Measuring water in bits and bytes

One of the workshops at the recent Water Scarcity conference at KTH was dedicated to the topic ICT for Water. ICT stands for Information and Communication Technology, and actually encompasses many engineering technologies. Most of us interpret ICT as the integration of technologies that makes it possible to store, transmit, access and process information. The main question of the workshop was how ICT could help today — to achieve sustainable use of water tomorrow?

Short keynote speeches from two large projects helped us to set the state. First, Annika Malm from RISE introduced the Mistra InfraMaint project, with the focus of smart maintenance of infrastructures in general and water infrastructure in particular. Then, Bin Xiao from Ericsson talked about Vinnova iWater, a technology project that aims at demonstrating the use of ICT to build water quality monitoring and early warning systems. The two keynotes already showed that there is a large spectrum of possible challenges and possible technologies that can fall under the umbrella of ICT for Water.

iWater. Photo: Ericsson

Workshop participants from municipalities and water authorities expressed though their doubts towards the technology push that they experience today, which showed there is a need for knowledge transfer from academia to industry and institutions– to understand the most pressing challenges towards a sustainable use of water, as well as the solutions ICT may provide. Discovering that the term pipeline means something for both communities, helped us on the way.

Privacy preserving data processing – notes from the workshop

We dedicated the rest of the time towards a small backcasting exercise. Backcasting is a planning method that first defines the desirable future, and then progresses backwards to find the first action we need to take to get there. The results of the exercise were indeed surprising for us from the ICT community. While we all can imagine that more measurements, more data analysis and digitalized control of water distribution would help to reach a more sustainable use of water in the future, it turned out that the major role of ICT today would be to establish the conditions for new investments and the availability of data.

As we learned, investments in the water sector in Sweden are sluggish because of the general belief that water comes for free.  Even if we ourselves rarely experience it, we still believe and behave as if unlimited amount of clean water would be available in a well just outside our door.  Therefore, the first task of ICT is to make the public as well as the policymakers understand the cost of clear water today and in the future, with the help of data driven modeling, prediction and visualization.

Data about water quality and availability however is highly protected, as water is a very important national resource. This may hinder the use of aggregated data from many sources, a necessity of accurate water availability modeling. ICT here can come with an important contribution. Privacy preserving communication, storage, and data analytics techniques were originally designed with individuals as users in mind, who would like to avoid sharing personal information, but still learn from common experiences of a community. The very same solutions could allow the sharing of water quality information, without revealing the location, the time and the exact nature of the measurements.

Even this short workshop demonstrated that pressing need of more discussions between the communities of water experts, and the ICT sector. To facilitate these discussions will be our foremost goal with the digitalization activities of the Water Center.

/Viktoria Fodor and Carlo Fischione