Making the most of data and decision intelligence
Digitalization and smart water technologies have significantly improved how utilities manage their operations. However, they’ve also brought about organizational and data silos that present their own set of challenges.
Andrew Swirsky, Digital Solutions Manager at Xylem, breaks down how water utilities can make the most of all data sources and get a holistic view of all processes – from assets to plants and entire water networks.
What are the greatest operational challenges water utilities face in getting the most from digital technology?
Every utility has a unique set of people, technology, processes, and tools. One common thing they all face is a growing expectation for greater digital awareness, or the need to have information readily available to support better decision-making. In a utility setting, that requirement has manifested since the 1990s as a suite of software solutions and digital platforms that have grown in individual silos to meet a specific function. This results in ‘digitally savvy’ utilities having lots of software platforms that do their specific function very well but don’t talk to each other.
By making data more open and accessible across the entire utility, operators are armed with the insights needed to optimize operations
Most utilities don’t have a good way for an operator to look at different data sources from other teams. Usually, they pick up the phone to call a colleague and wait for the information they need, which takes a lot of time. This operational lag not only impacts decision-making but also soaks up limited resources that could be better used elsewhere in the utility. By making data more open and accessible across the entire utility, operators are armed with the insights needed to optimize operations.
Utilities are already dealing with extreme weather events, aging infrastructure, evolving regulatory requirements, and limited budgets. How do those challenges impact their ability to deliver safe and affordable water to their communities?
Utilities have been operating in a challenging environment for decades, working hard to keep their heads above water. Navigating a rapidly changing environment is taxing for utilities already operating at full capacity to deliver safe and affordable water every day. This is only getting more difficult – expectations are so high, and resources are so low. The competing challenges can make investment decisions difficult – particularly large-scale capital expenditure.
By embracing technology to tackle some of these challenges, they can have a significant impact at a low cost
We’re seeing utilities reap rewards by being ambitious digitally. By embracing technology to tackle some of these challenges, they can have a significant impact at a low cost. If you look at our whitepaper, Ripple Effect: A Movement Towards Digital Transformation, you will find first-hand accounts from 18 utility leaders and water experts that demonstrate the potential of technology to transform water systems and address escalating challenges of accessibility, affordability, and resilience.
They do this by taking a holistic approach and integrating their data sets. Then, utilities can allocate resources accordingly for the greatest long-term benefit. Choosing the right partners, and the right digital platforms, and learning from the experiences of other water providers can also help them rapidly gain ground.
The solutions we are developing with GoAigua are revolutionary
What strategies and solutions can utilities harness to standardize data sources and improve operational processes?
There are some interesting examples of utilities making bold moves to bring different things together versus the microevolution of some existing capabilities. Hot Springs, Arkansas is a great example of a typical American utility that standardized data sources for operational gain. With the typical utility drivers but faced with both droughts and flooding events, it did something a little grander to solve the problem.
The utility connected all its data sources within the water distribution system, deploying additional sensors, incorporating all water meters, connecting to the water plant’s SCADA, and integrating acoustic leaks and sensors. This made a massive difference in helping them track water loss and identify leaks in real-time. By proxy, operators are also now empowered to make better decisions with their water distribution system.
This is why the solutions we are developing with GoAigua are revolutionary. We are bringing information together in a framework that can ingest data sources and give you more than a standard business intelligence dashboard. It is a smart water engine, a platform where the data can give everyone within operations visibility across the entire utility. Utilities implementing similar strategies are already seeing significant benefits.
Successful utilities show commitment by creating new roles and giving their staff time to dedicate themselves to accelerate digital strategies
Take Belforest, Alabama. It has integrated all existing data sources into one secure software and analytics platform to deliver connectivity across the utility. This eliminated silos of information from SCADA, GIS, Lab Results, Billing, and AMI, and enabled a real-time holistic view of processes and infrastructure. Creating this single source of truth for all data and systems has unlocked advanced analytics and insights on one single platform.
Another great example is the City of Houston, Texas. The utility is currently using the Xylem Vue powered by GoAigua solution to deploy digital tools like machine learning and artificial intelligence to unpack what’s happening within its wastewater network. The integrated analytics platform allows them to holistically monitor sensors situated across its entire sewer line. They unify the data and use applied digital twin hydraulic modeling to predict sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs).
So, while the City’s infrastructure is incredibly old, by bringing together data sets they can now take an intelligent risk-based approach to managing SSOs. It has been a real game-changer for the city – they’ve moved from reactive network management to proactive network management by unifying its data and maximizing its existing technology.
Looking forward, what needs to happen now to accelerate the adoption of these digital strategies?
I’m lucky in my role to work with utilities all over the United States. I get to see some of the early adopters and what has made them successful – not just from the technology implementation point of view, but the benefits and improvements that it delivers to the whole organization. There are three things that I have noticed that contribute to success.
The utilities moving forward quickly map out what they are doing today, the next quarter, next year, and beyond
The first is that these utilities have taken extreme ownership on their end. They don’t outsource their digital strategy and roles. Successful utilities show commitment by creating new roles and giving their staff time to dedicate themselves to accelerate digital strategies. That is a leading indicator of success.
Secondly, successful utilities cultivate trusted technology partnerships rather than just transactional relationships. A short-term relationship based on a handful of solutions can make it tough to get momentum. The utilities moving forward quickly map out what they are doing today, the next quarter, next year, and beyond. Then they can work long-term with partners to turn roadblocks into speedbumps.
Finally, the common theme is that successful utilities just do it. They don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Allow people to start working and allow for small mistakes or less than perfect. There will be missteps along the way, but nothing is wasted as a utility can learn, adjust, and move on.