November 05, 2019
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Water Talks: How California’s Drought Is Fueling Data Innovation

In the first part of our monthly “Water Talks” series, Patrick Atwater of the California Data Collaborative and Greg Gearheart of the Water Board talk about current projects and future opportunities for data to help transform water management and drought resiliency.

By Tara Lohan,

THERE’S A LOT of talk right now in California about water data. Do we have enough of it? Are we doing the right things with the information that we do have? And how are we sharing and using that data?

Our first edition of “Water Talks,” a new, monthly conversation around hot topics in California water, centered on those crucial questions. Water Deeply’s managing editor Tara Lohan was joined by water data experts Patrick Atwater, who is the project manager at the California Data Collaborative, and Greg Gearheart, the deputy director at the State Water Resources Control Board’s Office for Information Management and Analysis.

Here’s an edited version of the conversation:

Tara Lohan: Patrick, I wanted to start by asking you about the California Data Collaborative, which you started in the last year. Explain what you are doing and why you saw the need for this organization. What was missing in this space?

Patrick Atwater: We’re not the only ones who saw the need for improving California’s water data systems. Greg was part of a Delta Vision white paper calling for broad improvements. With this historic drought, there was a particular urgency.

The California Data Collaborative was very much a bottom-up, water manager-led effort to invest in new data infrastructure to tackle some of the problems and provide water managers with the tools, the analytics and research to meet their objectives. Since launching in January we’ve grown from working with seven utilities to 10, ultimately serving 22 million Californians.

Lohan: What information are you able to provide for the utilities that sign up with you, and what are they doing with that information?

Atwater: With the drought, there’s a focus on efficiency, so we’re focused on metered urban water use and we use that for three key purposes. One is the rapidly evolving policy landscape with the first mandatory restrictions – trying to be smarter about that. The second is measuring program effectiveness. Southern California spent half a billion dollars on turf rebates, but how much water did that save? Thirdly, water is a funny business in that there aren’t a lot of businesses that try to get people to buy less of their product. To help utilities achieve revenue stability in times of water scarcity, we have a new open-source rate-comparison tool.

Tara Lohan: Greg, the Water Board deals with so many aspects of water management in California. Tell us a little bit about the information side. What kinds of information are you guys collecting? How is it used? How is it shared?

Lohan: When you’re looking at the landscape across the state, what are the limitations of the water data that’s being collected now?

Gearheart: Like many other organizations going through this process, we thought we knew what we had to collect when we built the database. Now that the databases are in their second or third generation of transformation, we’re starting to get back to the question of whether we were collecting the right data. There are also data quality issues. Finally there are issues with cleanup, making use of large amounts of data, and refining and transforming it so it’s more useful.

Atwater: A very concrete problem: Excel. People use Excel as a database, and it’s a useful, but it’s prone to manual error. We’ve evolved since Excel was developed in the last 20 years and there are more modern tools out there. I’ve seen it over and over again – reports to the state, all done in Excel. Or all the data sits in just one place – sometimes mission-critical data sits on one water use efficiency administrator’s desktop and doesn’t get shared internally within the organization.

Lohan: This seems like a good time to talk about A.B. 1755, the Open and Transparent Water Data bill that was recently signed by the governor. Is this a game changer?

Gearheart: My agency has been trying to get into the open data world for years. We’ve been using an open data platform run by the state of California – My agency already had a lot of plans to more forward, and the 1755 bill provides a vehicle for us to start talking about the idea of starting to mix this data to answer questions.

As you can imagine, there’s a bit of a turf element that goes along with data. If you own it, it’s something that you need to protect and use to ensure that your own agency’s mission is being fulfilled properly. There’s not a lot of incentive to share, and that’s where the bill does blast open some opportunities.

Atwater: We’re very interested. As consumers, the bill encompasses some of the state data resources that we love to use. As producers, being able to streamline reporting by local water utilities if we get the underlying infrastructural question right will be very good. There’s also very much a business case. This data can be used to help improve how we’re managing our water resources.

Tara Lohan: How do you overcome resistance from people in terms of not wanting to share data?

