A recent trip to the American Water Works Association (AWWA) Annual Conference and Exhibition (ACE) in Philadelphia offered an opportunity to observe how the use of technology and data is rapidly expanding across the water/wastewater industry. Between visiting with a wide range of people throughout the industry and taking in what was captivating attention on the exhibit hall floor, I found several trends that seem to be taking hold.

  • The use of data and technology is becoming a nearly ubiquitous way to sell all types of products and services to the water/wastewater industry. Everything from hydrants and valves to pipes and meters can now collect — and in some cases analyze — data.

    Through the widespread use of mobile applications and the relatively low cost of sensors, it is now possible to monitor nearly every asset a utility owns. Clearly the Internet of Things (IoT) is rapidly enveloping our nation’s utilities, hinting at a future "smart infrastructure" world. As organizations begin to adopt more of these smart technologies, having a well-defined vision for the management and use of the information being collected will be essential. Without a clearly defined strategy for data collection and systems being deployed within an organization, it can be easy to get buried under an ever-growing mountain of information. For a great resource on developing an asset information strategy, refer to the Institute of Asset Management’s (IAM) Asset Information Guidelines.

  • Many conference attendees remarked that although they personally don’t yet leverage technology like Geographic Information Systems (GIS), the individuals they are hiring expect this type of technology to be available.

    As the baby boomers retire from our nation’s utilities, the demographics of the staff are evolving. The term “digital native” refers to someone who has grown up with technology. As digital natives increasingly take on leadership roles within utilities, expectations increase for the systems and information being invested in. To make sure the expectations of incoming leadership are met, organizations need to look at the technology being used and see that it is ready to address the needs and expectations of our changing workforce.

  • While some organizations have been using data and technology to make informed decisions for years, quite a few are just beginning their journey toward becoming data-driven, smart utilities.

    As municipal water systems or municipal wastewater utilities begin more fully leveraging technology and data within their organizations, that technology needs to align with the overall goals of the organization and support key business functions. Critical to the success of a technology project, yet often overlooked, is the upfront planning and requirements-gathering phase. Investing a little more time before a technology project to see that requirements are fully documented — and a plan is put in place for how and by whom the systems and information will be managed — will pay dividends.

The Future of Data and Technology

It’s easy to see that change is coming, and it’s reasonable to assume these trends are reflective of an overall shift in the municipal water and wastewater industries. Responding to the challenges of aging infrastructure, while managing limited budgets, is putting pressure on utility managers. Gone are the days of using anecdotal experience to make critical decisions that will have major effects on our nation’s utilities. Residents, ratepayers and elected officials are increasingly demanding that quantifiable data be used to back up the investments they are being asked to fund.

Keeping up with emerging trends and understanding the ways that data and technology are changing the industry will allow utility managers to run smarter operations now and into the future.


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Brian Hiller is a geospatial technologies director at 1898 & Co., part of Burns & McDonnell. He specializes in the implementation of GIS technology within utilities, including those providing water, wastewater, stormwater, electric and telecommunications services.