Guest column: Digitalisation is cooperation 

Timo Vakkilainen Development Manager, Digital Services HSY

Once again, we've learned that - as a general term - digitalisation means quite different things to different people. I suppose we have achieved a sufficient consensus that it's not just about technology, but more like the development of an operating process with a new kind of technology.  In terms of water management, this opens up quite a playing field, starting from the analysis of raw water and wastewater quality to monitoring of networks, but also new kinds of operating practices at the customer interface and within customer service.

The Internet of Things, or IoT for short, is the driving force behind many water management digitalisation projects. IoT is usually – and quite correctly – linked to the collection of information. Sensors and a variety of terminals are used to collect data. This has actually been going on for years. However, it has involved point-to-point or machine-to-machine (P2P and M2M) data connections that have only been used to monitor and control the particular process in question.  Modern data utilisation needs are nevertheless much more complex than that which can be achieved using traditional M2M. Nowdays, you must also be able to re-use and refine data. Or at least this would make sense. Ecosystems based on data, and on the platform economy they form, are already here and more are on their way. 

Role of waterworks

The operating principle of waterworks is to provide a high-quality supply of drinking water for customers. And obviously to take care of wastewater, that is, to recycle and clean it, and return it to the natural cycle in an environmentally friendly way. Water management has traditionally been based on estimated water consumption, adjusted by actual consumption reported by customers as stated in the terms and conditions. Water meter readings can be sent to the water company by just about any method imaginable. With varying success. What has been common to all these methods is that a human eye has been required to read a meter, whether it's for your ham in the oven, or an electricity or other kind of meter.

With luck, the reading comes from the real property's water meter, which, as a stupid mechanical piece of equipment has only been capable of displaying the reading, nothing better.  As a "nationwide infrastructure", water management has been compared one way or the other with power grids. Electricity customers have long been accustomed to automatic remote readings and almost real-time consumption monitoring. These are features which water management customers have also, quite rightly, requested. The systems and conditions required for providing a similar service level are obviously somewhat different, but quite possible to implement using modern technology.

Meters are continuously developing

Water meters that send a reading once or a few times a day are already available on the market. However, the data transfer method and costs vary considerably. Consumption monitoring is still rather crude with current meters, and small leaks, for example, go practically undetected. Waterworks and at least the Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority HSY, which is in charge of water management in the region, also expect other features from remotely read meters, besides daily consumption data.

Items at the top of the wish list include line pressure, temperature and backflow. Once the ideal meter has been found, it will still take years for all the meters to be changed – in the HSY region alone, there are around 80,000. However, customer expectations regarding consumption monitoring, leak alarms and more real-time invoicing cannot wait this long. Solutions by third parties, such as Smartvatten, enable a shortcut to digitalisation.

Value added services for customers' daily assistance

Even in its basic form, the leak alert service changes the processes of the customer, that is, the property owner. We can get to the core of digitalisation, if we can utilise and refine data collected by the service even further. And that is what we are doing. HSY is continuously seeking new ways to make its customers' daily lives easier. For example, we have been taking water meter readings through a machine interface for a few years already. This channel enables us to obtain readings from Smartvatten customers automatically once a month. Monthly readings will become increasingly important in the future. This is because our future invoicing system will enable monthly invoicing based on actual consumption for customers who can send us their water meter reading once a month in one way or another.

The future is being built together

Our operating model is well in line with the ecosystem philosophy described above. The ecosystem can utilise water meter readings in many ways. In the example given here, Smartvaten offers its customers a leak monitoring and reading transfer service, whereas HSY uses the readings as a basis for its invoicing. The forthcoming monthly invoicing based on actual consumption will serve HSY, as well as the real property acting as the customer.  The ecosystem could work differently in the future. When consumption data is finally transferred automatically from remotely read water meters to HSY, it will be natural to provide customers with their own consumption data for their own use, perhaps for transfer to a third party, such as Smartvatten, to be further refined for leak monitoring. Waterworks are an integral part of any country's infrastructure and ecosystems in the built environment. I hope that we can continue to play a strong role in ecosystems that bring added value to our customers.  Ecosystems, platform economy, networks and cooperation, that's what the future is made of.  

Timo Vakkilainen Development Manager, Digital Services HSY

The Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority HSY is a joint municipal authority that produces water management and waste management services, and information about the Helsinki region and its environment. The joint municipal authority was founded by its member municipalities: Espoo, Helsinki, Kauniainen and Vantaa. 

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