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The benefits of letting open data flow in the water industry

open data water industry

There’s a growing interest in open data in the UK water sector, encouraged by industry regulator Ofwat. Our blog therefore looks at the current picture, outlining the benefits of open data, the challenges to its adoption and the best practice lessons that can be learnt from other industries.

Anne-Claire Bellec
VP of Marketing , Opendatasoft
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Water must be a resource accessible to anyone, available simply by turning on a tap. You don’t need specialist skills to benefit from it, whatever you then use it for. Data should be the same – easily accessible to all when and where you need it. To get maximum value from data it has to flow around and beyond your organization as seamlessly as water so that it can be accessed easily and simply by non-experts.

Bringing these two ideas together, the UK water industry is increasingly embracing the power of open data, looking at how it can increase efficiency, enable innovation and boost transparency. So how can companies tap into the power of open data?

The UK water industry serves 53.5 million people and its regulator, Ofwat, sees enormous potential for open data to improve how the sector operates. It published its H2Open paper in October 2021, committing to “supercharge a public discussion about the benefits of open data.”

Ofwat believes that open data can be used to help address key challenges around:

  • Climate change (the sector is the UK’s fourth most energy-intensive industry)
  • Preserving and safeguarding the environment
  • Changing customer demands through better forecasting and an improved experience
  • Protecting the most vulnerable by offering tailored support and services

Essentially the industry has a wealth of data around water/wastewater, and how companies interact with communities, the environment, and customers. This data is increasing all the time in both scope and depth, particularly as companies deploy more and more sensors across their networks and operations. Sharing this data delivers enormous public value but Ofwat feels that open data is currently underused.

To overcome this it has challenged the industry to increase data sharing – and has promised to evaluate progress in Autumn 2022. It will examine how the industry as a whole, and companies individually, have improved in three areas:

Creating strong data cultures and developing the right capabilities and skills;

  • Improving collaboration on open data across the industry;
  • Establishing the required data infrastructure to enable greater sharing
  • The deadline is fast-approaching – this blog therefore examines where we are now, and best practice to improve data sharing performance.

The deadline is fast-approaching – this blog therefore examines where we are now, and best practice to improve data sharing performance.

In many ways water is similar to other parts of the utility industry, with open data delivering benefits in three key areas:

Efficiency

Sharing data enables companies to run their operations more efficiently and become more digital. They can collect data on the performance of their assets, from pipes to pumping stations, through real-time IoT sensors and then use these insights to drive improvements and encourage fresh thinking. Investing in open data spurs companies to focus on data governance – improving the quality, collection, and maintenance of data. Decision making is improved through access to high-quality, accurate and comprehensive data. Dealing with Freedom of Information requests is streamlined through easier data access.

Externally companies can work collaboratively with their peers and organizations in other sectors to address shared challenges using data. Open data can also provide better evidence and insights for policy makers and governments.

Innovation

The water industry faces multiple challenges, including improving sustainability, reducing environmental impact and better serving customers. Innovation is crucial to achieving its objectives. Open data stimulates innovation, creating opportunities to draw in and leverage new skills, technologies and stakeholders. For example it can underpin new business models and service offerings, aid collaboration (such as through hackathons), and enhance the customer experience through new digital services such as apps. By positioning organizations as open leaders it helps attract new talent, particularly in difficult to find areas such as data science.

Transparency

Finally, making data available to all, in accessible ways that can be understood by non experts improves transparency and builds trust across the ecosystem. For example, customers and environmental groups can easily see current performance and compare it to targets, building confidence that water companies are improving.

Currently, there are varying levels of data maturity across the industry. Some projects are already being planned while others are currently delivering value. Examples include:

  • Stream – a collaborative industry-wide open data initiative involving 11 of the 17 main incumbent water companies. It aims to drive open data across the water sector, starting by identifying opportunities and creating common standards and data formats.
  • National Underground Asset Register – this aims to create a combined map of existing underground asset data, indicating where electricity and phone cables, and gas and water pipes are buried. This data will then be shared with all participants to help prevent both accidents and disruption to the economy.

