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Water CIOs agree landmark Open Data project "Stream"

Northumbrian Water Group CIO: "It does feel like an important day for the industry..."

The Chief Information Officers (CIOs) of 11 water utilities are gearing up to launch an ambitious Open Data project after  regulator Ofwat gave its blessing to the proposal, dubbed "Stream" --  which they hope could revolutionise how the industry tackles business problems ranging from water leaks to energy consumption.

Stream was first proposed by Northumbrian Water Group CIO Nigel Watson at an informal industry dinner and subsequently submitted by NWG, with wide industry backing, to the Water Breakthrough Challenge; an innovation competition led by the regulator and delivered by Nesta Challenges, Arup and Isle Utilities.

Alongside NWG, Anglian Water, Dwr Cymru, Scottish Water, SES Water, Severn Trent, Southern Water, South West Water, Thames Water, United Utilities, Yorkshire Water, Aiimi, Costain, Open Data Institute (ODI) and Sia Partners are all participating in the water industry Open Data project. Ofwat has supported the pilot with £880,000. The organisations hope successful completion of Phase 1 will let them re-submit for up to £8 million funding.

NWG CIO Nigel Watson. Copyright of The Stack. Image credit: Christopher Andreou.

Water industry Open Data pilot funded

NWG CIO Nigel Watson told The Stack: "It does feel like an important day for the industry. Open Data is increasingly important. All of the companies need to get to net zero. We ourselves have an ambition to get there in the next five years; the industry is trying to get there by 2030.

"There are some big levers you can pull to help get there, but once you've done that you've still got some hard yards. I think Open Data can help us learn from each other about how we are operating assets, using energy -- the water industry is the UK's fourth most energy-intensive industry -- and reacting to the impact of climate change that's already baked in."

The industry hopes to share Open Data on leaks, pollution, flooding and energy use -- all of which are central to its business problems.

There is now some heavy lifting ahead.

As Nigel Watson puts it: "The big effort is going to be on agreeing common data formats; putting our really quite large datasets in those common data formats so that we can share them... architecturally, whether we go very centralised or in some way distributed/hybrid is to be decided and I think will probably depend a bit on the datasets themselves. It may make sense to leave some in situ and provide APIs for third-parties.

"We really hope that this will provide a platform that other entities will join; much like you have seen happening in transport." (See for example innovation around NaPTAN or TfL's open API and data.)

The CIO added: "There's [scope for] the water companies themselves to be sharing best practice and learning; there's third-parties bringing additional insight to bear and it also sets us up -- having standardised those formats -- to do some cross-sectoral things as well across water and energy; water and housing; water and agriculture. It will make it much easier for us as an industry to replicate and scale innovative projects across the country."

John Russell, Senior Director, Strategy, Finance and Infrastructure at Ofwat added: "It’s crucial for the water sector to come up with new, innovative ideas to fix the challenges that the sector – and society – faces. The winners revealed today will help develop ideas to save more water, turn captured carbon into useful products, and – ultimately – make the sector more sustainable. Ofwat’s Innovation Fund, which provides the prize money for these competitions, exists to help stimulate  new and bold initiatives by water companies working in partnership with universities, charities, engineering practices and technology firms. We have much to learn from other sectors and the winners of this round of the competition showcase just how much can be achieved when we collaborate.”

See also: Climate risk data is a hot mess. These open source pioneers want to set things straight