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Mason Throneburg, CEO & Co-Founder – Confluency
Confluency is a leading water startup that helps teams harness the full capabilities of simulation models through the integration of advanced data analytics, and deep insights of engineers and operators, to make better decisions. They collaborate with utilities and consulting firms to develop a clearer understanding of the water system and develop tailored strategies for utility digital transformation. Confluency sees an important gap in the digital water space, integrating insights from simulation models together with machine learning to support decisions across a range of timescales – operational, planning, and strategic. Confluency is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under the SBIR program to develop AI solutions for water.
In working closely with utilities to integrate traditional modelling tools with analytics, how different have your approaches been based on where they are in their digital transformation journey?
Every utility is at a slightly different place in their digital transformation journey, responding to slightly different pressures and priorities – so we start by focusing on their desired outcomes and the technical capabilities and resources available. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to digital transformation. We specifically focus on value that comes from combining simulation-based models which provide “what-if” insights, together with data-driven machine learning models – but the customer needs to drive the technical approach, not vice versa. For instance, if it’s related to water distribution, the approach we take depends on the engineering models they are currently using, the data that is available, and their planning or operational goals. The utility’s digital transformation maturity and priorities also helps us determine how to help propel transformative solutions.
SWAN is all about collaboration. How do you partner with engineering firms and solution providers in delivering more holistic value to utility customers?
Confluency really values the importance of partnerships and collaboration. Being a small solution provider with an extensive consultancy background, we see how digital transformation transcends system boundaries and involves integrating people and expertise from different backgrounds. Our solutions embed various components like simulation, automation, analytics, sensors and metering, and engineering services, which naturally involves multiple stakeholders. Integrating these multiple perspectives and priorities is one of the biggest challenges – and we believe that better tools and at-a-glance insights can facilitate that alignment. One thing we emphasise is to not go for a one-and-done approach with our partners, but rather always look forward to collaborating beyond a single project or a process.
While working on operationalising a utility’s model, what are steps you take to account for the varying SCADA generations and compatibilities?
Yes, SCADA operations and accessibility are some areas that get tricky. One advantage of our hybrid simulation and data-driven approach is that we often begin to explore solution benefits in an offline context, where managing data privacy is important but security risks are reduced. This helps to establish a business-case and generate buy-in; we then incorporate real-time data to use the model to provide operational insight. Data from monitoring providers can often be accessed directly through their APIs. Accessing the SCADA data involves managing cybersecurity risk; we build security in at the base layer of our software – and we also reduce risk because our solution is advisory guidance, and so does require write-access to the system. This is also an area where partners with a deeper expertise with SCADA systems and network security can help with data acquisition and managing network security protocols.
As a solution provider, how would you address the counterargument that digital transformation is costly and runs people out of their jobs?
That is a question we come across often. Our belief is that software should augment the capabilities of engineers and operators, not replace them. The people who have worked with a system for 5, 10, 20 years have tremendous knowledge in their brains; we want to capture that knowledge in simulation and machine learning models to make it more systematically and broadly available. The great thing is, this then frees up time for the higher-value work that people are better at than machines. Regarding cost, we strongly believe that solutions need to be affordable – and that the costs need to make sense compared to the value provided. We are focused on developing a scalable platform that can be customised, enabling a utility to bring on additional functionality incrementally as the business case is established. In the medium to long term, improved operational efficiency and increased integration with planning objectives lead to improved system management and overall cost reductions.
Any words of advice for young professionals passionate about water and analytics on how they prepare themselves (ex. software development upskilling) to enter the workforce of solution providers like yourself?
The first piece of advice is to raise your hand and put your interests out there – I think all companies in the SWAN forum are looking for motivated talent to help deliver greater value from data, models, and automation. Once you know what you want, you may also need to invest in yourself. Go that extra mile to upskill, even if it requires some evenings or weekends – these skills will open up lots of opportunities for the rest of your career. I’d suggest young engineers spend time in the water workforce and master a particular technical domain (e.g. hydraulic modeling, treatment processes, etc.), so they really deeply understand the problems the industry is trying to solve. Lastly, look for opportunities to improve software development skills by participating in open-source projects, where you can obtain great feedback and further develop your network.
