Valor & Watermark - Because Every Drop Counts

By Kristine Gali, P.E., Technical Program Manager

Valor has been excited to become more involved with Watermark as we kicked off our volunteer engagement last year with the October Global Month of Service. Events included awareness of our local water system through trivia, supporting local organizations through beach clean ups, and facing off with our sister offices through a water pump challenge. This year, Valor is looking forward to getting even more involved with local organizations and educational outreach with local schools. Upcoming 2019 events include habitat restoration, tree planting, and water monitoring throughout the Bay Area.

Learn more about our past events below:

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Surfrider Foundation Beach Cleanup: Valor volunteered with the local San Francisco Surfrider Foundation Chapter in a beach clean up event near San Francisco Bay Bridge. Not only does a cleaner location make it more pleasant to spend time at the beach but it helps prevent fish, zooplankton, and invertebrates from ingesting harmful trash and plastic.

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A California Water Pump Challenge - Who can pump the fastest? (Not Valor): AIA offices in San Diego and San Francisco got first hand experience on using Xylem's Essence of Life stepping pump which was designed with rural farmers' needs in mind. California teams faced off in a pumping competition and realized it's not as easy (or leak free) as it looks!

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In 2019, Watermark continues to be in full swing at Valor, with the start of the Mark Your Mark 30-Day Challenge. The event runs from World Water Day on March 22 to Earth Day on April 22. The Valor Water team participated in the following events in April:

April 6: Fort Funston Nursery, where the volunteers supported the nursery which grows plants for a variety of Bay Area park sites. Habitats ranging from coastal bluffs to grasslands have been rehabilitated with the plants grown here.

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April 18: Lands End Trail Maintenance and Water Monitoring, to help revitalize and restore the native habitat of Lands End.

More events and updates on them will be posted throughout the upcoming months on the Valor Water Analytics blog.

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Challenges and Innovations: Current and Future States of Water Affordability: Part 2

Note:

This is the second in a series of Valor Water Analytics blog posts exploring water affordability, customer nonpayment, and potential solutions that enable utilities to deliver water more equitably and sustainably to all customers. You can read the first post here.

Where We Are Today: Identifying and Reaching Vulnerable Customers

By Stacey Isaac Berahzer; Christine Boyle, PhD; editing by Maryana Pinchuk

In our last blog post, we discussed affordability topics that have been relatively well-covered in the water industry and academic research: the definition and measurement of affordability in the context of water service delivery, and an overview of customer assistance program (CAP) creation and funding. Though not necessarily solved, these issues have been discussed in many publications and conference proceedings. In this post, we will discuss a topic that has received less coverage: how a lack of customer information and contact data makes it difficult for utilities to increase CAP enrollment.

Customer data: the Cap on CAPs

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As detailed in our last post, a well-designed CAP can provide much-needed assistance for customers who chronically struggle to pay their water bills. In the last 10 years, CAPs have evolved to become more creative and sophisticated. Programming ranges from income-based rates programs such as the City of Philadelphia to home efficiency plumbing assistance for low-income customers, such as the Water Efficiency Program in Portland, Oregon. Participants in the Water Efficiency Program can have eligible fees reversed, including reminder fees and a range of eligible shutoff fees.   

While programs demonstrate innovative approaches, a common challenge is reaching eligible customers and getting them to enroll in programs. No utility wants to go through the administrative and financial hurdles of creating a CAP, only to find that a large number of eligible customers are not taking advantage of the assistance. But without a strategy for marketing a CAP to the right audience in the right way, this is a serious risk.

Utilities face a variety of barriers to communicating with customers about CAPs, including language and cultural barriers, trust issues, and more. However, there are two fundamental barriers that we will explore in more detail below: 1) lack of accurate, up-to-date data on who utility customers are and ways to reach them, and 2) inability to communicate with renters and other customers who pay their water bills to a third party and not directly to the utility.

Customer data: Knowing your customers

In order to market CAPs to the right customers, a utility must know which customers are struggling to afford their water bills and be able to contact them.

