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Applying digital-metering data to reduce customer usage

Domestic digital metering offers highly granulated data about customer usage patterns, but can this insight be leveraged to motivate more sustainable water use habits? One water utility has been on a 10-year research journey to answer this question.

South East Water Customer Research and Development Project Manager Alana Jones will present at Ozwater’23 on the utility’s extensive research into how best to apply digital meter data to support customers to reduce household water use.

“Our digital metering journey is about 10 years old. Way back in 2013 we started some very early technology pilots,” she said.

“We also had some early qualitative and quantitative research feedback from our customers. We knew they wanted more detailed information about their water use, including data about time-of-day and appliance usage, and potential leaks.

“But, around 2016, we realised that we needed to understand customers' expectations around how this data could improve their lives as it relates to water. To build our business case, we really needed to prove that digital-meter data would actually help customers reduce their usage – and by what mechanism.”

In order to address these gaps, South East Water embarked on a research partnership with the University of Melbourne, Jones said, which involved randomised control trials of a range of data-informed applications and products.

“Randomised control trials are a highly rigorous way of testing introduced change. Working with the University of Melbourne, we applied this form of research as a way of understanding if customers will change their usage by the introduction of digital metering data,” she said.

“Our digital metering program sits within our corporate strategy and is absolutely about issues around climate change, water security and tracing every last drop of water through the network.

“But this research program was all about understanding how customer usage changes when we introduce data at the household level. And our partnership with the University of Melbourne was really helpful in us planning for a multi-part program, which I will be talking about in detail at Ozwater’23.”

Introducing data

After first conducting a literature review of how water and energy markets reduce domestic resource usage via real-time information, South East Water’s first project in the research program was the launch of the mySEW app with a trial group of 200 people.

“This was our first water saving app showcasing time-of-day water usage data, but also appliance-level usage around the home. Half of our participants were the trial group and the other half were the control group,” Jones said.

“It was an interesting trial because the app resulted in no water change between the two groups. We launched it right when apps were new and exciting, so we were really surprised to find that it didn’t move the dial on water saving.

“But the granularity of the data that you can examine with digital meters gives you a high-resolution lens. From the trial, we were able to observe some small reductions in usage at certain times of the day.”

Jones said the insights from the mySEW app trial were carried across to the next product trial, which was the Amphiro shower meter.

“It's a meter installed in the actual shower. It's got a visual display of a polar bear on ice that slowly melts as the shower time gets longer and longer. We explored habit theory in relation to how shower meters motivate behavioral change,” she said.

“In the end, we saw a significant difference between the trial and control groups with that particular intervention. It was a 13% reduction in usage.”

In 2022, South East Water conducted a trial of a new app, the Waver Saver app. This time, the utility introduced an incentive component.

“Again, we had a trial group and a control group. The trial group was split into a series of different sub-groups. The sub-groups had either a $10 reward or a virtual badge, and an easy goal or a hard goal,” Jones said.

“The goal was to reduce water usage on a weekly basis. If the participant met their goal, they received the reward. We saw some great outcomes from this trial. In the first four weeks, the percentage reduction in the trial group was 8% of water usage reduction.”

Aside from the three randomised control trials conducted in partnership with University of Melbourne, South East Water also introduced some other initiatives around leak and spike-in-usage alerts.

“Leak alerts are something our customers told us they wanted, so we brought in an initiative called the Continuous Flow program. This involved sending a message when levels of water usage are detected in the system as over a certain threshold,” Jones said.

“We also provide customers with information about how to deal with the leak. We have had a really high 98% leak resolution rate with this particular initiative, saving huge amounts of water.

“Our final program, called our Spike in Usage program, involved detecting spikes in usage that are unusual to individual customers. We did a three-month trial with about 400 participants. And we demonstrated a really good level of savings for tenanted homes.”

Applying learnings

With the five digital data trials complete, Jones said South East Water has compiled and applied the learnings to inform its digital metering business case, which also floated through to the utility’s most recent pricing submission.

Aside from that, South East Water also used insights from the trials to inform a broader behavioural change strategy.

“We have our business case benefits that need to be realised. There are future trials that we need to run in the next two to five years that will help demonstrate what we have put in the business case,” Jones said.

“But, more broadly, the issue of climate change and sustainable water resource management doesn't go away. And we know behaviour change is going to play a big role in all of these issues in future.”

Jones said South East Water’s research and development team are now looking ahead to what’s beyond the next five-year period, and the trials that will need to be conducted to solidify the utility’s behavioural change programs.

“We are keeping a close eye on what’s coming over the horizon in terms of emerging technologies and initiatives we haven’t yet tried, such as gamification and social norming techniques,” she said.

“These customer applications and service offerings are now feeding into the development of our customer roll-out plan. As more digital meter customers come online, we have a package of service offerings to meet their expectations.”

Each of South East Water’s data-informed products is now being reshaped so that they can be re-launched at scale. But there are still more learnings to come, Jones said, and cross-industry collaboration will be important to ensure the water community can make the most of metering data.

“Having worked on these projects since their inception, at times we have had the opportunity for collaboration. But I think now it is absolutely essential that we start to collaborate deeply with the water sector on these types of customer initiatives,” she said.

Interested in learning more about South East Water’s digital metering journey? Register for Ozwater’23 here.