Data Monetization: Water and Wastewater Utilities in the Information Age

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Measuring the value of physical assets is a thorny task for companies in any industry, but assessing the value of something as nebulous as data is even more ambiguous.

On its own, data has no intrinsic value. In fact, its extrinsic value is only revealed once the data is processed. So, after bits and bytes are analyzed – thereby revealing patterns and anomalies – companies can derive value from the data by implementing systems, processes, and incentives that improve decision-making capabilities and performance. Therefore, data becomes extremely valuable once it can be leveraged to increase, or at least preserve, the value of assets and the companies that own and manage them. That same data can be used to help workers become more productive and effective as well.

The challenges associated with data are exacerbated when the industry is a laggard in data collection. Such is the case with water and wastewater utilities. How can they monetize their data and improve profitability by generating top-line growth and reducing costs?

Often water and wastewater utilities are already mired in significant and complex demands and constraints. Aging infrastructure leads to pipe bursts and consequential water loss; service line corrosion leads to lead contamination; disinfection by-products create chemical hazards; strained sewer capacity leads to overflow events; and water scarcity in drought-stricken regions – these are just some of the problems utilities confront. Within utilities’ often sprawling networks of assets there exist virtually infinite possible failure points. Waste and inefficiency can manifest themselves nearly anywhere. Operators face increasing pressure from regulators, who are imposing more stringent standards. Fortunately, these difficulties are surmountable – or at least manageable.

Using a granular, data-driven approach affords water and wastewater utilities the opportunity for achieving effective and sustainable management of their infrastructure and resources. Given the sheer number of factors at play and the often complicated interconnections between them – including feedback loops and time delays in cause and effect – common sense and back-of-the-envelope approaches will only take analysts and decision makers so far. Data fusion and analytics software tools capable of processing and correlating large volumes and different types of data can automate or facilitate insight extraction.

Complications and bad decision making occur or persist where information is lacking in quality, quantity or is missing altogether. For water and wastewater utilities, data collection is the first and most important step in the right direction. With baseline measurements of the state of their networks, operators can evaluate problems, decide upon and implement changes, and collect data continuously to assess results. This becomes an iterative process.

But it’s also a big change for these utilities. While virtually every industry today produces huge volumes of data, the water and wastewater sectors are often the exception. Utilities oversee extensive networks of distributed assets, and establishing and maintaining visibility within these networks presents obstacles. But that can change.

In a 2011 essay published in the Wall Street Journal, investor Marc Andreessen wrote, “Software is eating the world.” The premise of his thesis is that computers, microprocessors, and the modern internet have been developed and improved over several decades. Collectively, these technologies now run businesses and industries on software and deliver them in the form of online services.

Water and wastewater utilities are now in the early innings of a digital evolution. This evolution also combines new innovations in sensor and communications technologies that is collectively being referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT) or the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). By improving data acquisition capabilities, utilities will move more seamlessly into the Information Age.

But nothing is without risk: as this industry evolves, cyber threats become more salient.

Ensuring the cybersecurity of water and wastewater utility information technology infrastructure is tantamount to ensuring the security of their physical infrastructure, the public, and the environment. SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems and other ICS (industrial control systems) that leverage data gathered from remote monitoring systems are only as secure as the weakest link in the network.

Measures needed to reduce the attack surface size for infiltration include using secure communication protocols, encrypting data, and identifying sensor and gateway tampering. Progressive utilities that use sensors to create data collection nodes throughout their network are at an advantage relative to those less sophisticated utilities that collect little or no data at all. But utilities that understand the importance of securing their SCADA systems and ICS are truly forward-thinking.

Utilities can monetize data and realize rapid and out-sized returns on investment using turnkey, cybersecure, cost-effective data acquisition solutions. Water and wastewater utilities that understand this opportunity and capitalize on it will lead their sectors into a more resilient and prosperous future.

Contributed by: Tal Avrahami, a Senior Product Manager at Ayyeka. Tal brings to Ayyeka nearly a decade of experience in the resources, cleantech, and financial services sectors. As Senior Product Manager, he is responsible for the vision and execution of Ayyeka’s product development, including generating product features, prioritizing the development road map, and developing marketing strategies. Tal received his BA in Political Science from Amherst College and MS in Sustainable Systems from the University of Michigan.


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