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Unfortunately, this is not as simple as it may sound. Some utilities lack even basic data on the identity of their customers. A utility facing this dilemma head-on is the City of Detroit Water. In recent years Detroit has invested in communication technologies (interactive voice response systems and smartphone-enabled applications) and bill payment systems (local payment points) to make it easier for customers to access information and pay their bills. Even with these improvements, however, the basic problem of customer information tracking has led service shutoffs in Detroit to increase. As Joel Kurth reported in 2017, “Detroit officials acknowledge they don’t know the identity of two-thirds of their customers because most bills are sent to “occupant,” and they don’t know if homes that are shut off are occupied.”

For utilities that do have more detailed information on their customers than just premise address, it may still be difficult to identify customers who are eligible for a CAP. Utilities do not typically track factors that could make it difficult for some customers to pay their water bills, such as whether customers are low-income or fixed-income seniors. Relying on historical data on past shutoffs/nonpayment may be tempting, but this may not provide much insight into which customers are struggling with affordability now or will struggle with this in the future – for example, if the service area is experiencing a large demographic shift, or if water rates will be higher during upcoming summer or drought periods. Lastly, many utilities do not collect customer contact data beyond physical addresses, but paper notices delivered in the mail may not be sufficient for reaching prospective CAP customers – especially those who change addresses frequently, such as students and short-term renters.

Hard-To-Reach: Broadening the definition of “customers”

To make matters even more difficult for utilities interested in marketing CAPs, many of their most vulnerable customers fall through the cracks because they pay their water bills to a landlord or as part of a home maintenance fee, not to the utility directly. Though it may not seem like they are the utility’s “customers,” these water users are no different from any other customer when it comes to needing safe water and not wanting their service to be terminated.

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These customers make up an estimated 40% of low-income households in the US, making them a good target demographic for a CAP. But, because these “hard-to-reach” customers are usually not tracked in the utility’s billing system, the utility often has no way to identify or contact them. This population of customers demonstrates that outreach mechanisms must be tailored to specific customer types. Renters tend to be more transitory than other types of residential customers, making a land-line or an address unreliable contact channels. Instead, mobile phones may be a better way to reach these customers.

While the majority of water utilities are still wondering how (or even if) to design CAPs that help multifamily tenants who pay for their water service indirectly through rent, utilities such as Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) have made the leap. Seattle’s Utility Discount Program (UDP) provides a bill discount of 50 percent of the SPU bill for customers with an income at or below 70 percent of the state median income. This bill discount is even provided to hard-to-reach customers. SPU is able to do this by working with Seattle City Light to provide combined utility credits on hard-to-reach customers’ electricity bills. However, this is still the exception to the rule. Indeed, a key finding of a Water Research Foundation project to study the “hard-to-reach” customer issue is that “utilities typically do not have channels in place to effectively communicate and engage with the hard to reach.”

A path forward: changing the customer-utility relationship

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Traditionally, the only way that a utility engages with its customers is through the water bill. But many other businesses today – from online marketplaces to banks and cellular data providers – make use of multiple communication channels to engage with their customers before, during, and after a transaction. As a recent J.D. Power survey indicates, this is the level of service that all customers expect from their service providers, including utilities.

We believe that tackling customer engagement challenges, including ones related to affordability, starts with adopting this mindset. The next step is developing customer data management practices that can enable utilities to understand and communicate with all of their customers, including those who struggle with affordability. This opens the door to advanced solutions and novel interventions to address affordability, which will be the topic of the next post in this series.

Team Spotlight: Introducing Lead Data Scientist, Dr. Bahman Roostaei

Q&A Session by Sabrina Strauss, Office Manager

In this feature, we interview team members to learn more about their passions and their interest in water.

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Bahman Roostaei comes from 17 years of theoretical Physics research in statistical patterns of random and quantum systems. Besides a PhD in Physics he has also an MSc degree in Data Science with focus on machine learning and advanced statistics. His main focus has been on developing software for analysis of sequential data such as water, energy consumption or RNA sequences. Bahman is passionate about environment and curious to how to monitor environmental elements using complex data. He also enjoys hiking, Persian Calligraphy and cooking in his spare time.

