by Bev McQuade, Chief Information Officer, SA Water
Utilities around Australia are embracing the benefits of big data, but how are they actually implementing it in day-to-day operations?
SA Water’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) Bev McQuade explains how South Australia’s water utility is using data to improve operations, and discusses the challenges that come with managing large quantities of data and remaining cyber-safe.
Data from SA Water’s Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system largely underpins the operation and control of infrastructure used to deliver water and wastewater services to our customers.
This group of assets and processes gives us the ability to remotely control and monitor the performance of our water and wastewater asset network, and ensure we are providing services to our customers as intended.
From information acquired through systems like SCADA, we can also undertake predictive analysis, based on historical data. This is enabled through the use of sophisticated analytical tools.
Some of these tools have machine-learning features that enable them to continuously refine their inbuilt predictive models over time, based on new information, giving way to ever-improving quality outcomes.
The use of such tools in the management of our electricity use is another example of how we use data for improving operational outcomes and benefiting the business.
Through the modelling of real-time and historical market data, we are able to more accurately forecast spot wholesale prices for electricity and schedule the operation of our high-electricity-use infrastructure, such as pumps, to optimise our electricity costs.
SA Water’s Enterprise Data Warehouse (EDW) integrates data from disparate sources from across the organisation and provides a broader view and context, particularly when used in combination with visual tools like digital dashboards.
This manner of presenting information across many operational areas of our business enables us to undertake more informed decision making, both operationally and strategically, resulting in better outcomes for customers.
For example, we’ve found the benefits to include:
- Improved data and information from the EDW to support effective asset maintenance and planning and minimise service interruptions
- SA Water’s Digital Program is core to delivering a great customer experience, with customer data and information being a critical component
- Operations Control Centre decision support tools assists planners and operators efficiently and effectively operate the water and wastewater network and ensure a reliable cost optimised, drinking water supply and provision of wastewater services to customers respectively
Our Operations Control Centre also uses a range of data sets and analytics tools to create demand forecasts for water consumption across our network.
We have the ability to create and analyse different demand scenarios, which enables us to optimise the way the water network functions to ensure the most efficient service for our customers.
The use of these tools has resulted in both cost savings and much greater insight into the effective running of our water network.
Another data analysis initiative that has provided significant savings to our operating costs has been establishing the internal capability to monitor and forecast the spot wholesale price of electricity, and optimise the operation of our high-electricity-use assets.
Leveraging data opportunities
The key challenge around big data is around how we, as an organisation, best leverage it to drive business and customer value after it’s collected from sensors, meters, and other data sources.
One major way to address this challenge and to optimise our return on investment in big data is to maximise accessibility to the data and its usability once acquired.
We do this through our investment in the EDW which integrates previously disparate datasets and presents it through our Business Intelligence platform.
As part of this strategy, we will need to continue to develop the skills and ability of our staff to use and analyse data using various tools as they are increasingly rolled out across the organisation.
Another challenge we, and many other organisations, face, is data quality. We continue to work to develop strategies and standards as positive steps towards improving the quality of our data.
This is evident in improved work practices across the organisation and better asset and maintenance planning.
Managing data overload
We have implemented measures to ensure the data we collect has a defined business need, to avoid collecting and maintaining data that isn’t required. This includes gathering business requirements and rationale up front whenever there is a data request.
While this curbs the rate of increase in data volumes, an overall increase is unavoidable given the nature of some of the data we collect (e.g. time series data).
We have made significant investments in the EDW over the past four years as part of the solution to cope with increasing data volumes, and we are continually looking into future technologies and cloud-based solutions, to help us manage the storage and analysis of high velocity data.
Adoption of any approach to increase data sources will be subject to business need and ultimately, what it means in terms of benefits to our customers.
Keeping data safe from cyber thieves
We, like any other organisation, understand we can’t protect ourselves from all cyber threats – we are focused on building resilience and shared threat intelligence to identify attacks and minimise impacts.
An important component of managing cyber security risks is our focus on detection capabilities and ensuring a defined, rapid response.
We also have a strong collaboration with state and federal security specialists with our network being a part of the South Australian Government network called StateNet.
We also receive support from CERT Australia and the Cyber Security Operations Centre, and have partnered with leading managed cyber security providers to help us with 24/7 security coverage, and shared threat intelligence.
The security and privacy of the data we collect and use is of paramount importance for SA Water, which is why we have an annual information security program focused specifically on continually improving our information security capabilities.
However, it is also important as part of our broader community responsibility, we share and provide access to data that is relevant to our customers, the community and other government agencies.
We want to be able to balance the need to provide information in our role as an essential service provider and government agency with the necessity to protect the security and privacy of our data.
Cyber security risks should be treated equally to other business risks – it is important to maintain clear linkage between cyber risks and consequential business impacts.
Organisations must also focus on training their workforce to recognise security threats, to define robust business processes and policies and leverage technology innovation to implement effective methods to monitor and prevent data leaving the business.
Collaboration unlocking potential
The potential value big data initiatives can add to business, particularly if implemented well, is immense but for this potential to be realised, there must be close collaboration between technology, data and business subject matter experts in achieving specific desired business outcomes.
That is where real business change and opportunity for value creation can happen.
At SA Water, we have embarked on a ‘smart network’ capability. This will add further momentum towards big data implementation in SA Water.
This solution will require collections of integrated, high volume, varied and velocity data from a large array of sensors and meters which is consolidation and analysed and findings are acted on in a timely manner. Phase 1 of this initiative is scheduled to be implemented in 2017.