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Dutch water wants to move beyond dipping its toes into big data pool

Dutch water company Brabant Water wants to use data to improve the service it provides to customers, as well as identify problems on its distribution network

Dutch water company Brabant Water wants to use data to improve the service it provides to customers, as well as identify problems on its distribution network.

Brabant Water has been working with smart meters for large business customers for several years, but households in its service area are not yet fully equipped with smart meters.

Meter readers are fitted with equipment that allows them to be read remotely, and Brabant Water produces large amounts of data with one million meters in use. The data gained from these is mainly used for billing – but this is set to change.

Frank van der Putten, meter management manager at Brabant Water, said there is enormous potential in the data that the company is yet to take advantage of.

“We are still searching. We would like to combine the data from our systems, sensors and meters with other data, so we can trace possible leaks more quickly and better manage water consumption,” said Van der Putten.

The drinking water company has three operations – production, distribution and customer contact. Van der Putten and colleague Johan van Erp, advisor to the meter department, are closely involved in customer services and see the value of all the data collected.

“Across the breadth of our business, from water collection to delivery to the customer, we can insert measuring points. Combining all the information that comes out of it can yield a lot of data,” said Van der Putten.

“When a customer calls with a complaint about water pressure, you can put it next to your measurements from the network and detect the cause quickly.”

This will assist the company’s customer services and enable it to solve customer problems faster, which will improve customer satisfaction and make the companies resources more efficient.

Read more about enterprise IT in the Netherlands

By combining data from a million smart meters, customer services will take less time identifying a problem and will cut down the time taken from reporting to fixing.

There are almost 2.5 million people with 1.1 million connections in the area covered by Brabant Water. The drinking water company supplies approximately 177 million cubic meters of water every year, of which 165 million is delivered to residents, businesses and institutions, with the rest supplied to other water companies.

It employs more than 750 full-time employees, and the company achieved a turnover from water of more than €165m in 2015.

Making sense of big data

Van Erp and Van der Putten are drawing up research questions that can be answered using data from the organisation. Van Erp said the ultimate information for the organisation is data that tells it when a conveying pipe is likely to break.

“This is almost impossible to predict, but we can approach it with the right questions. As we become more willing and able to measure and combine data, we can generate knowledge.”

The challenge remains to make all those terabytes of data manageable. To this end, Brabant Water teamed up with consultancy firm Nelen & Schuurmans and research institute KWR. Together, the organisations are working out how the data – which Brabant Water has collected in recent years – can be used to generate knowledge.

“We need to look at the connection between complaints received in our customer contact centre and – for example – the pressure generated at one of our stations. We want to create algorithms that can then work with real-time data to detect things early.”

Dealing with data

The ultimate goal is to better serve customers based on the knowledge coming from the data collected. Traditionally, the product that Brabant Water supplies – drinking water – is at the core of the business, but the customer is becoming increasingly important.

“This requires a shift in thinking and in the way we work,” said Van der Putten. He added that, while technology is not a barrier, the implementation of a big data strategy mainly involves people.

“There are a number of employees in the organisation who see the trend and importance of big data, but there are also some that will need more time to get used to a different way of working.” A good next step is to install a business intelligence (BI) department, he added.

Concerns around data security

Another aspect Brabant Water is struggling with is security, with privacy issues and the location where data is stored being concerns.

“Security is high on our agenda, which is good, but that can be difficult in some cases for the business,” said Van der Putten. “We will need to find our way together with IT.”

In the UK, security is seen as a hindrance in its GB Smart Metering Implementation Programme, which plans to put 53 million smart meters in homes and businesses in the UK by 2019 as part of a programme to reduce energy consumption.

This programme is expected to face a major challenge due to customer concerns, as research showed that consumers believe smart meters will capture too much personal information and will be vulnerable to cyber attack.

Brabant has its own challenge winning over customers. According to Van Erp and Van der Putten, the smart meters that assist enterprise customers offer many opportunities to gather and analyse data, but the company needs to provide evidence.

“We first want to show the use of the data that is released to the utility before we focus on a major link with the production and distribution arm. If we have concrete information, we can get out of all that data – and show how we can improve our service – and we can continue to roll out.”

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