Tokyo digital panel 2018
Utilities Digital Solutions Asia

It’s time to drop the digital buzzwords in water

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

''AI', 'digitalisation' & 'machine learning' sound intimidating & expensive

TOKYO, Japan – Artificial intelligence. Internet of Things. Big Data. Digitisation. Gamification. The list goes on. Everyone in the industry will be aware of the growing number of terms and phrases now being used to describe the digital developments taking place in advanced water infrastructure.

However, this should stop, according to a global water technology company CEO.

Speaking in a high-level panel debate at the IWA World Congress in Tokyo, Japan, Xylem CEO Patrick Decker said the industry needs to get away from using phrases such as “AI, digitalisation and machine learning”, saying that they are “intimidating and sound expensive”.

In a session entitled ‘From drips and drops to bits and bytes: the digitisation of water and impacts on utilities’, keynote speaker Rebekah Eggers, global water leader for IBM predicted that the water sector will witness an increase in artificial driven driven video analytics - the speed of which could “transform the water industry”.

She said the development is part of the company’s 3 I’s approach: instrumentation, interconnection and intelligence.

IBM has previously worked with US utilities including DC Water and Miami Dade County, as well as Thames Water and Irish Water in the UK and Yarra Valley Water in Australia.

During her speech, Eggers referenced one case where predictive analytics were used on a utility’s infrastructure where trunk bursts had been experienced. Data analysed found that reservoir levels were noted as being “unusual”, together with irregular pump behaviour before bursts occurred.

“When data is in silos it’s not enough but when combined together it could be used to predict the bursts,” she said.

The global water leader, who has 20 years’ experience working with utilities, said that water companies often have 150 sources of data yet say there is no practical way of harnessing the information practically. She added that by creating a digital twin – a step many utilities have not fully taken - it will help support the journey to digitisation.

Moderator Will Sarni, CEO of the Water Foundry in the US, advised that digital developments should be looked at in the broader picture: “We need to see how digitisation affects our entire relationship with water,” he said.

Meanwhile Arlinda Ibrahimllair, chair of the IWA Emerging Water Leaders and also technical director of the sanitation department in UKKO Joint Stock Company in Albania provided a dose of reality.
She said that in Albania, the phrase “smart water” is not even mentioned and that in order to embrace smart meters, it took “years” to encourage the regulator to make the necessary change for adoption.

Avishek Choudhoury, water industry advisor from Tata Consultancy also provided some sobering comments against the ambitious projections for water’s digital future.

He referenced a wastewater treatment plant operator who questioned why he would need to “adopt new digital technology” when his plant was performing efficiently, on budget, meeting discharge limits and he was able to “go home on time”.

Eggers advised that the industry should not do “digitisation for the sake of digitisation” but that it should work collectively to establish the problem worth solving and then work backwards to seek out the best solution.

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