Chief Technology Officer and Former IBM Technologist, Joey Bernal, on using custom mobile apps to yield consumer data.

BlueDataIn today’s increasingly computerized and mechanized world, cities and large organizations are constantly creating almost unimaginable volumes and varieties of data. These entities can often make significant progress in gathering the most relevant data and improving the efficiency of operations by automating (or instrumenting) systems and making wider use of customized mobile apps. The constant baseline of data unleashed in infrastructure and utility systems are prime starting points for applying new automation and mobile technology.

Automating systems, and the frequent integration of thousands of sensors within systems (“The Internet of Things”), has become a hot topic in the infrastructure and utilities management fields. For cities managing the infrastructure side of the equation, supply side data (i.e., water supply and distribution) is generally the most important. For large organizations such as private sector utility companies, the consumer side of data (i.e., monitoring water use) tends to be a higher priority.

Regardless of what industry or market you’re in, your focus when investing in and applying new technology for gathering and organizing data is almost certainly reducing costs and improving efficiency. The sticking point is that most systems monitoring technology involving sensors and highly customized data-capture tend to be expensive. So, is it worth that investment for the average municipality or utility company?

Consider the Combined Sewer Overflow systems—the result of partnerships between IBM and city water management departments in cities across the United States and Canada. Generally, storm water and wastewater go through the same system underground. However, when there’s a heavy storm with a high volume of rain added in the mix, wastewater can overflow into nearby natural bodies of water.

In a storm, the dilution that happens with heavy rainfall allows for rivers, streams and lakes to continue meeting Environmental Protection Agency monitoring standards. When that overflow is the result of a block, and there is no rain water to dilute the wastewater system spillover, major fines and cleanup fees can result.

Combined Sewer Overflow is designed to detect any overflow, instantly analyze the reason for the leakage and dispatch a repair crew if it’s because of a blockage or flaw in the system rather than natural causes. Having a system in place that monitors and organizes incoming data while also allowing for a quick mitigation response is a far more efficient and cost-effective way of dealing with the problem. In this instance, cities and large organizations can save a great deal of money lost to fines or cleanup fees while they look at adding longer-term solutions.

Giving employees who work out in the field access to streamlined mobile technology is also proving to be a solid investment for cities or large organizations looking to invest in ways to gather more relevant data. In Kenya, cities are increasing productivity and efficiency by outfitting water-meter readers with customized mobile apps.

In the past, these meter readers would visit hundreds of homes every day and enter readings in thick manual-entry data logs. The new mobile technology allows them to enter data faster and more efficiently. The improved speed and accuracy of these mobile readings also save utilities from having to make a much more expensive investment in smart meters.

In all of these systems, the ability to take advantage of unstructured data is increasing cost-savings opportunities by giving cities and large organizations a baseline that helps them to detect and act on anomalies in the data. By having a better sense of what “normal” looks like over time, these groups can create more effective action plans for responding to problems and to keep systems in check.