Quinn Elliott-Jackson, Senior Director Business Development – Olea Edge Analytics
Your extensive career in the water industry spanned both the municipal and commercial sectors. Can you share how your professional development at the City of Atlanta helped shape your perspective working as a solution provider?
My experience with the City of Atlanta was very enriching because I had the opportunity to serve in many capacities. While collaboration across city departments was paramount, at times communication and information could be siloed. So, it became important to analyse data for interdependencies. The cornerstone of my professional development with the City of Atlanta was to listen, synthesise the information, and make good decisions for the city, employees, and customers. As I transitioned into the role of a solution provider, the same holds true as I work to meet the needs of the client and help resolve challenges and enhance the utility.
What is the value of partnerships in the water sector? Why is this important?
The water sector is faced with many challenges from infrastructure needs, resource constraints, to water scarcity all while making sure citizens have access to safe and affordable drinking water. This is no easy task and developing partnerships can help utilities innovate for the many issues faced daily. Think about the utilities that are partnering with local technical schools to train people to fill open positions; or perhaps a solutions provider partnering with an innovation team to bring new technology to the utility. The key is to build and develop the relationships that enable dialogue and confidence that most solid partnerships are built upon. The best scenario is where the utility and the solution provider are partnering to enhance outcomes for both the utility and its customers.
You joined Olea Edge in March 2020 at the start of the global pandemic. What are some industry trends that you have seen since you started in this new role?
Utilities had to pivot quickly and adapt to managing people, processes, and infrastructure remotely and in a more automated way. With uncertainty surrounding revenue stability given the pandemic, cities and utilities had to re-evaluate how they prioritised projects and initiatives. Initiatives such as smart cities and smart metering became even more important because of the need to leverage technology for several reasons. There also was an impact on the workforce in the water industry with people leaving roles for various reasons (illness, retirement, burnout, etc.). Solution providers have enabled utilities to mitigate some effects of the global pandemic. For example, Olea has been able to help utilities by continuously monitoring large meter assets and providing actionable data allowing utilities to make better decisions with constrained resources and have a mechanism to address revenue recovery.
What should a utility consider when starting a smart metering or meter accuracy program? Can you highlight the advantages and disadvantages?
The exciting thing is that the benefits of a “meter accuracy” solution will most likely extend far beyond accurate meter readings. For example, when there is data to verify that large, industrial meters are registering consumption accurately, customers have more trust in utilities and can also find ways to conserve water. In addition, when a utility’s largest consumers are accurately billed, we are seeing that they have more revenue to allocate to other programs or projects. There will be more ways to make utilities more resilient both financially and operationally. Like any other program or project, it’s important to know how to make a meter accuracy program work for specific utilities. For example, does a utility have more residential meters, how fast is your area growing, and is the area subject to drought or flooding, what type of meters do you have in your meter population? Extracting the most value from your program may mean integrating more than one solution, and prioritising based on your objectives and return on investment. Truly smart metering and/or meter accuracy programs are early in their development cycles. The good news is that utilities and city leaders can still work collaboratively with solution providers to solve issues that are at the top of their priority lists.
Finally, you have mentioned your interest in the water workforce development. What is your advice for young professionals hoping to start and grow their career in water?
Water is extremely valuable and is going to be the resource most affected by climate change. Careers in water are going to be critical to the quality of life for everyone. The water industry is very dynamic and can offer rewarding experiences. My advice for young professionals is to think about your interests and start applying for openings in the industry. There is such opportunity for movement and growth. The water industry has many paths to follow or cross into from plant operations, finance, customer service, to engineering. There are so many possibilities for career success in the industry and having mentors to help guide and grow your career is very important.
