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Reflections from California Water Data Summit: Asking the Right Foundational Questions

By Shayna Ramboz and Mirana Rideout


The 8th Annual California Water Data Summit, organised by the California Data Collaborative, brought together a diverse array of perspectives to address unique challenges and opportunities confronting California-based utilities and the industry as a whole. The area’s geographic and demographic diversity adds complexities to water resource challenges, further heightened by water scarcity.

The SWAN Workshop provided a platform for industry professionals to discuss foundational questions of the smart water journey and pressing issues for utilities, recognising there is no one-size-fits-all approach to digital transformation. Drawing inspiration from the event, we summarised our key takeaways into three overarching themes that are shared across all utilities: Human Capital, Data Management, and Innovation.

Human Capital: The Backbone of Resilient Operations

Human Capital is the cornerstone of an organisation’s success, as touched upon by Valley Water, and valuing the workforce is not just an ethical imperative, but also a strategic one to ensure operational resiliency. When the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power posed the question of the top 3 issues keeping utilities up at night, pressing challenges arose such as the lack of formal training programs, knowledge transfer gaps due to retiring staff, and difficult hiring processes slowing workforce growth. While acknowledging budgetary constraints, these challenges underscore the importance of investing in people. No less important are the other two issues causing utilities to lose sleep at night – infrastructure concerns (deteriorating systems, preparing for extreme weather events) and cybersecurity challenges working with IT departments on new initiatives.

As an industry we need certain workforce skills to enable a resilient digital transformation including the ability to learn and implement new tools/softwares, change management, cross-department communication, negotiation and investment pitching (which needs support and trust from leadership), as well as flexibility, patience, and vision.

Data Management: From Collection to Insights

People and data go hand and hand when it comes to being resilient. Organisations must be able to efficiently handle big data through automation or programming (cloud computing, data analysis, data insights, visualisation), validate the quality of the data, and properly manage that data (sensor installation, collecting, storing, architecture). 

So how do we better organise data? Clean Water Services and Kando helped to answer this question by emphasising the need for consolidating data warehouses, understanding holistic data architecture, and ensuring data security. As this is no small task, the 4 V’s of Data can be used for alignment: Variety (Data Producers), Velocity (Data Ingestion and Processing), Volume (Data Storage), and Value (ML Modelling and Data Consumers/Analysis). Under these categories, fall the 3 V’s – Visibility (Metadata Management), Veracity (Data Quality and Integrity), and Vulnerability (Data Security). Along with this, VTScada highlighted the importance of data loss awareness and ensuring data retrieval particularly when integrating GIS or SCADA for streamlined processes, while Alameda County Water District and Aqaix added the need to start small, properly engage stakeholders and ensure transparency.

Innovation: Embracing the Future

It’s safe to say we all want to innovate and progress both as individual organisations and together as an industry, and what better way to do so than by sharing our unexpected outcomes with one another to avoid common pitfalls occurring in the innovation process. During the Workshop we reexamined how we view failure based on patterns developed by the Institute of Brilliant Failures, while acknowledging the difficulty when it comes to water and wastewater delivery as it could mean an impact on public health and safety. Many of the key patterns discussed are collected in the below word-cloud:

The above word cloud was crowd-sourced from participants capturing challenges they encountered on the road to innovation.

To truly embrace innovation, it’s critical to make sure your organisation is ready to receive the technologies in terms of culture, training, leadership support, IT buy-in, and cybersecurity.

San Francisco Water Power Sewer and Arcadis also led a brainstorming session on ways to reduce initial costs and help make digital solutions affordable for utilities of all sizes, gathering the following key takeaways: sharing the adoption across organisations, establishing a foundational understanding of baselines for increased ROI, or co-creating technologies alongside solution providers. 

Encompassing these three overarching themes, a major focal point during the Summit’s sessions outside of the SWAN Workshop was the role of AI in the industry. The consensus was that while AI offers immense potential for data management and innovation, it will only be as effective as the data it’s trained for and the purpose it serves within the context of the water industry. As touched on by David Lynch at Klir in reference to California governor Gavin Newsom’s recent statement on Generative AI: “We’re neither frozen by the fears nor hypnotised by the upside.”


The SWAN Workshop and the overall California Data Summit as a whole were a testament to the progress, potential, and drive of the water sector. Recognising the wide-ranges of stages utilities undergo during their particular journey towards digital transformation, we must keep the importance of human capital, effective data management, and embracing innovation at the forefront to ensure a sustainable and resilient future.

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