Atwater: There’s a ton of challenges – technically, in terms of dealing with all of these systems; legally, when it comes to privacy. There are also trust issues. But this is very mission-critical data, and there’s a business case in that it could help manage water better.

Eliminating those barriers can help water managers get the data points they need, which in turn lets them be effective stewards for this precious resource for the people of California. It takes a little bit more of a long-term view, and I think that it really speaks to the vision of some of the water managers who are participating.

Tara Lohan: How much do you think the drought is helping to drive move innovation in this field?

Atwater: Immensely.

Gearheart: It’s huge.

Tara Lohan: So why this time around? California has had serious droughts before.

Gearheart: I think it’s a perfect storm. Databases were the thing to build in 2002-ish, both on the state and local level. Now we’re starting to use that data and have an immense amount of information. At least in my agency, it was a brewing issue, whether the drought came along or not. But because of the drought, we need information.

We had monthly drought reports at our board meeting where the agencies would get up and they would read their data. Some were reading off of PDFprintouts. It became really clear to people that there must be a better way of sharing information than to have top executives show up to a board meeting on a monthly basis and read the data out loud. We have so much data, and we’re constantly building new databases, and people are asking: “What’s the purpose?” Well here it is – it’s the drought and the decisions we need to make.

Tara Lohan: That brings me to a question one of our readers sent in. How can we do a better job at communicating complex data to policymakers, so that we can make integrated, informed decisions and ultimately help the public become better water stewards?

Atwater: Visualizations can be nice – a map or a graph. I think that’s a really important question, though, because ultimately, the data analysis doesn’t actually do anything if you don’t get it into the hands of decision-makers. Part of that is making it palatable. Another part of it is working hand-in-hand with people who have the institutional expertise, so that you really understand the context behind the decisions.

Gearheart: We’re actually trying to deploy an initiative that deals with this question. I’ve been trying to build a storytelling platform for my colleagues. We’re at this moment where technology and data can really make that palatable. They didn’t have a week to set down a data-driven story a year ago, but now maybe they have half a day, and with some of our skills and training we can help them take data and tell that story and fill in that gap.

Tara Lohan: It seem like getting the data and making it available to people are two important steps, but also seeing what people are able to do with the data has really been fascinating. Greg, can you talk a little bit about the open data challenge that you guys had earlier in the year and a couple of the projects that came out of that?

Gearheart: We had nine or 10 entries, including an international one from Mexico City. Among the winners was a tool that really engaged our data systems and used it in a way that helped Orange County prioritize inspections. It was taking data and refining it to a targeted outcome.

The other was really interesting: The U.C. Davis Center for Water-Energy Efficiency started a conversation that built out of the water conservation set and applied it to an energy profile data set that it had for pumping districts and pumping regions in the state within cities. It calculated energy savings in real time associated with water conservation. Previously this had just been qualitatively described, but now we actually calculated it with this tool. So now there’s conversations going on about an approach of saving energy.

Atwater: I think open data is great, but we think a little different than some of our friends across the open data landscape. It’s actually been a blessing that the data that we’re working with is challenging to share, because it’s personally identifiable. That makes us really focused on who we want to share it with, and forces us to share it very specifically, for specific purposes.

That’s been one of the benefits of the well-valued scepticism of water managers. It was really valuable in helping us think through the business case – beginning with the end in mind. I’ve seen so many cases where there’s a desire to start with all the data, all at once, all the time and it’s a very easy recipe to get very confused.

Tara Lohan: I want to end by asking what you think is the most exciting opportunity in the water data space.

Atwater: The data presents an opportunity for all of us to work together so that we can adapt and deal with all this future uncertainty. That’s what’s exciting, because that’s what really actually matters.

Gearheart: I’m excited about the opportunity that the climate change and drought pressure is providing. It’s providing a need to focus, not just on the barriers, because we can spend a lot of time worrying about the barriers to opening up and sharing our data better, but on the most important data sets that are needed for important decisions. If you want to look for some hope, look to some of the data-driven initiatives in Australia. They have great budgeting tools, and that’s the hopeful, exciting thing to me. We can do this.

Atwater: California should be the ones leading this. The people are here, including in Silicon Valley. Let’s get it done.