Big data in action: the water industry

Big data in action: the water industry
Published: 
October 2012

For the next in our series big data we look at how data capture and analysis is starting to transform the management of our most precious resource: water.

It used to be an industry of chemists and engineers, now, it’s as much about strength in intelligent systems, data capture and smart analytics.

Water may or may not be the next oil, but whether we end up fighting wars over it or not, how we manage the most vital of all resources is under scrutiny.

Big numbers – in human and economic terms – are tied to the availability of water. The UN has estimated that the majority of the world’s population will be affected by water shortages within the next 20 years. And the World Bank has put a figure of $20 billion on the economic advantages of tight water management – reducing loss from evaporation, leaks, theft, etc.

South East Queensland certainly knows about water. Extreme weather – from drought to floods to storms – and the pressure of a growing population are an ongoing challenge. There’s either too little or too much of it, or the water is all in the wrong place, it seems.

While water leakage in Australia is acknowledged to be among the lowest in the world, Australia’s irregular pattern of water distribution and vulnerability to extreme weather events puts a premium on the value of reliably getting the right amount of water to where it’s needed.

Big data – collecting and analysing information on an unprecedented scale and frequency – is part of the water manager’s toolkit. “It used to be an industry of chemists and engineers,” says Nina Meyers, Chief Information Officer at Queensland Urban Utilities. “Now, it’s as much about strength in intelligent systems, data capture and smart analytics.”

Queensland Urban Utilities supplies around 125,000 megalitres of water to 1.3 million residents and almost 5000 businesses every year (about enough water to fill 50,000 Olympic swimming pools). To do this, the business operates 18,000 kilometres of mains pipelines, servicing clean water and sewage needs around the region.

That’s a lot of wet stuff to move around, and a lot of people depending on it being delivered (or removed) reliably.

Paul Belz, General Manager of Planning, explains that intelligent systems have been part of a remote monitoring program for over two decades. Data feeds from pumping stations, sewage plants and reservoirs deliver information to the central control systems on a range of measurements.

However, the exponential growth in the ease with which data can be collected and sent via mobile or radio back to base means that the business is working with ever more information.

The challenge now, says Nina Meyers, is to find the right analytical tools and smart systems to sit on top of the data and to interpret it in order to assist management in decision-making processes.

“There are trends both to bring expertise into the business to manage this kind of analytics, and there are a growing number of third-party cloud-based bureaus who take the data and provide it back as tailored reports,” she says.

USEFUL WATER COMPARISONS

  • 2.5 megalitres = 1 Olympic swimming pool
  • 1 megalitre = enough water to cover 1 hectare (100m x 100m) to a depth of 10 cm
  • 1 gigalitre (GL) = One thousand million litres (one billion) = approx. 400 Olympic swimming pools
  • 1 Sydney Harbour (Sydharb) (the amount of water in Sydney Harbour) = approx 500 gigalitres or 200,000 Olympic size pools.

Source: New South Wales Irrigators’ Council

The big data story is also about taking previously disconnected data – like water levels in a reservoir and water pressure in the sewage mains – and linking them with other sources of information, such as Bureau of Meteorology rainfall and storm predictions. Data then becomes a predictive tool. “We can spot where problems are likely to occur and act in advance of big weather events to make repairs, adjust pressure, release water and so on,” explains Paul Belz.

Combined with a GPS system that tracks the location of every Urban Utilities vehicle at any time, the maintenance fleet can also be brought into action, speedily.

“Predicting problems and getting repairs where they need to be at the right time means we can continue to provide the services our customers expect and rely on.”

Nina Meyers believes that big data will have a real impact on the industry by reducing the amount of ‘non-revenue water’. This isn’t simply water lost when the system springs a leak; it is water that is stolen or simply not adequately billed for. Here, smart metering systems look set to come into play.

In 2006 the Wide Bay Water Corporation began a phased installation of Australia’s first city-wide residential automatic water meter system, with associated data capture, billing and management systems. Smart meter readings have the potential to paint a detailed picture of consumer demand across regions and time, and in response to restrictions, price changes and climatic conditions. Visit the website for more information.

Smart meters work both ways, of course. They allow the consumer to better understand their consumption patterns, and thus to manage use more cost effectively. “For now,” says Belz, “smart meters for water remain expensive, but as the cost comes down it is likely they will be adopted broadly around Australia.”

Without question, any big data story raises the issue of privacy – who is collecting such detailed information about consumer behaviour and are we happy that the government knows so much about us? Nina Meyers stresses the importance of developing new levels of data governance, to manage privacy and retain customer trust.