As we steer our way through the rough waters of digital transformation, every effort turns out to be a realisation and a story to be told. Easier said than done, the implementation of “digital water” technologies is fraught with challenges and unknowns. Notwithstanding the prohibitive cost of centralised water information systems, the multi-jurisdictional operational scenarios in the Indian context add to the complexity in addressing issues and very often result in “technology myopia” (focusing on one component of the system, overlooking the interdependencies and interrelationships with other components of the ecosystem). This has been one of the major reasons for the suboptimal outcomes of digital initiatives in the recent past, diminishing the technologies’ returns on investment.
The digital divide, rapidly increasing demand, ageing water infrastructure, rising customer expectations and the need for balancing environmental, social and governance goals with changing realities get added to the list of challenges. Increasingly, governments and water utilities are making efforts to acquire, process, manage and maintain water data in real time to address these challenges for informed decisions. These “water data centres” are expected to become central to the water economy in the near future. As we move towards this inevitable eventuality, we will be flooded with data from numerous sources including satellites, drones, smart meters, smart pumps, smartphones, ground penetrating radars, internet of things (IoT) devices/sensors, legacy systems and many more. And for us to have impactful stories to tell, we need to collate, contextualise and generate value from these large volumes of data.
Untapped potential of location
About 80 per cent of water data has the context of location associated with it. By not tapping this hidden power, utilities are depriving themselves and their stakeholders of many benefits. Globally, geographic information systems (GIS) have proved to be an irreplaceable tool for demystifying water data and providing location-rich contextualised insights.
By providing a bird’s eye view with tools for analysis, data assimilation, visualisation, modelling and collaboration, GIS amplifies the digital water infrastructure multifold, enhancing situational awareness along with actionable intelligence for informed decisions at both the regional and local levels. While helping to avoid “data traps”, GIS aids in deciphering and democratising ever-increasing volumes of location-rich data by providing us the power to see, visualise, detect, assess and respond.
Facilitating planning, design, monitoring and maintenance of water networks, geo-enabled digital water infrastructures are proving to be invaluable for strategic and operational decision support including management of assets, leakages/ pilferages, outages, workforce, revenue, compliance, network integrity and emergency response through a single window. GIS platforms integrated with IoT, supervisory control and data acquisition, and other legacy systems provide opportunities for automation and operational improvement.
Geo-enabled utilities around the world have vastly improved the management of their complex water utility operations. Improved decision support can reduce distribution losses (by up to 40 per cent) and improve efficiencies and workforce management (by up to 30 per cent). Back home, the Thrissur Municipality and Orange City Water (Nagpur) have taken the lead in geo-enabling their digital water infrastructures and are reaping multiple benefits.
With Esri’s ArcGIS at centre stage, these Indian utilities are providing data-driven insights and rapid decision-making support to their stakeholders. As cloud-based GIS, platform-as-a-service (PaaS) and smartphones make access to GIS easier, faster and affordable, utilities have more incentives at their disposal for integrating their enterprises with ever-increasing volumes of geo-data from different sources to transform data into location-rich contextualised intelligence for informed decisions and iterative improvements. Here are the major takeaways:
Narrowing the digital divide
Water systems are trans-geographical with multiple dimensions and stakeholders. Till the digitalisation curve matures, understanding the existing and future scenarios is critical to designing a successful digital water strategy. Digital transformations cannot succeed without reducing the digital divide and GIS plays a critical role in bringing together all the actors on a single platform to bridge this divide. With the ability to communicate in the simple language of maps, GIS fosters enhanced situational awareness, larger participation and increased collaboration, thus reducing the digital inequality.
Improved asset management
Modern asset management relies on maintenance frameworks, asset visibility, asset utilisation and data systems environments for a better understanding across the entire asset life cycle. GIS-powered spatial intelligence enables a holistic approach with fresh insights into asset performance, risks, resources and costs. Using location-mapping, utilities can discover patterns and trends that conventional asset reporting cannot detect. With the ability to build accurate, real-world models of the entire network, GIS provides greater insight into assets, in relation to both their surroundings and threats.
Enhanced operational intelligence
Full visibility into system management while giving staff the intelligence and tools they need to work effectively is critical to operations management. Understanding spatial relationships enables organisations to identify, evaluate and mitigate risks. Dashboards display operational views of work specific to the user’s needs. Seeing field activities in real time improves workflows, resulting in more work completed in less time. Analytics determine why assets failed, identify patterns and trends, and help focus investment where it is needed most. GIS helps manage data, share information and visualise the system status by providing all the key facts in one place, preventing confusion, saving time and providing insight into live operations for timely tactical responses.
Better planning and engineering
The advanced capabilities of GIS support utility project planning and management with simplicity, efficiency and intelligence. State-of-the-art visualisation brings these ideas to life while sophisticated data management and powerful analytics make them real. GIS brings exceptional value to every utility’s engineering, planning, design and construction practice by supporting real-world modelling. Delivering rich visualisation and analytics with artificial intelligence, GIS enables im-mediate coordination and collaboration with stakeholders. By placing the right information in the right hands at the right time, GIS provides all the elements needed to meet planning and engineering challenges.
Understanding customer demographics vis-à-vis consumption patterns, critical assets and utility projects improves the ability to communicate and engage with them. GIS integrates business systems, providing a holistic view of customer information in one place. Empowering customers to access the information they want, when they want it, increases customer satisfaction. GIS provides better access to the information customers need (real-time data on service outages, restoration, maintenance, etc.), resulting in more informed, knowledgeable and satisfied customers. Social media integration enables customers to engage directly with utilities, providing valuable feedback and insights.
Owing to the trans-geographical nature of water ecosystems and their multiple dimensions (political, economic, social and environmental), just focusing on water assets/utilities in isolation (ignoring the larger ecosystem) will be a trap we will be forcing ourselves into. The approach to digital water initiatives must be holistic and cannot be blinkered or myopic. To correct this technology myopia, there is a need for a bird’s eye view that provides us with the spatial and temporal understanding of the expanse, dependencies and linkages at a regional scale and at the same time, there is a need for minute details at a local scale that provide intelligence for action on the ground, which only GIS provides. This will be one of the critical success factors for the “digital water” stories we will tell in times to come.