GWMWater eyes future as ‘digital utility’

Investing in an integrated enterprise software suite has helped drive customer service outcomes at the Victorian water corporation

A focus on customer service outcomes at GWMWater — the Grampians Wimmera Mallee Water Corporation — has been underpinned by the organisation’s investment in a unified enterprise software suite that can deliver a single source of truth for key data, as well as an emphasis on eliminating manual processes at the utility.

At the same time, the investment in technology by the organisation has meant it is able to offer data-driven services to its 72,000 customers. “We’re positioning ourselves around being a digital utility,” explained GWMWater’s managing director, Mark Williams.

GWMWater is a vertically integrated water business in Victoria’s west. The government-owned corporation was established in 2004 and serves an area covering almost quarter of the state: Over 60,000 square kilometres — an area, Williams noted, about the size of Tasmania. In terms of industry, it is dominated by agriculture and some niche horticulture with a bit of mining.

Over the last quarter of a century, significant work has been performed to reengineer much of the water infrastructure in the area currently served by GWMWater. That has included the Wimmera Mallee Pipeline project, which was one of the largest water infrastructure projects Australia has seen, involving the replacement of 17,500 kilometres of open channels with over 9100 kilometres of pipeline.

The project saves 103 billion litres of water a year, according to GWMWater, servicing 36 towns and 7000 rural customers across the Wimmera and Mallee.

Accompanying the investment in water infrastructure has been spending on digital infrastructure, rolling out sensors across the utility’s network and investing in back-office systems, according to Williams.

GWMWater itself was formed from the fusion of the Grampians Region Water Authority and the Wimmera-Mallee Water Authority.

“In 2004 there were two water businesses: A rural business that looked after the headworks and an urban business, covering basically the same footprint,” Williams said.

Merging the businesses meant there was a need to roll out a unified IT platform. The merger took place around the time as work begun on the $688 million pipeline project.

A final business case for the pipeline was released in September 2004, and then deputy prime minister John Anderson announced funding for the project that month. The first pipes were laid in September 2005.

Initially, GWMWater needed something that would deliver project management and project accounting for the massive undertaking.

The utility chose OneWater from ASX-listed software vendor TechnologyOne.

“It started off around finance, but at the same time we also needed a billing solution that would deal with both our rural customer base and urban customer base – there were two different billing solutions,” Williams said.

“We made a commitment around those two systems then, and as we’ve evolved we’ve picked up the asset management system as well, which has underpinned works management and work orders.”

GWMWater has also rolled out OneWater’s HR, corporate performance management and supply chain modules.

In the early days of Grampians Water, the emphasis was on best of breed systems (Williams joined GWMWater from Grampians Water, where he wrote the organisation’s original ICT strategy).

“Integration has been a bigger driver in more recent times around our system acquisitions,” he said. That has been part of the appeal of going with a vendor suite, though he adds that ease of integration is still only one of the criteria for investment at GWMWater.

Rolling out a platform that can act as a single source of truth for the organisation has helped drive better customer service, Williams said.

“Our call centre for example relies very much on the data that’s available in OneWater to support any phone enquiries. Whether it’s a customer-related enquiry or an enquiry relating to something operational happening in the field, they can access that information real time whilst the customer is on the phone and relay that back.”

GWMWater participates in Customer Service Benchmarking Australia by virtue way of Victoria’s Essential Services Commission.

“Over the last five years we’ve been consistently in the top 10 companies for their mystery shopping exercise,” Williams said. “We’ve been consistently top 10, and for the last two newsletters number one in Australia.”

OneWater has helped eliminate some manual processes and reduced double entry of data, Williams said.

“More importantly, in our regulator audits we’ve substantially increased the reliability of the data that the auditors rely on which become part of a water industry benchmarking report that the ESC produce annually.”

“The confidence intervals in our data are some of the highest of water businesses around Australia,” he added.

In the aftermath of the pipeline project, staff at the utility peaked at about 200; efficiencies achieved in part through reducing manual processes has seen that drop to around 175 employees through a process of natural attrition.

The organisation also has a “significant investment” in SCADA, underpinned by Schneider Electric’s ClearSCADA, Williams said.

“That underpins the whole surveillance of our operating network,” the managing director said. At the moment, the focus is on data collection rather than control, though he expects that to change. The data is fed into the OneWater asset management module.

“It’s providing the key data that can then find its way into the asset system — so it is a data collection environment. Obviously one of the big challenges you have, is as you put more sensors on your networks, you can get a whole multitude of data.”

Mobile access to the organisation’s asset management system is used by staff to record work-order information while in the field.

One key tech project the organisation has rolled out of the last 18 months is a low-powered telemetry application covering all of its rural water meters. The data delivered from that platform is fed into OneWater for billing.

“It supports the operational environment, but more importantly our customers can actually see in pseudo-real-time what’s happening at a metered point on at their property,” Williams said.

“A rural customer might have anything up to four or five metered points. If they’re running livestock in an area they want to be confident that the sheep are still accessing water. If it stops they certainly would want to go out there and have a look.”

Similarly, “if there’s a leak on the property and they don’t think anything should be happening there — it’s dribbling water for whatever reason — then they can go and check that,” he said.

“In our commissioning phase, we were able to identify properties that actually had a couple of leaks. Even to the point where we rang one customer and they said, ‘We’re pretty confident that we’re using a bit of water – we’re spraying at the moment, we’ve got some stock, and we’re using a bit on the garden.’

“They went on holiday and water use actually ramped up. We were able to identify about three points where they had leaks on their side of the meter — and that’s a better discussion to have at that point rather than when they get their bill.”

Customers can access the data via a smartphone or a web browser, allowing them to monitor water consumption and see trend information. Around 10 per cent of the utility’s customer base is taking advantage of the digital offering, Williams said.

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