Using data’s ‘invisible’ influence to build smart wastewater networks

Feb 09, 2022

Isle Utilities’ Chris Thomas outlines the roles of technology and data in building successful wastewater asset management strategies and the creation of ‘smart’ networks.

Discussing the digitalisation of networks to achieve pre-emptive asset maintenance and preventing the need for major intervention at the Utility Week Innovate WWT Wastewater 2022 Conference, Isle Utilities’ head of enterprise and innovation, Chris Thomas, highlighted that wastewater lagged behind other sectors – such as gas and networks – in implementing new digital systems. He caveated, however, that this afforded the industry unique insight into the dos and don’ts from the digitalisation process, with one of his main observations being that, far from a technical challenge, the smooth creation of “smart” networks revolves around organisational improvements.

Smart network building blocks

Breaking down the creation of a smart wastewater network into five simplified components – applications, communications, sensors, data and the business process – Thomas said that the latter two were the most significant hurdles in his view. He explained that, from a technical standpoint, a wealth of application and sensor software and technology was readily available to tee up smart networks, while options such as 5G networks and radio spectrum to communicate are already widespread.

Harnessing data’s invisible influence

Yet in terms of the business process behind creating smart networks, he outlined four-phases of analytical maturity – describe, diagnose, predict and prescribe – and emphasised the importance of spending more time focusing on the often neglected early phases. Thomas explained that when deploying solutions at scale “being dependable is more important than being clever” – meaning that rather than kickstarting a project based on prediction, spending time to describe and diagnose challenges as a foundation for project work was paramount.

He summarised that at the heart of effective digitalisation was “good operational reporting and integration with business processes before clever predictive activity” – or doing “the boring stuff” at scale bolstered by robust data architecture. This spans reliable KPI reporting, automated checks, balances and processes across a business and detailed performance management of data and people.

Thomas also outlined the need for investment in management practice in order to experience the benefits of data’s “powerful, invisible, influence” – and that more needed to be done to value data as an asset. He explained that poor data architecture, while often unseen, ultimately leads to poor business efficiency and lack of adoption of insights. “If we put rubbish in, we get rubbish out,” Thomas said. Therefore, designing smart wastewater network systems where the impact of data is felt both positively and negatively is a crucial step. “We need to get the benefit of that if they’re successful, but also need to feel the pain if they’re not working so change and innovation can happen,” he said.


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Stuart Stone

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