Q: How did you get into Data Science?

A: My background is in science, I am a Physicist. The tools and methods of prediction based on observation are the basics of what I used to do in Physics. Data Science is not much different. It just uses different types of algorithms and laws, but it is still the same for observations and predictions.

At some point I decided to change from academic research to Data Science, to come to the Bay Area and to pursue work in the private sector. At the point I made the transition, I learned about huge developments in Data Science. There used to be very little interesting activity in data science. From the time that Amazon Web Services came up and the cloud technology started to develop, big data started to become a big deal.Methods and algorithms were already out there, but they weren’t used much,  the technology for it was not advanced yet.

When I learned about AWS and learned how it is now easy and possible to use data science, I became interested I pursuing this field for my career. This was about 5 years ago.

Q: Why did you decide to apply for the Data Science position at Valor Water Analytics?

A: My first job in the Bay Area was a company that worked with meter technology and meter data, mainly electronic meter data. They measured house electricity consumption and focused on conservation of energy. I also have a personal interest in environmental data, including weather, energy, and pollution problems. I was looking for an environmental related job, but then I realized that there is also water meter technology that uses data science. That is why I applied at Valor Water Analytics.

New Feature Alert: Performance Gains Tracker Launched in the Hidden Revenue Locator

By Heidi Smith, Global Product Manager

Valor recently launched a dashboard page, named Performance Gains, in order to enhance our core product, Hidden Revenue Locator (HRL). The Performance Gains page is accessed via the HRL portal and provides a summary of client utilities’ meter asset health including performance assessments in key areas, such as % of meters currently under registering. 

The Performance Gains page allows utility operations teams to:

  • Quickly view meter asset health across all meters to decide where to focus work efforts.

  • View under-registration data to decide which meters to replace and when.

  • Create budgets for your meter assessment management program based on meter fleet performance.

Additionally, the utility management teams will always have the latest metrics at hand to share with board members or other stakeholders to:

  • Enable budgeting decisions on your meter program

  • Demonstrate your progression / management efficiency

  • Showcase the value gained from our Valor solution and make a case for continued subscription

We encourage you to fully explore the new view. My favorite feature, suggested by one of our utility clients, is to hover over the bar graph lines on the meter under-registration analysis to see percentages of meters that are under-registering for a specific slice.  In our demo example, 2.2% of the 10-year-old meters are under-registering.

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Check out a sample Performance Gains of our demo utility, which is gaining tremendous value from the program through significant investigations of their flags!

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This new view is brought to you thanks to the vision of Janani Mohanakrishnan and Christine Boyle; valuable user feedback from Valor’s Client User Group; the hard work of software design and implementation of Renee Jutras; and quality checks by Glen Semino and Kristine Gali.

Challenges and Innovations: Current and Future States of Water Affordability

Note:

This is the first in a series of Valor Water Analytics blog posts exploring water affordability, customer nonpayment, and technology that can enable utilities to deliver water more equitably and sustainably to all customers. 

Where We Are: Assessment of Water Affordability Today

By Stacey Isaac Berahzer, Christine Boyle, PhD, editing by Maryana Pinchuk

Given the looming affordability crisis, new interventions are needed to help communities pay their water bills, while also helping utilities collect the water and wastewater fees needed to fund much-needed infrastructure upgrades. To date, a large volume of work on how to measure affordability has been undertaken, but what is sorely needed are programmatic strategies to help both households and utilities cope with the mounting costs of clean water provision.

This post (the first in a series on affordability) explores three foundational topics: defining affordability, measuring affordability, and funding customer assistance programs (CAPs). These are important topics for beginning to understand the current state of the conversation on water affordability, and they are relatively well-covered in scholarly and industry publications. In future posts, we will explore topics that have received less coverage but are also critical to tackling the growing affordability crisis: customer data, utility-customer communications, and novel interventions that may help utilities recover more revenue while assisting their most economically vulnerable customers.

