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Could Big Data Solve The Global Water Crisis?

Innovative startups are looking to solve a global problem

24Mar

Big data has already become part and parcel of the business world, a necessity to get ahead rather than a luxury extra. Such has been the focus on data’s effect in business or sports that its potential importance elsewhere has been somewhat overlooked. Uptake has been slightly slower outside of the corporate environment, but many believe that big data has the power and potential to solve some of the world’s biggest issues.

One such issue is that only 59% of the world’s population have access to clean water. In certain areas, the problem is far worse - according to the Guardian, in sub-Saharan Africa ‘only 16% (pdf) of the population have access to a personal water source like a tap, or a pump in a neighbour’s yard.’ Across the world, some 663 million people have no reliable access at all to clean water all year round. Climate change issues are only likely to intensify the problem, and finding solutions for less economically developed countries is a priority.

It’s important to remember, though, when talking about water shortage, that the problem isn’t confined to these less economically developed countries. Flint, Michigan’s recent water crisis is an example of a poor water supply brought about by corporate incompetence in an economically powerful country, rather than a lack of supply. According to TechCrunch, in 2016, ‘only nine US states reported safe lead levels in their schools’ water supply.’ This lead content almost invariably comes from irresponsible industry, and without significant investment it’s difficult to see the problem improving.

Raising awareness of, and combating, poor water supplies isn’t easy, but there are a number of companies looking to exploit the power of big data to bring about significant change. Water shortage is as often economic or political as it is geographical, and the use of data in more effectively distributing water could help to solve the less The positive news is that Silicon Valley’s role in providing water solutions is growing, and that the commercial market for these companies is far more lucrative than many might think, with TechCrunch claiming that ‘venture-stage companies in water perform better than many investors and entrepreneurs realize.’

Companies like WaterSmart are looking to address issues like drought through smarter, data-driven solutions and ‘personalized customer engagement solutions.’ To help suppliers reach water conservation goals, the company plans to educate residents on the need for conservation, reduce water use by an average of 5%, detect and alert residents to possible leaks, and detect and notify irrigation violators. WaterSmart recently raised $7 million for a $21 million valuation, a figure that should be persuasive for potential future investors.

Another startup, Pluto AI, is developing a deep learning solution for water management. The company promises to ‘enable water facilities to prevent water wastage, predict asset health, and minimize operating costs.’ Pluto offers timestamped water data taken from sensors and meters, and uses a cutting-edge deep learning algorithm to analyze it. It’s mission is to make deep learning the norm in the water industry, and its recent raise of $2.1 million from Silicon Valley VC firms may see that it does so.

India is doing some interesting work with water data, too. In a country which struggles with water distribution, the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) uses data to manage, monitor, support, and administer the city’s water supply. The hope is that it can address the mounting issue of equitable drinking water distribution, whilst keeping on top of the city’s increasingly complex distribution systems. Already, BWSSB has made considerable savings and has cut down the city’s wastage significantly.

Data alone won’t solve the global water crisis, but the work of innovative new companies is as welcome as the investment they are receiving. Technology has the potential to solve some of the world’s biggest problems, and water shortage is one in which data could have a real impact, given its ability to reduce waste and improve efficiency.  

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