Kelvin Hurdle, Industry Manager Water/WW – Rockwell Automation
Rockwell Automation is a Global Leader in Industrial Automation with an overall mission is to improve the quality of life by making the world more productive and sustainable. Rockwell integrates control and information in a way that brings the Connected Enterprise to everyday Life. One of the industries that Rockwell is focused on is the Water/Wastewater industry. In line with the overall company theme of Connected Enterprise, they look to provide smart water solutions that accelerate the digital transformation of utilities and help them become integrated into connected, smart cities to support the sustainable use of water.
What drives the need for smart, data-driven initiatives in the water and wastewater markets?
There are many factors driving digital transformation in public water utilities. Those include population growth and movement that is adding pressure to meet increasing demand with existing assets; changing weather patterns and climate that is testing the resiliency of water systems; increased regulation making it challenging to monitor and meet reporting requirements in a timely manner; ageing infrastructure – the expected longevity for equipment operating in water and wastewater treatment plants is 10-20 years, and many of those systems are approaching end of life; and finally, the loss of institutional knowledge as nearly 1/3 of American water utility employees will be eligible to retire (as reported by the US EPA).
Many of these same issues are driving digital initiatives in private and industrial water and wastewater treatment providers, but their motivation is also driven out of necessity to increase operational efficiency and profitability.
What’s interesting is we see accelerated investments across hardware, software, and services, with software seeing the most dramatic increase. Many utility services including customer service, maintenance, and operations are supported by offerings that are delivered using SaaS models versus capital expenses, which also shift the annual budgets which were traditionally heavy with large capital investments but are now moving towards more balanced capital & operational expense budgets.
As the IoT proliferates into industrial environments, including public utilities like water and energy, cyberthreats are a major concern. Why should water utilities take cyberthreats seriously?
Cyberthreats are a global concern and not an exclusive issue for W/WW, but here in the US we’ve recently seen critical infrastructure, including water come under attack from cyber threats. A recent example is the February 2021 Oldsmar, Florida water treatment cyberattack. As assets in the utility plant become connected, digital assets, it is imperative they are protected.
For water utilities there is threat for legacy systems, unpatched infrastructure, and a lack of skilled resources to properly manage cyber risk. The adversaries know these environments have many vulnerabilities and if attacked this can mean major consequences.
Rockwell has responded to these threats by offering Network services and aligning ourselves with strategic technology partnerships with industry leaders such as Claroty and SWAN Member Cisco to offer solutions to customers that provide a proactive approach to cybersecurity that goes beyond waiting to be the next company to be the victim of a cybersecurity attack.
Rockwell Automation is active in an array of projects and cross-sectoral industries. How is Rockwell addressing sustainability?
We believe sustainability should be focused on three things – a sustainable company, sustainable customers, and sustainable communities. We refer to this as our Net Zero vision. Our path to achieving this is by helping accelerate decarbonisation, digitisation and electrification for future generations.
In the focus area of customer sustainability, we are working with our customers to reduce energy, water, and materials usage. Two examples are increasing water reuse and material recycling.
As the water industry adopts new technologies to make operations smarter, what key areas and skills do you recommend for young professionals to develop and learn?
With the increased amounts of data being produced from intelligent devices, there is a shift in the need for young professionals to be able to make sense of all the data and to utilise it. There will be value in enabling the use of real-time, contextualised data for improved ability to predict, detect, and respond to system upsets. We will all benefit from young professionals acting as “citizen data scientists” that can also specialise in security.
Young professionals can also gain value from participating in the SWAN Forum’s activities, such as Tara Norton, W/WW Industry Program Manager at Rockwell who is active in the SWAN Americas Alliance and is obtaining access to the professionals developing the technology that is being leveraged to realise smarter, more secure, and more sustainable water infrastructure.
