On digital transformation and how knowing is better than believing.
As sensors, maps and other types of information become increasingly accessible to water utilities and to cities in general, we can combine data sources like never before. In fact, engineering and urban planning are undergoing a fundamental revolution: instead of relying only on imagined versions of reality, renewed every 20 years or so, we can now increasingly observe that reality in detail, and continuously adapt and improve our infrastructures and service.
An increasing proportion of a water utility’s key business processes are now capable of benefitting from data and factual knowledge in order to improve efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability, and manage risk. By key business processes, we mean those that are specific to the nature of public utilities, and their delivery of an efficient, effective, sustainable service.
Digital brings with it significant advantages. But we also need to realize it is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The fact is, those business outcomes haven’t changed. Water utilities continue to strive to maximize service quality; control non-revenue water in water supply, or infiltration & inflow, in wastewater; optimize capital investments and infrastructure asset management; make sure revenue is well accounted for through meter & client management; control risk exposure to public health or business-related hazards; and keep improving and adapting to the changing city, urban behaviours and climate challenges.
The current global trend towards digital transformation is inevitable, but we need to remember that data has been a part of water companies for quite some time. Utilities have always collected billing data, of course; many have had GIS or Autocad maps for long, and have collected maintenance data (work orders or similar) to varying degrees; and SCADA or other forms of telemetry are common, if not yet ubiquitous.
By its very nature, data systems are always a work in progress — so much so that, given the resources and time vested, many water professionals often see a half-empty glass. The pull is great to wait till everything is perfect. However, decisions continue to be needed every day, and we almost always find that there is enough data to make significant progress — that is why we prefer to see it as a half-full glass.
The digital transformation we are talking about focuses on basing more decisions on existing data and on expert analytics (AI or otherwise) — and growing from there to decide what data is most needed next. Most utilities that we come across have some data to start from. What they often require is the confidence that yes, you can do something with those data, and yes, you can reconcile data from diverse sources — GIS, billing, SCADA, CMMS — efficiently and for good purpose.
Water infrastructures are not just sets of pipes, pumps, meters or facilities. They form systems that behave together to provide a service 24/7, now and in the long run. Anything we do to some part of the system’s components is bound to affect the system as a whole and the service it provides. Partitioning our approach into parallel strategies that originate in different parts of the organisation may improve problems locally, but hardly stands a chance to improve the whole.
Over the last decades, the generation of data systems that have pretty much been the staple of the water sector — billing, GIS, SCADA, maintenance, models — have been and continue to be excellent at their respective roles; but they often duplicate and scatter data, strategies and decisions. They were born to provide local efficiencies, and often lead to creating silos that do not mix. Who amongst us isn’t familiar with stories of how GIS ‘belongs’ to this department, or how billing data never reaches engineering less than 6 months out of date?
It’s one set of infrastructures and one organisation — so why should different units develop different representations and diverging views, leading to piecemeal strategies and sub-optimal application of resources? We absolutely must make it possible that all available data gets reconciled and contributes to a common view, driven by the organisation’s expert knowledge. Not only everyone sees the same picture, but that picture is informed by the best available information, knowledge and analytics in the organisation.
That is why we believe in a fundamental shift in the way we organize data in a utility and how data and decisions in those silos must interact to achieve even greater global efficiencies. At Baseform we’ve designed our system to be end-to-end, absorbing and reconciling all relevant data so that we can both offer the best local efficiencies, but make sure they are achieved in the best interest of the whole.
We believe that this vision and our software can make a difference, to the water sector but also to the way in which cities make use of this essential and ever scarce resource.