Data plays a crucial role in gaining insights, improving informed decision-making, and enhancing services — especially in the water sector. But, when it comes to open data in the industry, a future built on solid collaboration between several stakeholders presents several challenges.
What impact does open water data have on the water sector’s ability to confront challenges arising from climate change, environmental dynamics, and evolving customer expectations? And how can companies and utilities work together to achieve success as they embark on the path to making their data more accessible?
Discussing the opportunities and challenges surrounding open data in the water sector, our panel joined environmental journalist and QTalks host Tom Freyberg to answer these questions:
- Nigel Watson, CIO at Northumbrian Water Group
- Gavin Starks, CEO at Icebreaker One
- Lewis Richards, Microsoft CTO for the UK Water Industry
Full episode available below.
The need for improved collaboration in the here and now
Tom kicked off the discussion by asking the panel whether they agree that now is the right and, in fact, the essential time for collaboration across the water sector.
Nigel said he believes that collaboration is crucial to the sector, acknowledging that while the pace of collaboration might not be as fast as in other industries, it is steadily gaining momentum.
He cited evolving customer and employee expectations and climate-related impacts on operational processes as drivers for enhanced collaboration within the sector.
Citing his role as Chair of a forum for water company CIOs and involvement in initiatives such as “Stream” where valuable knowledge exchange occurs regularly, he also recognizes the positive trend in encouraging innovation and competition within the sector.
Emphasizing the need for an outcome-focused approach to address macro challenges, Lewis also highlighted the need for speed with regard to collaboration. As a technology provider, Lewis acknowledged their role in offering collaboration capabilities and the need to bolster the ecosystem surrounding the collaborative environment.
Gavin addressed the need for long-term investment in tackling digitization challenges and interoperable systems, noting the opportunity for leaders to move quickly and support others through the digitalization curve. Emphasizing the sector’s goal of achieving efficient, interconnected systems and fostering connectivity with other sectors, Gavin urged a shift from competing on data access to competing on quality of service and efficiencies.
Key drivers of collaboration across the water sector
Tom then went on to ask Nigel about Northumbrian Water Group’s journey of being at the forefront of the sector’s approach to open data.
Nigel said there was a need for Northumbrian Water Group to take a proactive step, and that they felt well-positioned to take the lead based on the organization’s relative maturity and investments in digital technology over the past 7-8 years.
Nigel said that he posed a question to his peers on the executive team: Should they rely on their own data’s weak signals, or open up industry-wide datasets for collaborative learning? The obvious answer was to engage in collaborative learning and tap into the industry’s collective insight—which also has the benefit of advancing common goals such as achieving net-zero targets.
When asked what he believes are the key drivers of an open data approach, Lewis said that he’s observed a general trend toward industry transformation over the last couple of years. He highlighted several important tools and initiatives that have been developed during his time at Microsoft that aim to foster cross-industry collaboration. These include The Planetary Computer Hub, a colossal catalog of global environmental data that allows users to leverage the power of the cloud to accelerate environmental sustainability to benefit the wider society.
Tom then referenced a quote by Gavin from an interview with the Open Data Institute:
By the time the change is happening, it’s too late for larger organizations to adapt, so they need to take a step into what may feel like a very unknown space to begin with. If they don’t, a lot of their core value could be completely undermined in 10 years.
Gavin Starks, CEO at IcebreakerOne
Tom then sought Gavin’s perspective on how this concept translates to the key drivers behind adopting an open-data approach within the water sector.
Gavin made the point that since new ways of radically creating insights result in a commoditized technology stack, it has become relatively simple to obtain, publish, and make data usable.
At IcebreakerOne, they established a trust framework for publishing data which contributes to trust building in energy sector ecosystems. Recognizing the importance of instilling trust in data publication and maintenance, Gavin drew on lessons learned from the development of the first national data portal (data.gov.uk). He emphasized that the challenge did not lie in releasing the channel, but in making sure it was well maintained.
Drawing parallels with sectors like banking and energy, he noted the systemic challenges and changes brought about by enhanced openness. Gavin highlighted the broader context of national policy, mentioning the data bill in the UK Parliament and the Smart Data Council’s role in shaping interactions with large data sets. Finally, he called attention to the importance of building an interoperable web of data across sectors and the necessity for reciprocal, collaborative efforts to reduce friction.
Challenges and barriers to effective collaboration
Rounding off the discussion, Tom asked the panel to reflect on the potential obstacles, bottlenecks, and challenges in enhancing open data within the water sector.
Nigel revealed that certain companies have raised issues regarding data quality and have shown hesitancy in reciprocating data sharing. From his own perspective, he recognizes the challenge of contextualizing complex and technical data, and that sufficient metadata and education are needed in order to formulate hypotheses and meaningful innovations based on the data.
He detailed several data hacking events where a decade’s worth of pollution, leakage, and flooding data was presented for analysis by data scientists alongside subject matter experts, yielding excellent results. Now, he said, the aim is to replicate this process asynchronously and plans to adopt a similar approach by anticipating potential misinterpretations upon initial data releases and refining them when this occurs.
Lewis said that the water industry has been making significant progress in breaking down barriers to collaboration. Achieving agreement and understanding at all organizational levels regarding open data is crucial, especially amidst the ongoing societal transformation with regard to generative AI.
He said that since this clearly impacts how humans interact with computers and places more emphasis on data accessibility, industries are facing increased pressure to trust what they share. Lewis emphasized the need for CEOs and boards to lead this transformation, and understanding the impact and potential of shared data while fostering trust for broader societal effects.
Gavin clarified that open data excludes personal data and emphasized the importance of a robust process with clear licenses. He said that trust in data maintenance—akin to an ongoing service level agreement—is crucial for analytics and decision-making and that the evolving trend towards a data-sharing infrastructure requires industry-wide agreements on more restrictive licenses, as seen in the banking and energy sectors.
He highlighted the shift from technical challenges to legal and policy considerations, requiring C-suite buy-in as a strategic business priority. Gavin linked this shift not only to data quality but also to environmental considerations, with mandatory reporting affecting risk management, insurance policies, and capital allocation plans. Based on all of this, he believes that these conversations must be taken to the board level since they will have a wide-ranging impact on the business as a whole.
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