Devin Doring, Technical Services Supervisor – City of Salem, OR
The City of Salem, Oregon is located in the Pacific Northwest of the US. As a public entity, the City is responsible for drinking water, flooding, stormwater, and wastewater treatment, while embarking on a smart water journey. As one of the newest SWAN utility Members, our SWAN Americas Alliance Intern Nishanth Senthilkumar (Staff Engineer – Water Operations at HR Green, Inc.) interviewed Devin about the digitisation of the water sector.
The City of Salem, Oregon has notably leveraged machine learning and artificial intelligence to successfully predict algae blooms. How have operators responded to/appreciated such predictive analytics tools?
The operators collectively felt that the aspect of AI/ML was a neat science experiment, but they were not sure how it applies to them. Humans in general don’t like to put their trust into something that they don’t understand. Since AI/ML are indeed ‘Black Box’ approaches to problem solving, there is a huge emphasis to make the algorithms more transparent for operators to comprehend. This is almost more challenging than the aspect of implementing smart solutions itself.
Further, as an organisation, The City of Salem, Oregon is evolving and learning to incorporate predictive analytical tools in our operations. As such, we are a typical organisation on the operational, managerial, and philosophical front. We are in the process of deploying smart water technologies to improve our operations, and rolling them up into a decision framework is a long road ahead. Setting up the system and making the algorithm work is really the first step. It will probably be a theme of our careers – how we implement intense data analytics into operations, analogous to how it took decades to incorporate internet into organisations.
What are the challenges that you faced with the quality of data or suitability of technology for adopting smart water systems?
The challenges we faced during implementation of smart water systems were really practical. It is often issues such as data quality and data communication that challenge us. Algorithms and the technology are secondary compared to the practicality of getting the data back from the field. For instance, with remote monitoring you’re pretty much left to depend on satellite networks or you might be in regions where you depend on batteries. There is only so much infrastructure, and getting the data back from the field to implement analytics is the harder part. These are challenges we are up for, and we will keep working on it. The technologies will improve with time.
How crucial is the capability/upgrade of SCADA systems to handle the level of integration and interoperability associated with smart water technology?
I’d say SCADA systems are a very critical part of smart water systems. Folks that operate SCADA systems are concerned about the security, and no one wants to run science experiments on things that control the infrastructure. We implemented the PI system, a product of OSIsoft (now AVEVA), a long-time SWAN Member, and it really empowered us to pull data from multiple systems and put them into a single cohesive database. You’re going to struggle if you don’t have a single source of truth, or a single database. Trying to build analytics on top of three or four different systems would require cumbersome and siloed data transfers.
Can you discuss a few recent internal efforts and lessons learned on predicting cyanotoxins in water which is a work in progress unlike algal bloom prediction?
Even though we have been able to predict algal blooms to a good extent, we haven’t been able to crack really well the cyanotoxin aspect of it yet. We’re putting in detectors, and it is a journey trying to understand the complex science of cyanotoxin release. Further, in talking to researchers and mathematical modelers, we realised that there isn’t going to be one model that could address this completely. When you are trying to predict something as complex as nature, it is probably unlikely that you are going to find any model that fits perfectly.
Something new we applied is that we currently have thousands of different models and they are all essentially grouped together by means of a Bayesian model averaging framework. From very simple linear regressions to complex neural networks, the Bayesian average model looks at the cohesive result of all of them and selects the best predictions. Until we make some giant leaps in quantum computing, there is going to be a limit to how well AI/ML effectively handles highly complicated systems. I hope to see it within our times.
There are new ways of approaching problem solving in the water sector, including the emergence of new management and procurement models. Can you touch on how much of your smart water projects rely on external consultants/contractors versus in-house capacity?
We believe in finding an optimal balance between projects running on specific timeframes and more long-term oriented programs. As a public entity, we do need to be careful and ensure that funds are being utilised efficiently regardless of any proposed smart water project. We value our hard working staff and constantly explore ways to recognise those successful in project delivery and implementation, including offering performance-based mobility and training/upskilling opportunities. We do recognise that certain projects do require outside help, especially when the private sector has amassed unique expertise in a specific area relevant to our work.
