United Utilities’ Anthony Conway on how big data and analytics is a "game changer" for the industry

Anthony Conway

At first glance, they may seem worlds apart. The hype around big data coming out of Silicon Valley versus a centuries old industry that is at the very foundation of metropolitan civilisation: water utilities. Can a marriage between the two yield significant dividends?

In this interview, Anthony Conway, Strategic Programs Director at United Utilities, a major water and wastewater supplier in the North West of England, discusses why he believes that big data offers big benefits in helping utilities drive customer service and efficiency.

PEX Network: Do you think big data is a game changer for the utility industry?

Anthony Conway: I think big data and analytics offers a host of benefits, helping companies to provide timely insights.

The landscape within which water companies operate is changing dramatically: rising energy costs, climate change and resilience, growing customer expectations and changes in the regulatory framework pose challenges.

This changing landscape demands innovation. It demands that we find ways of driving forward great customer service delivered very efficiently. In both of these areas big data and analytics is a major opportunity.

The cost of operational technology is ever reducing and analytics are becoming ever more sophisticated. The combination gives water companies the opportunity to derive actionable insight about what is happening when, so that we can enhance decision making, driving forward customer service and efficiency.

PEX Network: Could you give me an example of something that you’re doing at United Utilities with regards improved use of data?

Anthony Conway: One area is water production planning, which is at the very heart of what we do - United Utilities provides water and wastewater services to over 7 million customers in the Northwest of England. We are currently putting in place an end-to-end water production plan system that enables us to optimise our activities from source to tap. Analytics and data are at the centre of this approach, as we take data feeds across this end-to-end system and use analytics to make optimised decisions, all aimed at delivering great customer service, at a reduced cost.

Another example is energy management systems, where we’re modelling the energy usage of facilities. This enables us in real time to compare actual energy usage against modelled energy usage so we can identify the need to make interventions.

These examples and other areas, are all pieces of the analytics jigsaw, showing how we can harness data to give us better situational awareness, and actionable insights that deliver benefits for customers, shareholders and the environment.

PEX Network: Sounds as though it was a real wide range of benefits. But there is always a lot of hype around new technologies like big data. How can utility companies actually ensure that they’re deriving value from it, rather than just succumbing to the latest industry buzzword?

Anthony Conway: A large part of what I do is finding leading thinking and innovation from anywhere around the world, and introduce these new approaches into our organisation. I’ve visited many global innovation hubs and my view is that there are a lot of innovation opportunities available. The trick is finding it and landing it.

Within United Utilities, we’re focusing on three areas to enable the process of embracing innovation, and acting as "integrators of best thinking". The first is having the mechanisms in place to know what good looks like. This requires harvesting processes so that you know what the recently emerged and emerging innovation is. The second area is about being really agile at pursuing a pilot or trialling a new piece of innovation so you can make a decision about its suitability and wider roll out.The third area is about ensuring leadership behaviours remain focussed on championing innovation and removing obstacles that could get in the way of innovation. Remarkably, that's new to the water industry.

Company leadership has to be really championing innovation, because there can be a lot of roadblocks - human and structural - in the way of change. If you’ve got the leadership team behind it so that they see their role as playing on the pitch: always scrutinising their own functional areas in the context of an industry beyond the immediate reservoir or catchment, you can make those leaps really quickly.

PEX Network: I like that phrase you used: the integrators of best thinking.

Anthony Conway: There is a lot innovation around the world that has been driven by circumstances that we don't have in the UK, such as severe water scarcity or scarcity of finite resources. But much of it is transferable. My job is to see how that innovation might work in Manchester and Liverpool.

We are even looking beyond our sector, borrowing thinking from other industries, and in particular from manufacturing. When you look at our activities, and employ systems engineering type thinking, you realise that much of what we do has considerable similarity to production lines.

Factory type thinking has helped us shape our approach, as we work towards our production lines being monitored in real, or real enough time, with an analytic scalability to look backwards to understand the current performance of the production line, and to look forwards to forecast performance, with information distributed in a visually intelligent way around the organisation.

This approach is doubly relevant now as we move towards competition for non-domestic customers. We will be helping business customers to understand their manufacturing processes in a water conscious way. Helping the environment, helping the bottom line. Where better to start than by viewing our own waste production as a valuable opportunity?