California fights drought with big data, cloud computing

Sensors, the Internet of Things, and hackathons will also have a role in historic drought

California is facing its worst drought in more than 100 years, and one with no end in sight. Conserving water has never been more important, and Silicon Valley has an opportunity to offer technological solutions to the problem.

Consider, for example, the approach the East Bay Municipal Utility District took to encouraging customers to reduce water consumption.

Using technologies not available in earlier droughts, the Oakland-based agency issued report cards on water usage to 10,000 of its 650,000 customers in a year-long pilot program. For instance, EBMUD would put worried-looking smiley faces on the statements it sent to people in two-person households who used more than 127 gallons per day -- the average for a household that size. The statements disclosed each household's actual water usage and urged the customers to "take action" -- and many did.

The usage reports helped to reduce water consumption by 5% by encouraging behavioral changes, according to a recent study on the EBMUD program. The utility said the reporting system, developed by WaterSmart Software, could "go a long way" toward helping the state meet its goal of a reducing water usage by 20% per capita statewide.

WaterSmart, a San Francisco-based venture-funded company, delivers its tools via a software-as-a-service (SaaS) setup. All the utility has to do is export its usage data to the platform; no integration work is required, said Peter Yolles, CEO and founder of WaterSmart.

What has changed since the last major drought in California, which occurred between 1987 and 1992, has been "the rise of whole new technologies, software as a service, big data, behavioral economics -- all three of those are new since the last drought in California," Yolles said.

The reports that the East Bay utility delivers to customers include recommendations for water-saving strategies based on their water usage histories, household characteristics, and season of the year.

One person who sees the drought as a way to bring about social change is Brinkley Warren, who, about two weeks ago, began organizing a hackathon to find solutions to the problem. His " Hack the Drought" movement has featured meetups in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Warren, who holds degrees in journalism and mass communications, is a Fulbright fellow and an entrepreneur. He said he is using the hackathon's "open innovation process" to bring together people with diverse skills.

The goal is to connect innovators and other creative types with water management experts to help frame the problem, and then form teams to find solutions. This approach is about "co-creating the product and the solution alongside the people who are actually facing the problem," Warren said.

Out of this process, Warren hopes innovative ideas and prototypes will emerge that find support and corporate sponsors. "The idea is to find other people who are much better than me to become leaders and go forth with it," he said.

The need for innovation in the water technology market was identified by a team of people who, in 2007, formed Imagine H2O, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that runs water technology competitions and provides a platform for connecting winners with investors, customers and pilot opportunities.

Scott Bryan, the chief operating officer of Imagine H2O, said the organization doesn't have equity in the startup ventures it helps. The effort is focused on "trying to address the market failure in the water sector," he explained.

Bryan said the drought is bringing attention to the water technology issue, but it's difficult to make a return on investment in the water technology market. It can take a long time to bring a new water-related technology to market, he said.

The industry is seeing changes. One positive development is the increased use of smart meters, which collect a wealth of information about water usage and can offer a company such as WaterSmart more data to work with.

"This is an industry that doesn't have a whole lot of data yet, and that's where there will be quite a bit of opportunity," Bryan said.

WaterSmart was one Imagine H20 winner. Another is a company called Leak Defense Alert.

Scott Pallais, the CEO of Leak Defense, is planning to release, in the second quarter, a technology for detecting leaks that is analogous to a smoke detector.

Pallais says his device will be easy to install and is relatively inexpensive. It will include a heating element and temperature sensor that is attached to the outside of an intake pipe to detect the flow of water. A plumber is not needed for installation.

The system is designed to work with home security systems or apart from them, and can use a home's network Wi-Fi to alert a homeowner to a potential issue.

If there is no water flowing through a pipe, the temperature stays about the same; if water is flowing, the temperature declines. The system is sensitive enough to detect a running toilet, but is also configurable so it doesn't trigger an alert when someone is taking a shower, Pallais said.

Pointing out that water leaks can cause billions of dollars in losses, Pallais said that he believes there's a big market for this device. "It's a very simple principle," he said of the technology.

This article, " California Fights Drought With Big Data, Cloud Computing," was originally published on Computerworld.com.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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