We spoke with Jacqui O’Neill, General Manager Customer & Community, at Central Highlands Water which led the water industry in sponsoring GovHack for the first time this year.
Central Highlands Water (CHW) is the regional water authority right in the centre of Victoria. CHW provides water and waste water services to customers in the greater community. At the time of this interview CHW is in a really fortunate position in terms of water storage levels as a result of really good rainfall recently but neighbours to the north, south, east and west are currently experiencing lower water storage levels than in previous years. Around the rest of Australia, drought conditions are impacting many communities.
We forget how much we interact with water every day. We brush our teeth, flush the toilet, boil the kettle, have a shower, wash dishes and clothes, water the garden – but because it’s so central, many people aren’t conscious of water.
Why sponsor GovHack?
Despite current plentiful water, CHW led the water industry effort in sponsoring two GovHack challenges, one about water efficiency and another about water cycle.
“It’s not about us, it’s about the community. Everyone needs to get involved in the climate change issue that we face”.
“If we can’t make it rain, we need to conserve our water”.
Since the millennium drought, we haven’t evolved innovation in water efficiency.
Jacqui O’Neill observed the global trend in crowdsourcing and wondered how CHW could leverage this. While there are many commercial hackathons, she wanted instead to stimulate a conversation – originally, just locally, but in the end across Australia for the water industry – to find out how people think things could work better by using data.
Jacqui mentioned GovHack to her water industry colleagues at a conference and in the end nineteen associations, water authorities, and councils around Australia joined with CHW to support the involvement. Every state and territory, except ACT and TAS, were involved.
Saving water with data
Data on water storage and extraction (usage) of water is available. One of the challenges was the “water cycle” which examines where water comes from, where it’s used, and how is it returned to “Mother Earth” in a clean way. Sensors monitor levels and meters monitor extraction. Meters used for billing show how much of the water is used in households and commercial premises. The open data is not sensitive in that there is no customer information present.
Some water is lost. In Australia water loss due to evaporation is a challenge, but it varies according to location, local climate and the characteristics of the storage dam which might be shallow or deep where the surface area is relatively smaller and evaporation is reduced.
Customers are keen to save water as it saves them money but they need data. The water industry is using technology such as upgraded water meters, switching from old analog to new digital meters which helps people to understand their consumption better.
Many households have undetected leaks. A slowly leaking toilet cistern alone can cost $200 a year.
Under the CHW’s “E3 Water program,”, a digital meter will report data on a daily basis. This data will be made available to customers via a secure easy to use web portal. CHW is looking at sending an SMS alert to a customers if their water use is strangely high to prompt them to check for a leak.
The typical billing cycle, where customers only get billed several months after their usage, means that feedback about use is too remote from that use to notice a leak until it’s too late to avoid a big bill and save that water.
One customer, who participated in a trial of a digital meter, was informed that there was constant water use overnight. When visited it was found that they had a leak in the pipe between the meter and the house that could of cost the customer $1,500 a year.
Some of the community in central Victoria experience hardship and high utility bills due to leaks can be a big challenge. CHW has found that more real time information, such as data from modern live metering can help. It will take some years to roll out these meters but were encouraged that they will make a real difference based on our trials.
“It costs money to transport, clean and sanitise water. A small saving in every household is a significant saving across the community”.
Silicon Valley connection
While researching how to participate in GovHack, Jacqui found Anand Arivukkarasu who is based in Silicon Valley (working at Facebook at the time as product & growth manager) and he agreed to act as a GovHack judge, advisor and coach.
“The common link between Silicon Valley and central Victoria is a shared vision to solve global problems and a passion to create better communities. This is what attracted me to partner with CHW and why we continue to support their innovation efforts”Anand Arivukkarasu
Jacqui notes that when working with partners, it’s very important that your desired outcomes align. CHW and Anand “just clicked” as water is a global issue.
Jacqui was really pleased that 26 teams competed in challenge 1 titled “Innovative ways to be water efficient” and 19 in challenge 2 titled “water source to tap”. Anand had advised CHW not to define the challenges to specifically in order to leave them open to the creativity of the competitors.
“The outcome we were looking for, is an open conversation, about water across Australia”.
Saving water at home
There’s some simple things we can all do. Turn everything off in your house, go out to your water meter and check to see if it’s still ticking over. If it is – you most likely have a leak.
“We are probably one of the only industries that encourages customers not to use more of their product”.
Flow reduction shower heads, lower consumption appliances, hoses with a trigger and dual flush toilets have already saved a lot of water but there is more to do.
“Some of the most amazing ideas come from the most unusual places”
Central Highlands Water was thrilled to have GovHack contestants thinking about water for the three days of the competition. They saw a 34% increase in visits on the website before and during the competition.
Story by Peter Marks for GovHack