Make Your Water Utility Future Happen Today

As we go strong into 2019 and ponder the future of this industry, let’s strategize: What’s the best path forward to blend our industry’s digital desires with our global society’s basic water needs?

Mar 1st, 2019
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How to clear the hurdles inherent at the intersection of digital and damp

By Kathleen Wolf Davis

We all have desires; we all have wants — the latest smartphone, the newest version of our favorite car brand, the best upgrade on our next international flight. Those of us fortunate enough to be distracted by wants hardly ever think about our most basic needs: food, shelter, water. Food is in the fridge or at the store; shelter’s all around us all the time; and water comes straight out of the faucet.

Inside the utilities industry, though, we think quite a lot about making that water come out of the faucet — and how to make it do so on time, with pressure and as clean as possible.

And we’ve been thinking about that basic need for quite a while. The modern water industry may be one of the oldest industries still up and running, stretching back at least to the time of Roman aqueducts.

As we go strong into 2019 and ponder the future of this industry, let’s strategize the best path forward to blend our industry’s digital desires with our global society’s basic water needs. How can your water utility innovate with intent this year without breaking the bank? Here are three new ways of thinking about your digital wants that should bring better consequences without requiring more cash.

Inside the utilities industry, we have to think quite a lot about making water come straight out of the faucet — and how to make it do so on time, with pressure and as clean as possible.

Photo: Pixabay CC0

Use Your Data Details Holistically—from Clarifiers to the Cloud

Most of the modern global water industry is dealing with aging infrastructure and the problems it creates — namely water leaks. Trying to balance those problems with keeping outages few and far between — plus the growing tide of recycled water concepts — means figuring out how to make it all work together and do so better. Some upgrades are absolutely inevitable, but some won’t happen for a bit. And both the old and the new need to work together, and work together well — perhaps better than ever before. So, how do you get there?

First, you need a more timely view of the system from pipes to pumps to valves. To do so requires a lot of monitoring, some good sensors and an integrated asset performance management plan (with an eye on ISO 55000 compliance). To get that info out to the field, you need a mobile workforce strategy. And to get that information to the customer, it all needs to tie into your customer care platform.

If you can’t see everything, you can’t plan for everything — and you certainly can’t optimize everything. So, start with digital views into your pipes (real-time leak detection through flow modeling, for example) and work up and out from there, laying software onto your hardware in pieces, yes — but pieces thought out as interactive parts of a larger digital strategy.

While the water industry has traditionally been focused on the hardware and hard science of the water business, digital channels from self-service web widgets to simple tweets are all now available to keep the customer conversation interactive, educational and more transparent.

Photo: Pixabay CC0

Focus Your Information Pipelines on a Singular Touchpoint

Automation is a wonderful thing and artificial intelligence (AI) will help you work smarter and faster in the very near future (with amazing leaps in machine learning being recorded in new ways every day, from smarter outage flags to faster restoration verification). But, the planning behind that automation and AI strategy needs to incorporate very real, very human common sense. Furthermore, automation and AI need to aid that common sense, not replace it. So, rather than thinking outside of the human equation, why not plan to enhance it?

Take outage management, for example. Does your dispatcher have data coming in from every single option at the same speed? Is he or she tapped into not just the interactive voice response (IVR) but also unstructured bits coming in through the web portal, as well as insights from SCADA and AMI? And is that information grouped together in smart sets (like a repeating common source on a series of trouble calls) or is it all dumped without help or hierarchy?

Modern water utilities are now looking ahead to analytics to track issues, record those issues and even help resolve those issues. They’re looking to move from the traditional mindset of being reactive to the more proactive and prescriptive stance that’s on the horizon (but inching ever closer).

In the end, though, if each of those smarter digital pieces isn’t working together toward a larger, more comprehensive, interactive, interwoven plan that truly helps your employees work smarter, you’re still stuck in old-school reactive mode, no matter how fancy your new widgets.

Make Your Digital Customer Channels Speak Languages Beyond Billing

Water helps life grow, but some of that growth runs afoul of keeping water potable — namely in the form of algae and cyanobacteria. It’s a continual fight to stay ahead of those old foes, but these days water utilities are also dealing with modern pollutants and micropollutants, the allowable standards of which continue to become stricter and more complicated. (Europe is considering adding a number of new chemicals to water monitoring lists; and in Australia, one of the biggest concerns is now microbeads.)

As water and wastewater utilities around the world continue to invest in new tech to clean water and track issues, one area that is often overlooked is using digital platforms to push more information all the way out to the customer. Websites, mobile alerts and text messaging shouldn’t be restricted to billing issues. You’re wasting some serious ROI if you’re not repacking and repurposing some of the hard work your utility is doing to protect potable water by sharing through public-facing customer channels. Today’s customer is more of a partner; keep them informed (and keep them at the center of all you do).

This is a new driver of change for the water industry, which has traditionally been focused on the hardware and hard science of the water business. Digital channels from self-service web widgets to simple tweets are all now available to keep the customer conversation interactive, educational and more transparent, too.

It can be daunting to think about the customer every moment of every day but putting the customer at the forefront of your business is no longer an option. Issues like deferred maintenance, water scarcity, and emerging contaminants have led to an increase in customer awareness and scrutiny. You can hide from these moments, or you can use them as opportunities to make your customer relationships better.WW

About the Author: Despite a creative-minded MFA in poetry writing, Kathleen Wolf Davis has been crafting logic-based prose about the utilities business for 20 years, with pieces for publishers, associations and businesses alike. She’s currently an industry strategist with Oracle Utilities. (Connect with her on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/kwolfdavis/).

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