southern Water, where he is developing future strategy, implementing new business models, and delivering ambitious water efficiency targets. Before working for a utility, Ben was Climate Change Advisor and then Environmental Affairs Manager for B&Q, where he delivered key business sustainability targets and improvements to products purchased by customers. Ben’s early career was spent working for several politicians before major roles in the charitable sector.
2Bert De Winter is Chief Innovation Officer at De Watergroep, the largest drinking water company in Flanders, Belgium. He is the owner of the smart metering project at De Watergroep. He holds a degree in computer science engineering and a bachelor's degree in biotechnology. He has been working for De Watergroep since 2009, where until the end of 2017, as director of ICT, he has ensured the outsourcing of operational ICT, the rationalization of the application portfolio and the digitization of business processes. Between 1990 and 2006, he worked for the Agfa-Gevaert international imaging group at its head office in Belgium. He has worked in the central research and development division, where he has mainly worked on new imaging systems for the graphics and healthcare sector.
3Kevin Murray is the Metering Technology and Solutions Specialist in the Asset Strategy function of Irish Water, and was formerly the technical lead in Irish Water’s Phase 1 Domestic Metering Programme. Kevin holds a Master’s degree in Engineering Science and is a Chartered Engineer and a Fellow of Engineers Ireland. He is also a member of the Water UK Revenue Metering Network and is the Ireland representative on the CEN TC/92 (Water Meters) standardization committee. Kevin has considerable business experience and is a former director of Cork Chamber of Commerce and a former Deputy President of Chambers Ireland.
4Ben Evans has over eight years’ experience creating and delivering change strategies for large-scale, complex programs of work with a focus on business transformation, multifunction process improvements, procedure design, system development, strategy deployment, and cost-effective improvements. He is currently responsible for the implementation and oversight of the Dwr Cymru Welsh Water data management strategy (WISER) and its goals, standards, practices, processes, and technologies.
Image credit: "Brains!," Hey Paul Studies © 2012, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/