Data-Smart City Solutions


By Laura Adler

This summer, as drought plagued California and Houston flooded, the issue of water became front-page news across the United States. Whether cities face scarcity or abundance—forced to conserve water or plan for torrential rain—new tools are emerging that leverage the Internet of Things to effectively manage water. Using sensors and analytics, these resources are helping officials, citizens, and businesses accurately predict everything from crop yields to rainwater runoff in order to increase efficiency, enhance conservation, and reduce pollution throughout the water system.

Smart irrigation in the face of drought

The drought in California comes at a great cost. In 2014, the state lost $2.2 billion, including three percent of agricultural revenue, due to water shortages—and the drought has only worsened since. The agriculture industry consumes approximately 80 percent of California’s water. As shortages loom, farmers are worrying about business, and broader concern is building about how we will feed a growing global population on dwindling resources.

The agriculture industry is beginning to adopt technological solutions to help turn less water into more food. Companies such as Hortau and CropX and nonprofits like Santa Cruz County’s Community Water Dialogue are implementing radio- or cellular-enabled sensor systems that track variables including rainfall, humidity, soil composition, topography, temperature, and sunlight. Coupled with analytics and weather prediction data, this information enables farmers to make smarter decisions about irrigation. The basic principles of data-driven agriculture, or “precision agriculture,” have been in place for years, but with sensor-enabled devices, farmers can develop a detailed picture of conditions on the ground, with the potential water savings up to 20-30 percent. In addition to saving water, the systems reduce the need for fertilizer and improve soil quality by preventing runoff from overwatering. 

The Internet of Things is enabling smarter use of water at home, in the fields, and across American cities.

Cities are also adopting data-driven irrigation to manage municipal properties. Santa Clarita, CA retrofitted the municipal irrigation system with sensors in order to more efficiently manage limited water supplies while maintaining 700 acres of parks and other planted cityscape. The system, designed by HydroPoint Data Systems and expected to save 180 million gallons of water, uses sensors in the soil to measure evapotranspiration—the water consumed by plants and evaporated from the soil. This data is used in conjunction with information about the landscape to predict water needs and plan irrigation. The system reduces pollution by eliminating runoff contaminated by fertilizers.

Limiting loss by leakage

While cities and startups tackle irrigation, other innovators are focusing on how to reduce waste in urban water transportation systems. An estimated 2.1 trillion gallons of clean, treated water are lost every year to leaks in water infrastructure across the US. In 2013, Houston lost 15 percent of its water—15 billion gallons—to leaking pipes. There is a critical need to replace aging infrastructure, which is responsible for both slow leakage and abrupt water main breaks. But even aggressive efforts to fix leaks will not keep up with the rate of new leak formation.

The most efficient solution for retaining water is actually an easier one to achieve: minimizing water pressure. Companies like AquamatiX and i2O are helping cities to better control the flow of water by embedding sensors in water pipes throughout the distribution network and connecting them to pump control systems. These sensors monitor water flow, feeding the data back to facilitate optimized water pumping throughout the system. By minimizing the amount of water in the pipes, cities can reduce the amount lost to leakage and prevent the formation of new leaks. In the process, the system also saves energy by reducing the need for pumping. Moreover, by distributing water monitoring throughout the network, these technologies can detect abrupt events, like bursts, facilitating faster response and minimizing water loss.

Managing stormwater to minimize runoff and maximize utility

In addition to conserving limited freshwater resources, the Internet of Things is helping cities curb the pollution of waterways by anticipating and planning for heavy rainfall. Cities across the US manage sophisticated wastewater infrastructure aimed at removing contaminants before returning water to oceans and rivers. But when a heavy storm hits, these facilities are overburdened and raw sewage is regularly dumped into waterways.

This intensive pollution could be prevented if cities were better prepared for rainfall. Firms like Opti are helping cities pull together data from water storage facilities and weather predictions to ensure that there is sufficient space to collect and process rainwater runoff. With analytics and smart infrastructure management, cities can plan for maximum runoff capture and processing, with the dual benefit of increasing water harvesting and reducing pollution.

Similar technologies can be used to help maximize the benefits of the weather. AquamatiX has worked with Basingstoke Canal Authority in Hampshire and Surrey Counties, UK, where rainfall is scarce but critical to wildlife and human activity. Using the Internet of Things to monitor weather predictions and canal levels and control sluice positions, the Canal Authority can manage the system to collect and maintain as much rainfall as possible.

Conserving at home

Although residential water use accounts for only a fraction of consumption, new tools are emerging to help individuals support water conservation at home. Companies like WaterSmart are helping people gain a better understanding of their consumption and identify leaks, pulling in billions of data points to track real-time and long-term consumption. For those with access to smart water meters—which constitute 18 percent of water meters in North America as of 2013 and are expected to spread—programs like WaterSmart can help people track daily usage and find opportunities to conserve.

The Internet of Things is enabling smarter use of water at home, in the fields, and across American cities. By tackling old problems in creative ways—using technologies that are simple and increasingly inexpensive—these firms and their government partners are reducing waste and keeping waterways clean. There are challenges that will have to be addressed: as with all critical infrastructure, the use of Internet of Things technologies opens up security vulnerabilities. Moreover, there is room for improving the efficiency of low-power, high-range communication devices on which the Internet of Things depends. But as urbanization and the need to feed a growing population demands more from our water supply, the smart use of the Internet of Things will help to save money and conserve precious resources for the next generation.

About the Author

Laura Adler

Laura Adler is a PhD student in Sociology at Harvard. She received a Bachelors from Yale University and a Masters in City Planning from the University of California, Berkeley. Laura's research interests include urban planning and social policy in the US and abroad, with recent academic work focused on the relationship between urban governance and technology. Prior to beginning graduate study at Harvard, Laura worked for the City of New York's Department of Information Technology, where she focused on long-term technology strategy in support of the city's operations and expanding broadband access for New York City residents.



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