Managing data flow
Radical ideas are needed to reduce the amount of water being lost. According to the Consumer Council for Water, 3.1 billion litres of water are lost every day in the UK from leakage. What can be done to stop this?
Water firms have begun to explore how Big Data can be used to tackle the problem. The concept is simple, even if the work to do it isn’t. It’s telemetry on a massive scale: bringing together lots of information about water use or loss from multiple sources. Add in the factors that influence the rate of losses and you have a dashboard that helps decide the inputs you make. But it requires a lot of computing power to get there and complex analysis to get it right.
UK Water, the body which coordinates work between the UK suppliers, has started a focus group specialising in data and analytics as part of the British Water Technical Forum. The two areas of focus for the industry are network management and sustainable water management.
Technical Director Marta Perez says: “At its first meeting, members of Data & Analytics Focus Group vowed to work towards a code of practice to advise UK utilities and their supply chain. The data and analytics experts also propose to compile a glossary of technical terms to streamline the way language is used across the industry.”
They are latecomers to the idea: the Smart Water Networks Forum (SWAN) has already been sharing best practice from utility firms in America, Asia and Europe for more than three years.
Organisations working with the utility firms have already been using the data analysis to reduce water loss.
The Met Office, using its access to massive computing power, needed to calculate weather changes to advise UK water firms. Nicholas Law, senior account manager at the Met Office, has been telling IT leads at utility firms that data can help them be better prepared.
“A solution we developed to help better manage severe weather is our new ‘Freeze-Thaw’ warning and alerting capability. The model analyses specific combinations of forecast weather elements, that when combined can cause an impactful freeze-thaw event. An early alert of a ‘freezing and thawing’ event gives a water company enough time to prepare an appropriate response and better manage resources.”
Is this a game-changer?
It’s a change that the big players don’t want to keep to themselves. UK Water, in its 2050 innovation strategy launched last month (see here), says it wants to see “systemically rethinking innovation practices, culture and enablers in the water sector.
“This means that innovation extends well beyond new technology… and spreading and scaling what works, so that we achieve maximum benefit.”
Later this month, British Water – which represents the waste water industry – is bringing together experts to explain the benefits for smaller operators such as cutting costs, increasing sales, more accurate pricing and becoming more agile to compete with bigger rivals. They say: “Companies need to turn their data into usable information to increase efficiencies”.
While data analysis on a large scale offers benefits, there are challenges, most obviously the issue of data sharing. Two years ago, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), began a review into how Big Data could help improve its future work to tackle flooding, and found that a lack of access could limit potential gains.
Defra says: “Sharing of data is often restricted by licencing arrangements and a risk-adverse approach to sharing what can be seen as ‘sensitive’ data. A possible solution would be the creation of ‘safe havens’ for people to access and work with sensitive data.”
Then there is the issue of translating the results of large-scale analyses into real-world actions. Julie Spinks, managing director of the Water Regulatory Advisory Service (WRAS), says: “After you collect data, you’ve then got to persuade people to do good things.
“The conversations I’ve had around building design show there’s a bigger opportunity in Smart Metering and getting people to know their plumbing and water use, and to identify losses. There’s also designing out faults.”
And when it comes to water efficiency – where urgent action is needed to prevent critical shortages – some would argue that simply raising awareness of the issue and taking practical steps to improve things could result in faster gains than switching to a data-led strategy. CIPHE technical manager Jerry Whiteley says: “Net-zero carbon targets dominate the agenda whilst the use of water, a finite resource, still does not command the public and legislative attention required.”
At a day-to-day level, installers have yet to be convinced about data and believe better quality products and workmanship will help more.
Mick Iles, former Surrey CIPHE branch chair, is an installer with 30 years’ experience. He says: “There are better things we can be doing. Manufacturers have tried to make things more efficient but some of the toilet valves are getting far too complex. When they fail, the system still works so people don’t bother repairing them – and the waste goes on.
“A lot of it is down to education and good system design. Sometimes the expectations of the client are different to what the regulations want and what the manufacturer claims.”
Even small businesses can use data to help plan work and improve marketing:
Maintaining an active presence on social media not only allows you to market your business easily, but channels such as Facebook offer useful insights from individual reviews to wider patterns of use – for example, which of your posts generate big reactions, and what kind of people are looking at your page.
If you have a company website, Google Analytics is a free tool that you can use to monitor how many people are looking at your site, when and how they’re accessing it, and which pages they’re visiting most.
Take advantage of services that already harness Big Data, such as long-range weather forecasts and economic predictions, to work out when your customers are most likely to need and be able to afford your services.