Given the pressing need to open data and the forthcoming Ofwat deadline, the industry needs to focus its efforts on seven areas:

  • Developing open data strategies, led from the top
  • Building skills and capabilities inside companies and across the industry
  • Understanding user needs, current data sets, any gaps and ensuring data quality
  • Increasing collaboration and engagement inside the industry and with other sectors
  • Developing common standards and practices, backed by strong governance to foster reuse
  • Adopting robust data infrastructure
  • Experimenting with open data to develop greater understanding of its benefits

The UK seems to be leading the way when it comes to open data in the water industry. However, there are many relevant lessons that it can learn from similar sectors who are further advanced in their open data journey. These include energy utilities, especially in continental Europe, where regulations mandating data sharing have been in force for many years.

Following these five best practices will enable companies in the water industry to successfully harness open data:

1. Build data cultures across the organization

Data needs to be part of everyone’s working lives, something that they automatically access and turn to when making decisions or carrying out processes. Companies therefore need to build a data culture where sharing is the norm, and data flows across departments and the ecosystem rather than being stuck in silos.

Agence ORÉ has been created by all French gas and electricity distribution network operators, bringing together their open data and data visualizations via a one-stop shop. This contributes to building strong data cultures within each partner organization as well as contributing to a wider, sector-wide focus on data.

2. Put in place standards and governance

Ensuring that data is handled ethically and in line with regulations (such as GDPR) is essential. Users must be confident that data is consistent, high-quality and that accompanying metadata gives a full description of what it is if they are to use it confidently. This all requires strong governance structures and processes, as we explain in this blog. Standards are particularly important when sharing data externally, with a need to enable interoperability between data provided by different players in the industry.

Before opening its data, UK Power Networks, the UK’s largest distribution network and system operator, focused heavily on data governance processes. It now runs a data triage
process on every dataset before it is shared. Data is evaluated based on multiple criteria (such as privacy, security, ethics,intellectual property, data quality,) before deciding whether it can be published, or if it needs further work to anonymize it. As part of its commitment to transparency UKPN is sharing its data triage methods so they can be used across the sector and beyond.

3. Listen to the needs of your community

Water companies have large numbers of datasets. Opening them all from day one would require huge amounts of resources, with no guarantee that they would be used. Organizations therefore need to prioritize the datasets that will deliver greatest value to their community by listening to their needs and creating a roadmap for sharing that matches their requirements.

Enedis is the largest electricity distribution system operator in France, with 36 million customers. As part of its open data program it has focused on engaging stakeholders, such as those in local government who may not be data experts. Engagement initiatives include creating dedicated data access paths for this audience, allowing them to easily visualize and reuse energy data about their specific town, city or region through data visualizations accessed via a web app.

Southern Grampians Shire Council in Australia covers a largely rural area, so understood the importance of providing relevant open data to its farming community. It has achieved this by implementing a network of IoT-equipped water sensors and weather stations and sharing information through its portal. To date it has collected and shared over 1.2 million data points.

4. Drive innovation by collaborating widely

No one company has all the answers, particularly in a complex industry such as water. Innovation can come from any one of a number of players – from other water companies, organizations in other sectors, researchers, academics or interested citizens. It is vital to make data available widely, especially to non-traditional partners, and engage them with data to increase use.

Energias de Portugal (EDP)’s innovation division collects and shares data from sensor networks distributed throughout its energy production facilities. It wants to encourage its community to find solutions to real-world energy problems, so makes its datasets available to universities, researchers and startups through its open data portal. EDP organizes regular challenges and hackathons with prizes, thus motivating its community to create innovative solutions to accelerate the energy transition.

5. Make data easy to access

Open data should be easy to understand and use by all interested parties, whatever their technical skills. That means providing it through a range of compelling data experiences that match the different needs of your audiences. Expert users can consume data through APIs or by accessing raw datasets, while you should provide employees and consumers with easily-understandable data through engaging visualizations, dashboards and data stories.

For example, the ODRÉ project brings together multiple French energy companies, to provide a comprehensive view across the electricity and gas sectors. Data can be easily accessed through clear visualizations that can be drilled into for more detail.

Birdz, part of VEOLIA Water France, runs a complete network of IoT sensors, communicating across water supply networks. This information is vital to allow operators to control quality, protect infrastructure, and detect possible leaks. It uses Opendatasoft’s platform to create customizable data dashboards for each water distribution company it works with, tailored to their needs.

Why now is the time to open water industry data

There is a compelling argument for opening up previously closed water data. Open data can help the industry adapt to climate change, better protect the environment, and meet changing customer expectations, as well as to increase efficiency and drive bottom-line improvements. Given the pressing Ofwat deadline, now is the time to act and to embrace the opportunity to harness the power of open data to deliver greater public value, increase collaboration and meet regulatory expectations.

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