Lastly, with the increasing digitisation of the water sector, what do you see is the role of young professionals in this shift? What advice do you have for rising water engineers such as myself to supplement our engineering skill sets to be best prepared to accelerate in the smart water sector?
Obviously, there is huge role for the younger generation in carrying forward this transition to digital water systems. The aspect of data analytics isn’t a buzzword anymore – it is a natural progression of where technology is going, and we are going to need people in the workforce that understand the technology and can apply it.
The hardest aspect for young professionals is making the leap from school into the workforce, where things get very practical. They find themselves often dealing with lots of irrelevant data, budgetary restrictions, and most challenging, people who are doubtful or skeptical of technologies and innovative approaches. While having strong technical knowledge is a solid foundation, interpersonal and communication skills are going to ultimately lead you to success and continued professional growth. Further, a healthy dose of curiosity and willingness to experiment (involves making mistakes in the process) is definitely helpful and a way to challenge yourself.
Meena Sankaran, Founder & CEO – KETOS Inc.
KETOS, Inc. is a start-up delivering integrated, cloud-based, IoT solutions for actionable water intelligence through hardware, secure connectivity, and a robust software fabric. Founder & CEO Meena Sankaran talks to us about the recent Newark lead crisis, industry trends, and more.
Q: As one of the newest SWAN Members, can you share how KETOS supports its customers with its water intelligence platform?
At KETOS, we believe that empowering operators with mission-critical water data can transform their businesses. Our solution is a unique intersection of smart connected networks, data analytics (predictive intelligence with actionable insights), and water sensing technology (innovative hardware for real-time water monitoring). Users will receive state-of-the-art continuous water quality warnings and predictive analytics of heavy metal toxins, inorganics, and several environmental parameters in a single modular system at lab-precision levels of accuracy and reliability. While the hardware incorporates proprietary patented methods of sensing and automation, the software platform has several innovations to bring the capability of data analytics and the strength of technology to the world of water.
Q: News has recently emerged regarding lead contamination in the Newark water crisis. How can cities use water metrics to prevent similar situations?
Municipalities now can have advanced diagnostics on any lead contamination anomalies before they escalate to liability, provision of bottled water and a city-wide scare on public-health. For example, the KETOS Shield system is one of the first in the industry to provide lab-precision data within EPA-desired sensitivity on an automated basis without the need for manual intervention for 20+ parameters, all within a single system. This solution can be installed strategically across an entire city grid including water treatment plants in order to understand the deterioration of water quality through the distribution cycle. It can also provide operators clear insights of where possible infrastructure issues are occurring such as pipeline corrosion. This allows for for proactive pipe repairs through location-mapped data.
Q: What trends in the smart water industry are you most excited about?
The Internet of Water is here. KETOS has entered the water industry at an inflection point where water operators and businesses are going through a transition and reflection of technological automation, optimization and adoption across several tiers. We have built a dynamic predictive modeler that not only takes into account all publicly available static data but also the real-time millions of data points. This flow of data allows for potential correlation with seasonality, man-made contamination sources and more opportunities into the future.
Hardware is a means to generating data and the unique capability of detecting, collecting, analyzing and presenting heavy metal toxins in real-time is a great start for us. Treatment and storage solutions are great but knowing what’s in our water, in a scalable automated way might be the next step in building a cohesive solution for a smarter, sustainable and safer future.
Q: What advice do you have for young professionals trying to elevate their careers in the water industry?
As a society, we need to increase awareness and optimize overall water availability for future generations. Continuous water quality monitoring now allows for water recycling and enabling water reuse on a larger scale.
KETOS was built in a data-centric world- this allowed an interdisciplinary collaboration of material scientists, physicists, chemists, electromechanical engineers, robotic engineers, data scientists, cloud architects and IoT engineers to enter into the world of water and work on a combined hardware and software solution.
