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At a recent International Water Association Specialized Conference in Porto, I convened a session on digitalization related to asset management.  Participants were asked to estimate how useful the data gathered by water utilities over the last 20 years was, and whether it held enough quality to improve and enable asset management through digitalization. 

“Over half of the participants replied that less than 20% of data collected since the 2000s was useful.”

This was a sad realization. Since the early 1990s, a huge amount of effort and resources have been invested in the water industry to enable data collection with the advent of Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The objective was to collect as much data as possible and to “complete” each GIS. This singular objective has changed very little since that time. 

In truth, many water and wastewater utilities have access to large quantities of data, yet only a small fraction of it is used to facilitate operational or strategic decisions. 

5 Roadblocks to using GIS data and how digitalization can help

Here, we explore several reasons for this, and how digitalization can help overcome the vast majority of them.

Out-of-date system records

Badly maintained system records are a classic tale from early GIS implementations. Initial efforts to “complete” each GIS were not followed up with either a structure or the resources necessary to maintain an up-to-date system. 

Nowadays, mobile technology is a highly effective tool for updating asset records when repairs or renewals are performed in the field.

Poor GIS data quality

In the past, data was collected and entered into systems that created a complete, albeit inaccurate picture. In fact, thousands of pipes around the world have been arbitrarily assigned an installation date of 1900 since their real installation dates pre-date any records. A slightly improved version of this story shows pipes dated by the decade, depending on the pipe material. 

The solution to improving the quality of information is twofold: enacting consistent digital data collection protocols alongside the creation and embedding of a culture where data is extremely valuable to each organization.

Lack of connectivity

In a sign of organic growth, many utilities find their GIS, billing system, SCADA, hydraulic model, and performance assessment systems located in different boxes. Though these boxes are operational, they’re also unable to talk to each other. As a result, GIS data is often scattered and siloed across different systems and platforms.

This lack of data connectivity prevents us from obtaining incredibly valuable information from all these systems. Modern digital water technology solves this issue by bringing all of these data sources together under one roof.

Insufficient accessibility

This water utility has often worked in isolated departments, where relevant information from other departments has seldom been aligned with their own information or used to make informed decisions. This lack of accessibility extends to the absence of adequate visualization interfaces that can be accessed and understood by each different type of professional profile within the utility. 

Modern digital water platforms provide a single-view, customizable interface that shows the relationship between different key variables within the system and their impact on the different parts of the utility.

The collected data is not objective-oriented

In the past, data collection (as digitalization itself) was often an objective in and of itself, rather than a means to an end. In essence, data was collected because it was the “thing to do” or because everyone else was doing it. 

Even today, hundreds of thousands of smart meters are being installed without a clear understanding of the benefits of the data they produce. As a result, existing data is often neither processed, used, or considered, simply because no one really needed the data in the first place.

GIS data in the context of water distribution systems

Digitilization of GIS data requires a human touch

Digitalization can and certainly will fix many of the problems we’ve explored. However, the key element that will truly and fully transform water utilities into data-driven organizations is the human being. Nurturing a corporate culture while acknowledging how valuable quality data is to driving future decisions is an essential requisite for any digitalization efforts. 

Get involvement across the organization

GIS data needn’t be the sole ownership and use of the asset management team. Or the hydraulics team. Agree on a common version of the truth, and share a single version of the truth. Applications like Qatium can help water utilities disseminate their GIS data.  

Tools can’t replace humans

Finally, it’s crucial for organizations to understand that regardless of how powerful, smart, and intuitive new tools are, they are still tools. They can assist but ultimately cannot provide strategic guidance or run water utilities for us. They can, however, significantly enhance decision-making processes, provide significant amounts of new information, and provide useful, reliable answers to the questions utility managers may have. 

Have a clear roadmap

Finding the right digital water solution is at the forefront of many utility managers’ minds. But, even more important is outlining the strategic roadmap that will shape the implementation of digitalization within those utilities.

Watch this demo to see how solutions like Qatium are digitalizing GIS data ▶️.

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Enrique Cabrera

About Enrique Cabrera