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We need to be smarter about managing water

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As we mark World Water Day, it's time to get smarter about water usage.

Peter Williams is an IBM Distinguished Engineer and CTO of Smarter Water.

A devastating flood hits Rio de Janeiro, killing hundreds and leaving thousands homeless. High temperatures and drought in major portions of the U.S. last summer led to failed crops, fewer cattle and spikes in food prices, which we're still seeing in supermarkets. NASA satellites reveal big drops in key water reserves in the Middle East. Cities are growing, causing skyrocketing concentration of demand. Agricultural and industrial development continues apace, often polluting and depleting rivers, aquifers and oceans. Water availability is widely regarded by defense planners as a threat to global stability, and increasingly by corporate risk managers as a source of risk.

Too much water, too little water. The nature of our relationship with this critical resource is changing.

As we mark World Water Day on Friday, in a year when the United Nations has declared 2013 as the "International Year of Water Cooperation," it's a good time to pause and think about how to get smarter about water management.

It’s clear we need new approaches to managing water. With big challenges like these, turning to examples of pioneers can often be the most insightful -- and encouraging -- approach to take. My company is working with companies and communities around the world to tackle the particular issues and crises that water in the 21st Century faces. Our approach is based on sensing, integration of data sources and sophisticated analytics -- the proverbial "big data."

Here are some innovative examples.

In response to the pollution risks that our rivers and citizens’ health face, South Bend, Indiana, rolled out a cloud computing-based operations center that lets the city manage its waste water systems in real time, dynamically changing how it moves and stores hazardous waste water.

Like some 800 U.S. cities, South Bend has a combined sewer system in which storm water and sewage run through the same pipes. During big storms, the system simply couldn’t handle all the incoming water, so sewage was dumped directly into the river or ended up backing up in basements.

Using a sensor network embedded throughout the system and smart analytics, South Bend can now predict the potential overflow of waste water, helping to protect citizens and the environment by slashing overflows during storms by 23 percent and virtually eliminating dry weather waste water overflows. And by turning to technology, the city avoided undertaking a massive, $120 million infrastructure overhaul of its system.

Water used to be a commodity in many communities. But not anymore. The Valley of the Moon Water Agency in California is leading the way with innovative approaches to automatically detecting leaks and managing pressure in its water system. Using analytics, the program helps Valley of the Moon slash water loss, save energy, and cut infrastructure wear by optimizing the setting of the pressure reducing valves in its distribution network.

In the past, Valley of the Moon District staff had to continuously and manually adjust the pressure of each valve to maintain pressure across the system. Now, using data from existing sensors as well as from billing, pressure gauges, and flow loggers, analytics provides the engineers with detailed information for recommendations of optimal settings for each valve based on what’s happening across the entire system so that valves can be quickly and easily adjusted.

We can’t stop flooding in many cases, but we can control how we respond to these disasters. After the floods in Rio in 2010, which were the worst natural disaster in Brazil’s history, the city created a state-of-the art operations center that applies bid data analytical models to predict and coordinate reaction to emergencies. The center acts as a central nervous system, integrating information and processes from across 30 different city agencies into a single operations center, providing a holistic view of how the city is functioning, and coordinating responses not just to emergencies, but to traffic congestion, potential brownouts, and crime.

At the same time, Rio rolled out a weather forecasting and hydrological modeling system that can predict heavy rains up to 48 hours in advance. And it implemented an automated alert system to reduce the reaction times to emergency situations by using mobile communications to reach emergency personnel and citizens.

Water is a shared resource, crossing boundaries, potentially leading to clashes and shared problems. That’s in part why the four councils of the city of Dublin crafted a novel response to managing water by creating an innovative data-sharing network called Dublinked. The system allows  them to exchange information, coordinate their efforts on water quality issues that cross council boundaries, and improve their ability to proactively tackle issues.

The Dublinked portal provides a common mechanism and data source that companies and individuals can use to work together. At the same time, the network enables data-driven innovation and promotes Dublin as a world leader in developing and testing new urban solutions.

Governments, cities, utilities, and businesses around the world are hammering out what the era of smarter water management will look like. At the heart of all of this work is big data analytics. Tons of data about how water is being used, wasted, and contaminated. And there are few instances where a basic understanding can be so transformative -- or where it is so desperately needed.

To learn more about how Rio de Janiero is becoming a smarter city, check out this video.

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