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Delivering more through assets with data

Water utilities are now expected to deliver more for their communities than ever before, and one leading asset management expert says maximising the value of assets with the effective use of data is crucial to meeting customer expectations, now and in future.

In order to do this, Tammy Falconer, KPMG’s Director of Engineering, Assets and Project Delivery, Water,  said water utilities need to embrace data as an enterprise asset to support more informed management decisions, invest in data literacy and consider using digital twins across the whole asset management value chain.

Assets are the cornerstone of how utilities deliver their services, Falconer said, and ensuring strong asset management capabilities is crucial for delivering under customers evolving expectations.

“We all know that water utilities provide essential service, services that customers rely on. But we can see expectations changing around what customers expect,” she said.

“They no longer just require a reliable service, they also have strong views about what they expect their utilities to provide in terms of protecting and improving the environment, and the communities in which we live.

“Customer needs and expectations are evolving. And, when it comes to water, it is assets that are central to delivering on those needs and expectations.”

Falconer said long-term planning for assets is highly complex, especially within a changing climate, but that there are many opportunities for bolstering this work by leveraging the data available now to better inform decisions.

“The generation that comes after us will be living with the decisions we make about our assets today. The water industry and its customers are very aware of this,” she said.

“The water sector needs to make informed trade-offs around the cost, risk and performance of our assets, and these decisions are crucial, not only for how we deliver services today, but also how we deliver in 30 years’ time.”

Data boom

Over the past three decades, the water sector has improved its collection of data about assets, Falconer said, but is just starting to tackle its effective use within all areas of business.

“We now see organisations with an abundance of data, because technology has evolved quickly making it cheaper to collect data,” she said.

“But we haven’t necessarily been strategic or structured in the way we collect that data. We’ve got a lot of data now, but how do we actually bring that data together to maximise value?

“The water sector is moving away from siloed collection of data, whereby pockets of data are held by different groups within organisations, to treating data as an enterprise asset itself and trying to leverage the insights that come from bringing data together, and considering how those insights can benefit the whole organisation.”

One key trend within the water sector is that data and information is now being viewed as an organisational asset itself, Falconer said.

“In the water sector, we are also seeing a strong trend towards combining the deep tacit knowledge that people within the industry have of their assets with the rich data we can now collect. In this way asset knowledge is shared more broadly,” she said.

“Aligned with this trend, organisations are seeking to bolster data literacy within their teams, too.

“Everybody needs to know how to collect, analyse and interpret data. This is a core capability that organisations are looking to embed in their people so that we can more easily share information and make better decisions about our assets.”

Falconer said that while the attitude towards data and information is certainly changing, how data is being used is expanding into different areas, and the next phase of data use is all about meeting the complexity of making future decisions.

“There has been a lot of focus on applying data for operational decision making, that just-in-time decision-making aligned with the state of assets. But we are seeing organisations looking to use data for new use cases including long-term adaptive planning,” she said.

“We are developing the ability to think about multiple future scenarios that may occur over the next 30 or 50 years, and using data to analyse the pathways we can take that will leave us with no regrets.

“The broader complexity of long-term decision-making and the ability to analyse multiple different pathways is something that we are seeing have a much stronger focus in the water sector today.”

Making the most of data

Falconer said having more insights about our assets — including the condition and use of assets, both now and in future — allows for better management decisions.

“If we rewind to the past, we would use basic factors such as age to inform our asset management decisions. A pipe in the ground was expected to last for a certain amount of years and, at the end of that amount of time, we’d replace it,” she said.

“These days, we have much richer data that gives us a precise understanding of the condition of the asset, and whether or not replacement or repair needs to be brought forward or be pushed out.

“Data is helping us make decisions about how to sweat our assets, to make sure that we are making the most prudent decisions. That’s what regulators are looking for. They are looking for prudency and efficiency, and this is where data really helps.”

Many water utilities around Australia have made big strides in using data to help manage assets more effectively, but Falconer said there is an opportunity to take insights further by working together around data management.

“There is real opportunity to think about how data is structured and managed, how we use data models within water utilities, but also how those insights might be shared,” she said.

“Each utility tends to build a data model of their own, but there are great advantages to be gained by developing common data models across the industry. This would allow much more interoperability, but also efficiency.

“Water utilities, while diverse in location and communities, are all quite similar in terms of the data they need to collect to make decisions. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. But there could be much more collaboration around data within the water industry.”

Taking stock

Moving into the next generation of data modelling and management requires more clarity around decision-making in data, Falconer said, which is a key challenge for many utilities to overcome.

“We all get excited about technology and how it is going to be utilised in future. And then we get a wave of realisation around the issues we still have with our data,” she said.

“Data and analytics programs are often set up in conjunction with data governance programs. The reality is that complex applications — like digital twins — are very data intensive. And we need robust ways of managing our data so that we can realise its value.

“But often we won’t see organisations, particularly asset-intensive ones, with data catalogues. Organisation have often allowed data to grow organically within their organisation without models or catalogue that help us keep track.”

Falconer said using these approaches to data management and governance helps organisations understand what they have, and how it can be used.

“It’s important to understand the data that we have, as it allows for quality control. Is the data fit for purpose? Or do we need to improve it in a structured, systematic way to meet our needs?” she said.

Despite the challenge, if utilities can find ways of organising, managing and dispersing data in order to leverage it more effectively, then there are plenty of exciting developments to look forward to in future, Falconer said.

“We have been utilising digital twins in construction for a number of years. But the exciting thing about digital twins is how it can bolster asset capability across the whole lifecycle,” she said.

“Digital twins are a really exciting way to think about decision-making, not just for water utilities, but in the context of broader state-wide decisions. How are water utilities interacting with transport, power utilities or telcos? What are the overall needs for the communities we serve and how can we collaborate together to deliver that?”

“Digital twins will also support the transition to a circular economy, helping water utilities to optimise across the whole system, delivering organic resource management and considering a broader range of products such as energy and nutrients, not just traditional water and waste water services.”

Falconer said digital twins also offer plenty of opportunities to change the way utilities engage with customers about the different choices there might be for their future.

“We have an opportunity with digital twins to engage with customers and stakeholders in a way that we have never been able to before,” she said.

“We are seeing that we now live in a world where the community wants to know how we are making our decisions, including the impact these decisions are going to have on their bills, on the environment, and improving resilience.

“It’s through better management and use of data that the water sector will improve engagement and deliver better water solutions for the communities they serve.”