For years, the water industry has been thought of as a slow moving sector that’s resistant to change. This makes it difficult for startups to come up with creative solutions and iterate on them quickly. Water utilities are filling up with new, vast amounts of data that can be utilized to create unforeseen jumps in operational efficiencies and margins. But it’s difficult for startups to build and test solutions because the water industry doesn’t want to change its status quo. This creates an unfortunate barrier for modern technologies to enter the water market. Why is it relevant now? Why do we need to care about it?
Winter is coming
After years of prolonging and promoting the status quo, time and change seems to be catching up with the industry. A change appears to be on the horizon, not only technological, but also psychological. Two key elements have sparked this potential inflection point within the industry -- 1) rapid decay of our nation’s water infrastructure 2) proliferation of low cost internet connected devices.
Pipes seem to work just fine. What’s the big deal?
A large portion of our nation’s water infrastructure is either approaching or has passed its useful life. One might say -- So what? Well, this decaying infrastructure promotes the waste of water resources via leakage and pipe bursts. They also contribute to the introduction of harmful elements into the nation’s drinking water -- look no further than the lead crisis at Flint, Michigan. Not only is it irresponsible to waste our most precious resource, it’s dangerous too.
Where’s the data?
In addition to replacing the physical infrastructure elements like pipes, one might also wonder about the IT infrastructure. Luckily, given Moore’s Law, we have seen an amazing increase in processing power coupled with an equally amazing decrease in prices; especially for hardware devices. The age of internet connected devices is upon us when you look at sensors, smart meters, and so on. This ecosystem of internet connected devices is collectively referred to as Internet of Things (IoT). This system allows the industry to collect, analyze, and act upon real-time data coming into their IT systems.
How do we analyze that data?
The internet connected devices generate a lot of data continuously. One might wonder -- Why do we even need fancy techniques to analyze the data? Why can’t we just use thresholding and call it a day? Well, the good ol’ ways of using manual thresholds to make huge business decisions are not sufficient anymore. The complexities of modern data far exceed the simplistic techniques that people use. We need a machine that can analyze sequential data and extract relevant insights from it. This machine should be capable of adapting to shifting baselines, prolonged delays between cause and effect, learning to detect new anomalies, and so on. A human looking at spreadsheets and manual processes is not going to help you manage your modern infrastructure. This is where Deep Learning becomes extremely relevant. People tend to think of it as some dark magic. It is actually a really effective tool that understands sequential data from sensors like no other technique ever has. It’s beautiful in so many ways!
As of right now, the world is only in the 4th inning of the IoT revolution and the US water industry might be even further behind than that. With that said, the future looks potentially bright when one considers the power and responsiveness of the real-time monitoring capabilities the IoT devices offer. Additionally, as the water industry’s analytical sophistication and mindset increases, they will have the ability to leverage these data streams into predictive insights, in addition to reactive monitoring. Some areas of opportunity include predictive asset management, anomaly detection, demand forecasting, and operational efficiency.