Fri 28 Jul 2017

Plugging water leakage with Big Data

Fighting leakage has always been a significant concern for water companies. Advancements in Big Data analytics and the use of satellite technology are giving utilities new tools to fight this age old problem.

Water is among the most precious resources we have, yet consistent, reliable supply is constantly under threat in many parts of the world. While initiatives to protect water supplies are always prioritised by government agencies, extensive infrastructure – much of it ageing – can struggle to keep up with the intense pressure.

Leakage is one of the most pressing concerns water infrastructure faces. Even a seemingly minor problem can result in serious wastage, and the erosive nature of water can quickly make the situation worse. The World Bank estimates that “non-revenue water” – water that has been processed in a network but never actually reaches the customer – costs utilities around US$14 billion per year, with 45 million cubic metres lost daily through water leakage in developing countries alone.

Water & Wastewater Treatment notes that in the UK, the Consumer Council for Water found 70 per cent of people do not think water companies are actually doing enough to prevent leakage. With access to new digital technologies, however, some innovators are looking for ways to augment their water management processes and eliminate leakage.

Water management agencies are experimenting to curb leakage.Water management agencies are experimenting to curb leakage.

Hackathon  generates ideas to combat water leakage

There’s no argument that water management agencies understand the urgency of getting leakage under control, but having the digital expertise to do so remains a challenge. At Northumbrian Water’s Innovation Festival in July 2017, utilities received a welcome injection of IT expertise as tech giant Microsoft led a hackathon focused around combating leakage, according to BDaily.

Utilising 4.5 gigabytes of data, culled from a range of sources including existing leakage information, road traffic statistics and even bombing records from the Second World War, 60 data scientists descended on the festival for three days, in a first for the industry. Chronicle Live notes that Heidi Mottram, Northumbrian Water CEO, commended everyone involved.

“The really good innovative ideas come out when you get people from very different backgrounds and frames of reference coming together.”

“Our company has some really good people but we knew we needed to collaborate with lots of other people who had something to add into what we do. The idea with this event was to bring people in with different perspectives, different ideas and different skills to see what we could do together,” she said.

Bringing in an outside perspective yielded some promising results, with the team proposing that focusing on just 50 of Northumbrian Water’s 450 operational zones in Essex could reduce leakage to levels demanded by industry regulator Ofwat. Carl Pheasey, Director of Strategy and Policy at Ofwat, was quick to praise the efforts of everyone involved in the hackathon.

“It’s really impressive and it looks like Northumbrian Water have worked really hard to put on a good event that is aiming to get really good outcomes and substantive thinking out of the sprints and that’s great,” he told Water Briefing.

“The really good innovative ideas come out when you get people from very different backgrounds and frames of reference coming together and trying to take a fresh look at how to solve long-standing problems.”

Tackling water leakage management from further afield

Using historical data to fight water leakage is a somewhat grounded approach, but innovators in Australia are considering things from an out-of-this-world perspective. In 2016, the Victorian government partnered with the state’s 17 water corporations and VicWater to investigate the potential of using satellite imagery to identify water leaks.

Compiling a number of images taken over several weeks and laying them over GIS maps of pipe networks, the technology was designed to pinpoint potentially leaking pipes. While the trial programme revealed that the satellite technology was not quite ready for widespread use, it’s a classic example of outside the box thinking to solve an ongoing issue.

With innovators like this working across the globe, the problem of water leakage could soon be significantly reduced, helping to ensure reliable supply for our future.