Interview with Trevor Hill - CEO of smart water grid platform FATHOM
Big data is a reality in some sectors, such as its use in the airline industry to optimise flight occupancy. This gives a clue as to the scale of the potential in the water business. ‘Think about the benefits that other sectors have already taken advantage of, and you see this tremendous opportunity emerging in water,’ says Trevor Hill, CEO of smart water grid platform FATHOM. ‘We now know that the opportunities are probably more significant than we thought.’
It means opportunities in the different parts of water utility operations, such as billing. ‘Historically that is usually quite inefficient, costing something like ten times what it costs in the context of big data, economies of scale, and cloud technologies,’ says Hill.
The undiscovered benefits of big data
It also means opportunities bringing together the data from different parts of those operations, such as geospatial, customer, flow, plant and laboratory data. ‘Oftentimes these sit in silos,’ says Hill. Bringing different types of data opens up new ways of working. As an example, he points to the potential for combining flow data, geospatial data and customer data to allow a water utility to provide targeted early warning to customers affected by breaks in service lines. ‘Those things don’t exist in water today,’ he adds.
An order of magnitude improvement
Not only this, such opportunities offer the potential for cost savings and efficiencies. In the example of responding to breaks in service lines, activities such as directing repair teams, identifying where relevant valves are located, and contacting customers are all largely manual processes. Data brings the potential for automation. ‘If you think about the benefit of having all that ready at your fingertips, suddenly it’s an order of magnitude improvement,’ says Hill.
Cost savings across the verticals in water utility businesses
The same applies in other aspects of utility operation, or verticals, as Hill refers to them. For power use, he says most water utilities in the US use a very basic level of automation that means pumps in the supply system turn on during the morning peak, when power is at its most expensive. If the utility could use data-driven demand modelling and customer engagement to modify those peaks, the operations of the pumps could be delayed This can mean a 20-40% reduction in power costs, he says. Similarly, use of cloud-based systems for modernizing the billing process offers the potential for 50-80% cost savings, according to Hill. ‘As you move across the verticals in water utility businesses, there are these kind of opportunities in every one of them,’ he says.
Business models are absolutely critical
Decision-makers in water utilities are understandably risk-averse, notes Hill. This has to be kept in mind when seeking to get a new technology implemented. ‘It is not enough in our sector to have great technology – there’s lots of it out there. Nor is there particularly a shortage of investment,’ he says. Hill’s own experience leads him to put an emphasis elsewhere. ‘Business models are absolutely critical,’ he says. This can mean providing finance, bundling deployment of technology, articulating what the savings will be and, importantly, legitimately transferring risk, to allow utility managers or others responsible for approving investment to be able to approve a decision. ‘In my view, many technologies are promising, but the business model isn’t strong enough to meet the certainty that there will be some level of objection,’ he adds.
Opportunity for everyone
Bigger utilities, especially those in the US, are making progress with their use of big data. ‘That’s primarily because of scale and the competencies that they have in their own businesses, which are quite significant,’ says Hill. ‘I do see that the same opportunities can be derived for smaller utilities, through things like cloud services. That’s where we are focused, bringing economies of scale and technology to the smaller utilities, where there’s a huge bang for their buck,’ he adds. Similarly, he sees potential for data-driven technologies to take hold and deliver benefits in emerging countries. ‘They have rudimentary technologies now, but can leapfrog to very sophisticated technologies very quickly in the context of improved business models,’ he says.
Hill’s message is that data is set to bring gains across the sector: ‘I think there’s opportunity for everyone.’