Information silos in water utilities: a stumbling block on the road to digital transformation

Digital transformation enables utilities to improve operations, reduce management times and increase efficiency. However, there is a stumbling block on the way to effective transformation: information silos in water utilities, which needs to be removed. 

Digital transformation, defined as the process by which a company implements digital technology to obtain a competitive advantage, is becoming increasingly necessary in addition to being highly effective. It is based on four technological megatrends: mobility, the social network universe, the Cloud, and Big Data, which are the levers driving change.

However, in the Big Data society, in which the volume of data generated is expected to reach 181 zettabytes by 2025, i.e.,  an increase of +887% compared to 2015, there is a problem that causes the digital transformation process to stagnate: information silos in water utilities 

The digital transformation process applied to water utilities is divided into seven steps: installing sensors on assets, system and data integration, data visualization, subsequent analysis, data-driven process optimization and, finally, the deployment of operational intelligence. The amount and complexity of the data used and the need to transform it into information grows as we move along this path.

Therefore, as we advance along our digital journey, a solid, robust data structure is required to underpin this need. In this sense, Manuel Parra, Vice President Strategic Partnerships and Alliances of Xylem Inc, stated that “one of the cornerstones for successful digital transformation is to have a highly solid data structure that generates and provides valid, timely, high-quality information to the user. Traditionally, this has not been easy to solve”.

The source of the problem

The origin of these silos lies mainly in the traditional “technology acquisition” model that water utilities have followed. This model has focused on solving problems for specific groups or departments within the company, and therefore the need to share data has been secondary or non-existent.

In contrast, more and more companies are adopting a digital transformation model in which data becomes an asset available to the entire company and the ability to share it to generate relevant information at all levels of the company is a critical factor when evaluating the acquisition of any new digital technology.

data silos

Along these lines, Jorge Helmbrecht, Business Development Director at Idrica, pointed out that although this traditional model of sequentially acquiring technology to solve problems as they arise (bottom-up) has provided companies with a good basic infrastructure, this network is made up of disconnected systems and technologies, which does not address the needs that are generated when evolving towards a planned transformation that responds to a roadmap (top-down).

Here, Manuel Parra points out that some utilities are tackling this challenge through individual integrations between pairs of systems. This is known as “spaghetti architecture“. According to the Xylem executive, this type of architecture is a mistake because, in addition to its inherent difficulty, “it is a costly model to maintain and becomes ineffective in the short term. Far from reducing complexity, this increases dramatically as the need to share information and the number of data sources to be added, updated, configured and maintained grows”. He also noted that beyond its technical complexity, this type of architecture “perpetuates the very data silos that we are trying to avoid. Data is not shared as it remains in each of the source systems”.   

Another aspect that can lead to the creation of data silos in water utilities is interfering with the user experience. This occurs precisely when the digital transformation process is carried out without taking the user, the end customer, into account.  

According to Manuel Parra, there are several obstacles that hamper interconnection and jeopardize the success of the process:

  • The existence of multiple accesses to solve a single problem, instead of a single access point.
  • The more than likely variety of user experiences which is precisely the result of spaghetti architecture with very heterogeneous platforms.
  • The amount of manual work that the user ends up having to do to bring together information from different sources involves spending a large amount of time on this task when this time could be used for other purposes.

Digital sustainability: the key to transformation

On this point, Jorge Helmbrecht said that the adoption of a digital transformation model “is a path of processes and people in which there is a basic digital sustainability element that avoids the digital chaos of silos through a single, agnostic, scalable and modular data model”.

According to the Idrica executive, this sustainability is a stepping stone in utilities’ digital transformation processes, where this single data model democratizes access to data and becomes an ally of people and the organization through the simplification and standardization of data, algorithms and analytics.

Both Manuel Parra and Jorge Helmbrecht look to the future with optimism in view of the opportunities that lie ahead thanks, to a large extent, to the strong market signals indicating keen interest in adopting digital transformation models as well as the evolution of technologies to support them, as shown, for example, in the agreement signed by Idrica and Xylem, embodied in in Xylem Vue powered by GoAigua, the digital transformation and management platform for the entire water cycle.   

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