Water is a complex yet quintessential resource, so the need for young professionals to be creative and adaptive of how they apply learning and innovation from other verticals, segments and markets is very important to how we preserve and enhance this resource while uplifting this industry into technological progress.
Chung-Leung WONG, Director Of Water Supplies – Hong Kong Water Supplies Department (WSD)
The WSD has the mission of providing safe, adequate and reliable water supply to Hong Kong, a cosmopolitan city with a population of approximately 7.5 million. WSD is taking forward several major initiatives on drinking water safety in particular in enhancing monitoring and control of internal plumbing systems; water security to cope with the impact of climate change by developing new water resources of seawater desalination and recycled water; water conservation through implementation of education and publicity programmes, and water loss management; and supply system reliability through asset management.
Can you share some of the main challenges with regards to water supply in Hong Kong?
The water supply networks in Hong Kong comprise more than 8,000 kilometres (km) of water mains. However, due to Hong Kong’s hilly terrain and with many residential and commercial developments and government facilities at high altitude, the operating pressure in the water supply networks is generally higher than those of other cities in order to maintain adequate pressure for premises at high grounds. In addition, the water supply networks in Hong Kong are mostly underground and in densely populated areas, with congested underground utilities, busy traffic and frequent roadwork causing vibration and disturbance to the water mains. These factors create a higher risk of water main bursts and leakages in the water supply networks.
WSD has spared no effort in replacing and rehabilitating nearly 3,000 km of aged water mains from 2000 to 2015. This has improved the condition of the water supply networks significantly, evidenced by substantial reductions of water main bursts from about 2,500 to 40 bursts between 2000 and 2019, and a reduction in the leakage rate of freshwater mains from 25% to 15% over the same period.
Moving ahead, WSD is implementing a new system called the Water Intelligent Network (WIN). This involves the establishment of over 2,000 District Metering Areas (DMAs) to cover the whole freshwater supply distribution network as well as installing a Water Intelligent Network Management System (INMS) to monitor water loss in the DMAs. This will also help determine the priorities and most effective measures to tackle water loss in individual DMAs, including active leakage detection and control; water pressure management; quality and speedy repair of water main bursts and leaks; and replacement or rehabilitation of water mains that are beyond economical repair through conventional trench opening or trench-less methods such as pipe jacking and horizontal directional drilling.
WSD is also adopting international best practices for water main asset management and for maintaining the healthiness of mains in the water supply networks through a risk-based approach.
What motivated Hong Kong WSD to join SWAN and get involved in the SWAN Asia-Pacific (APAC) Alliance?
In taking forward the various initiatives mentioned above, WSD endeavours to adopt the latest technologies and smart solutions which would enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of these initiatives. By joining SWAN, WSD can share and exchange experience and knowledge with water professionals from leading water utilities, solution providers, research institutes, academics and regulators from around the world to tackle the various water challenges faced by the global water industry.
How does smart water fit into Hong Kong’s “Smart City Blueprint”? And what smart water innovations is WSD most interested in and why?
The Hong Kong Smart City Blueprint covers six major areas, including the “Smart Environment” which encompasses the various smart water initiatives being pursued by WSD, such as WIN and INMS as mentioned above. WSD is also developing a smart water model for new development areas, incorporating various smart water initiatives, such as online water quality monitoring, real-time flow and pressure monitoring, smart pressure management, automatic meter reading, WIN, and more.
Moreover, WSD is interested and exploring the development of digital twins for water supply networks which we envisage will offer huge benefits in all stages of the life cycle of water mains including their operation, water loss management, and asset management.
Can you share advice for young professionals hoping to start their career in the water sector?
In a time of unprecedented technological advancement, it is particularly crucial for young professionals who wish to develop their career in the water sector to keep abreast of and embrace the adoption of technologies in their work. In addition, they should have a global vision of the latest developments and challenges in the water sector worldwide by making good use of the support networks such as the Rising Smart Water Professionals (RiSWP) established by SWAN.