The water utility challenge of turning data into decisions

Utility management


The world is on the verge of a smart revolution, with devices everywhere generating ever-increasing volumes of data. How can water utilities turn that opportunity into better management decisions? Keith Hayward spoke with Professor Gustaf Olsson, co-author of a new book dealing with exactly this question.

Professor Gustaf Olsson
Professor Gustaf Olsson

As professor emeritus in industrial automation at Lund University, Sweden, Gustaf Olsson has probably had as good a view as anyone of the growing data revolution. He took up his original professorship in 1987 and around that time was charged with looking into how the university could replace its central computer. Through contact with MIT he heard of their plans to obtain one thousand computers each with at least one megabyte of memory. ‘What would you do with one megabyte? People had no idea,’ he recalls.

Fast forward 30 years and the change that has taken place would have been almost unimaginable then. Olsson can though see ways that we are failing to take advantage of the opportunities technological developments have opened up. Much greater use could be made of affordable sensors in water and wastewater networks and in wastewater treatment plants, for example. ‘Let’s open our eyes and see what kind of sensor technology is possible,’ he says. There is also a lack of clarity over what to do with the data that is being generated. ‘If we have these thousands of sensors, or whatever it is, what difference does it make?’ asks Olsson. And he believes that many design engineers still do not know enough about basic concepts in process dynamics and control. ‘The design principles are basically the same as they have been for decades,’ he adds.


The feedback principle for utility management

To really take advantage of the new data-driven opportunities available to utilities, Olsson believes something more is needed: a wider framework within which those in utilities can think and make decisions.

The framework put forward by Olsson and co-author Pernille Ingildsen in their new book ‘Smart water utilities – complexity made simple’ goes by the acronym MAD. The core of their approach then is to measure, analyse and decide.

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See interview with co-author Dr Pernille Ingildsen here.


  • smart water utilities, utility management