Actionable intelligence is the key to resilient water infrastructure

Posted: 26 July, 2021

A Q&A with Gary Wong, Global Industry Principal, Infrastructure & Water, OSIsoft, now part of AVEVA.

Q: How do you define resilience and actionable intelligence?

GARY WONG: Resilience is about being prepared for the next unknown. From a utility’s perspective, that could be drought, fire, storms, or even another pandemic. We don’t know what it might be, but being able to react in time or, better yet, foresee something that’s going to happen in order to prevent a system upset, is what resilience is all about. To be resilient, you have to make decisions, whether in real time or as part of long-term planning. You need data to do that, but not raw data. It must be meaningful, with context, so it can be used to effect a certain outcome or prevent something from happening. That is actionable intelligence.

Q: Where do you think water utilities stand today when it comes to resilience and actionable intelligence?

GW: I’ve seen some really good progress, especially over the past year because of the pandemic. Utilities are realizing the value of remote monitoring, for example. Those who had the ability to remotely monitor what was happening in their plants and systems didn’t have to send people on-site unless it was an emergency. On the other hand, if a utility didn’t have that capability, they physically had to send people, which meant risking their health and safety or having to quarantine on-site for a period of time. The latter is not sustainable; it takes a toll on everyone’s well-being, strains resources, and jeopardizes people’s health. In many ways, the pandemic has been a wake-up call for utilities to assess their sustainability and resilience.

Q: If you think of resiliency as a chain, where are the weak links and how do we strengthen them?

GW: In talking with a number of our utility customers, one weakness that came up was reliability of data (or data resiliency). You’re as resilient as your weakest link, let’s say, and if we can agree that data is a big part of that, then data resiliency is important. First, let’s assume we have the instrumentation and the sensors in place. Then are we able to gather that data, make sense of it, and then take the necessary action based on that? So, that’s one aspect of data resiliency.

The other aspect, of course, is security. And we saw this recently come up in Oldsmar, Florida. Having controls and automation is part of critical operations, but it also means that we want to be very restrictive in terms of who gets access to our systems — and the fewer people the better. A lot of the data we’re talking about is monitoring; we’re not talking about controls of the system. So managers, decision-makers, and engineers should be able to see the information but with read-only access. They don’t need access to a control system, automation system, or SCADA system. So, cybersecurity is part of being resilient as well.

Q: How do you make the case for digital transformation?

GW: There’s always the argument, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But we’ve consistently seen that utilities that have started the digital transformation journey are more efficient. They have more flexibility. They are more resilient. I would come back to the very unfortunate COVID-19 pandemic and how it has affected utilities. Some, not very much at all; others, almost devastating. In terms of resilience, those systems that have moved away from manual, paper-based processes have fared much better over the last 12 months than those that haven’t.

Q: Can you share any digital transformation success stories?

GW: About five years ago, a massive fire broke out in Colorado Springs. The water utility didn’t have remote monitoring capabilities for some of its fire hydrants so they had to send people, risking their lives, into the areas where there was fire to see if there was enough water pressure at the hydrants for firefighters. This was clearly a dangerous and unsustainable process. So, they deployed sensors to monitor flow and pressure. Now, the next time they had a fire, they could clearly see if there was enough water pressure available. That’s one simple example.

Another good example is Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA) in Florida. This multi-service utility provides power, water, and wastewater services in the Jacksonville area. During storm season when hurricanes are active, there could be power outages. So JEA needs to know where to send crews, where it needs to have its generators (it has multiple generators), and it needs to monitor the amount of fuel in the different areas to run the generators.

JEA has a real-time dashboard of its entire region, including a map with real-time information from weather forecasts, Doppler radar, and all its wet well pumping stations. If a storm hits, JEA instantly knows where it has issues and where to send people and crews. And, sometimes it can even be proactive because it sees the weather pattern coming in. All that data helps it forecast and figure out where it needs to send people or how much wastewater it needs to pump down in advance.

Q: How can utilities maximize the value of their automation systems?

GW: I suspect many utilities have put a lot of effort and money into implementing these systems, but they might not be getting enough value out. Part of the reason is that data is locked away and not easily accessible. I think that’s where they should spend the effort: focus on smarter, more efficient, easier ways to use the data they’ve gathered in a more meaningful way to drive that actionable intelligence and be more resilient.

So, utilities should look for that out-of-the-box solution that can seamlessly and easily present the information available to them and unlock the value of that data. The right tool can manage data from all the various silos and make it easily available with context, so you can start analyzing it and don’t have to call someone else and wait two weeks for a simple trend report. At the end of the day, the whole idea of self-service to information is what we’re really striving to achieve.

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