Isle Utilities work with the water industry to assess new technologies and assist with their adoption into the workplace. Technologies such as high-res monitoring of pressurised sewer lines, transient event and leak detection, and low power, narrow bandwidth, long-range networks for the IoT are not only important for improving day-to-day business operations but also translate to more efficient IT systems and data management processes.
Isle Utilities first launched its Technology Approval Group (TAG) in the UK in 2005. The innovative platform is now available to utilities all over the world, including Australia. The aim of the TAG forum is to provide a platform to evaluate emerging technologies, share best practice, and collaborate on technology trials and other projects.
The Australian TAG forum is being run in partnership with the Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA), and its members consist of over 30 of Australia’s largest urban water utilities, including Sydney Water, Melbourne Water, SA Water and Western Water.
Managing Director, Tim Day, joined Isle Utilities Australia in 2014 after experience in a number of similar roles, most notably as Managing Director for eMeter APAC, a Silicon Valley clean tech company purchased by Siemens in 2011.
“What attracted me to the company was its focus on the adoption of innovative clean tech in the utility sector and, in doing this, their novel approach being funded by the end users of technology to source and implement technologies. This model means that Isle is independent and can be a trusted advisor as we do not take success fees from technology providers,” Mr Day said.
Mr Day explained that Isle Utilities will only look at a technology if there is, at minimum, a working prototype. This ensures there is something tangible to evaluate and customers find more value in being presented with technologies whose claims have already been validated.
“They must at least have a working prototype which we can evaluate both through getting an understanding of the technology and also validating their claims independently. For example, if a technology claims that they have done a trial with a utility, we have the global contacts in place to approach the utility to understand the scope of the project, the objectives and the outcomes,” Mr Day said.
“Isle’s employees are all highly qualified engineers and scientists with years of domain expertise. We use this technical and domain expertise to evaluate technologies both from a first principles perspective but also to independently validate their claims by checking through their proof points.”
Reducing the fear-factor
Over the last 12 months, over 200 technologies were assessed through TAG. Around 70 per cent of technologies that present at TAG move forward with either trials, demonstrations or further research.
For the past ten years, Isle Utilities’ major focus has been the water sector, particularly the municipal water sector. They have also done work for the gas, electricity and agricultural sectors, and are looking at expanding into the resources sector as well.
“This benefits everyone as there are many technologies that get pigeon-holed into one sector or another and we can use our business model to help them cross over and also allow collaboration between non-competing sectors,” Mr Day commented.
He also said that knowing about the technology is one thing but getting it adopted into a business, and getting them to realise the benefits, is key.
“Utilities are typically risk averse, with good reason, and find it difficult to engage all the necessary stakeholders early in a process. While they may run many trials they tend not to progress as they come up against barriers within the organisation,” Mr Day said.
“Everyone loses in that money is spent without a return and the technology provider gets burnt in the process. We provide an independent voice to ensure that technology vendors and end users in utilities do not communicate at cross purposes.
“It is typically difficult for a technology or utility company to understand each other’s issues. Technology companies become frustrated as the pace of action may not be what they are used to as an agile startup and the utility companies become frustrated as they can’t make sense of the technology or see it as a technology trying to find a problem to solve.
“Isle can sit between the two and make sure the steps in moving the technology through the technology adoption model are done efficiently, with the correct checks and balances.”
Isle Utilities uses cloud-based services for the management of its data and all of the data that it has gathered is held on its TAG platform, which is available to all of its members.
“To date, Isle has evaluated over 4000 technologies so there is quite a list. We are currently upgrading this platform so that it is easier to search for the technologies that are there” Mr Day said.
“The first part of this we have called CATWizard, which is a tool for evaluating Condition Assessment Technologies for potable water pipes. Subscribers can search on multiple criteria to determine which technologies suit their purposes.”
The technologies are also reviewed by utilities from around the world, which keeps the information current and allows for global collaboration. Despite the huge number of technologies evaluated, Mr Day said that Isle Utilities deals with relatively low amounts of data compared to the water utilities they work with.
Optimising data and disruptive models
According to Mr Day, one of the main challenges with data collection is ensuring that it stays current and that there are strategies in place so that it remains relevant and valuable to the business.
“We are redeveloping our technology platform to ensure that a technology that was evaluated ten years ago has the most current information in our portal now, as no doubt there has been lots of changes given the technologies we are looking at are startups and would have been fully commercialised within that period,” Mr Day said.
“As such we are borrowing from areas like social media, and the latest in web design and architecture to present the technologies in a more accessible way and also keep the information current by getting users of the technology to contribute to the information that keeps it fresh and current.”
As an organisation that comes across innovative and emerging technologies all the time, Isle Utilities are definitely seeing the impact of big data on traditional data management processes.
“What we are seeing more of is technologies that are disruptive to the traditional IT paradigm of holding all data behind a firewall. Operational technologies are being bundled using a software as a service (SaaS) model where data being generated is held in the cloud,” Mr Day said.
“This is obviously a challenge for utilities as the only way to get access to these technologies is to let go of the traditional view which is often supported by regulation. This is not to say that utilities are not adopting this way of managing their data as they are but it’s how the paradigm shift is being managed that is important in regards to data access, transparency and security.”
Mr Day said that the biggest lesson for utilities to learn is that is very difficult to test for scale.
“Technology companies can build software with all of the architectural elements needed for scale but until you actually get there no-one really knows how scale will impact a business process or the technology that is coupled with it.
“The lesson here is to be prepared for the worst outcome and scale your applications in a controlled manner if you have the opportunity to do so,” Mr Day said.