Head of Technology and Digital Solutions Gavin Kelly has a grand vision to deliver something deceptively simple at the water and sewerage utility: a single source of data truth that enables key decision-making and, in some scenarios, automates outcomes.
This so-called “data lake”, perhaps better known as an intelligent data platform, will extract rich data from multiple sources and then provide advanced analytics to drive actions and decisions that ultimately benefit Unitywater and its customers.
“Prevention is better than cure,” Mr Kelly said. “It’s an old saying but it is so relevant to what utilities like ours can achieve with technology today.
“Having the ability to leverage data to make informed decisions and enable outcomes empowers customers and our staff; and it’s immediate.
“For example, in an unexpected event of a water outage, we could use this intelligent data platform to harness data on the assets impacted, the location of the outage and the number of customers affected. Then we apply the right analytics over that combined data and click a button to send those customers an SMS or email notification instantly. We can also dispatch crews to immediately resolve the water outage and update social media at the same time, in real time.
“I envision a responsive and intelligent platform that offers things like pre-emptive alerts, trend analysis and live dashboards with drill-down capability to deliver richer insights.”
Mr Kelly said Unitywater will be looking for an enterprise-wide solution that has the potential to deliver benefits to other areas of the organisation like billing and finance, asset management, workforce planning and network maintenance scheduling.
“First, we need to document the outcomes we are expecting to be delivered, supported by business requirements, then we will go to market.
“We need to ensure that the platform we choose is scalable, flexible and able to accommodate future growth.
“We currently have a lot of data. We need to assess the quality of that data, identify what is relevant and make sure we’re using it wisely.”
Mr Kelly said Unitywater had laid the foundation for this digital transformation by recruiting enterprise and technical architects to the Technology and Digital Solutions team to ensure the focus on current business needs remained as sharp as the focus on the future. This is further supported by Unitywater’s Business Intelligence team which is already supporting multiple business areas with insights and reporting. The new platform will further build upon this existing capability.
“We are introducing new technology, but we need to work out how we are going to use it, as well as considering minimal or no impact to business operations,” he said.
“How will it impact staff; how will it change their roles and what training will they need?
“Change is good, but it has to be managed well. That’s why we are making sure that every project has a change and communications plan that all stakeholders agree on.
“If we don’t have that from the word go, our chances of success nosedive. You won’t deliver the outcomes because you won’t have the relevant stakeholders engaged and on board.
“People are excited about new technologies generally, but that doesn’t mean everything will just work in a seamless transition – there’s a lot of uplift and skills training required as well as potential changes to how the business operates.
“We have a lot of work and a lot of stakeholders impacted, so we have to manage that change carefully while we are putting the pieces together.”
As it has been building its internal capability in ICT, Unitywater has also taken a number of great technological leaps in the operational space, including:
- successful trials of a range of sensor technologies in the water and sewer networks to improve the detection of leaks, sewer odour and changes in water pressure and wastewater quality
- centralising data from 16 sewage treatment plants into a single source that has transformed the Unitywater Control Room into a fully-integrated remote operations centre
- using machine learning to predict the location of sewage overflows in extreme wet weather.
This financial year, the scene will be set for implementation of Unitywater’s Digital Neighbourhood program. In the coming 12 months Unitywater will prepare for the installation of digital meters in parts of its service area while also scoping options for acoustic leak detection sensors and microbial water quality monitoring technologies.
“Data can alert us to problems ahead of time,” Mr Kelly said. “Of course, the ideal situation is we don’t have any problems.
“The transition to an intelligent network will enable us to do much more preventative rather than reactive maintenance.
“Within the next three to 10 years, we do want to start looking at other things like self-healing networks, process automation, robotics, drones, Artificial Intelligence and more machine learning. However, we will plan and prioritise these initiatives to address real problems rather than just doing it for the sake of doing something new.
“I think it’ll be big, but it will take time. I don’t think we’re ready for that, but we can start exploring it with a light touch.
“Imagine sensors in the network that notice when pressure builds past a certain point and then trigger a reactive set of automated tasks and actions to avoid a problem before it happens.
“Imagine being able to respond three or four weeks in advance before a pipe bursts.
“That’s where we need to get to and I think it’s amazing – but that’s the longer term in my view.
“Overall, I am looking for a positive experience that delivers value to our business and customers, as well as making it easier for our people to do their jobs. I’m looking forward to what’s coming.”