Defining Affordability: What is “Affordable” Water?

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The United Nations (UN) recognizes the basic human right to water and sanitation. In its Comment No. 15, the UN defines this right to water as the right “of everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.”

But what does it mean to say that water must be “affordable?” How to define affordability in the context of water service delivery is an ongoing discussion. There is some consensus emerging that affordability is not a universal term and should be defined at the local rather than the national level. In the latest version of its “Principles of Water Rates, Fees and Charges” (or M1) publication, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) includes a few updated chapters, including the “Low-Income Affordability Programs” chapter. The authors state: Given variations in local economic conditions, compositions of the customer base, and community values, defining affordability must be done at the local level.” In another article, “Is Our Water Affordable?,” authors Jon Davis and Joe Crea corroborate this idea: Any one-size-fits-all guidance on what constitutes affordable water service is going to be inappropriate when applied to most local considerations.”

In this view, affordability is not a top-down mandate with clear, universal success metrics to be achieved, but rather an ongoing conversation that takes into account the specifics of each water utility service area and its customers.

Measuring affordability: Which Metrics Work Best?

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Inherent in any definition of water affordability – at the local or national levels – are metrics for benchmarking it. The UN offers some guidance on how water affordability should be measured. In 2002, the UN stated that to be affordable, water costs should not exceed 3% of household income, with the combined cost of water and sanitation not exceeding 5%.  But, there are many older guidelines for measuring and benchmarking water affordability within the United States. The most common way of measuring water affordability, and indeed the most maligned method, involves Median Household Income (MHI). In what may have been a series of unfortunate events, “4.5% of MHI” evolved into an infamous benchmark for affordability, where 2% is used on the wastewater side and the other 2.5% is attributed to water. This guidance is derived, in part, from the 1997 EPA report “Combined Sewer Overflows—Guidance for Financial Capability Assessment and Schedule Development.” The metric, known as the Residential Indicator, was developed only for wastewater systems’ ability to comply with federal regulation, but it somehow mistakenly became a poor proxy for an affordability benchmark. The 2.5% MHI benchmark on the water side is similarly arbitrary and its origins shrouded in mystery.

Critics of using MHI to measure affordability point to the fact that even people below the “middle” income point in any community also need water. Therefore, measuring affordability at the median level hides the problems that customers in the lower income brackets, such as the lowest 20% income-earners in a community, face. Since these lower-income earners have less disposable income, it is more relevant to benchmark water affordability against their incomes. Alternatives to MHI that reflect this belief include the Affordability Ratio (AR) and Hours’ Labor at Minimum Wage (HM). The AR considers the cost of water and wastewater compared to essential household expenses such as taxes, housing, food, medicine, health care, and home energy. Jason Mumm and Julius Ciaccia offer another alternative to the Residential Indicator (RI) called the Weighted Average Residential Index, or WARi.™” It is a calculation of the weighted average financial burdens across all income levels, in all census tracts in a given utility’s service area. Less crude examples than the “4.5% of MHI” metric look at a spectrum of incomes in a community and the relative percentage of those incomes that customers are spending on water. The UNC Environmental Finance Center’s free Affordability Assessment Tool is a good example of putting this metric into practice.

Acting on Affordability: How to Transform Definitions and Measurement into Action?

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Communities that have crossed the initial hurdles of locally defining and setting a threshold for affordability may be displeased with the (growing) number of their customers who cross this threshold. A natural response is to develop a customer assistance program (CAP) to help customers that fall below the accepted affordability threshold. But, funding a CAP may be challenging. A 2017 report, “Navigating Legal Pathways to Rate-Funded Customer Assistance Programs,” found that deciding if a utility’s primary revenue source – rates – can be used to fund a CAP is not a simple exercise. Most states have fuzzy language when it comes to whether a utility’s rate revenues can be used for a program like a CAP. Money from volunteer bill round up programs, lease money from cell companies, and royalties from insurance on service lines all have a bright green light for CAP funding. Unfortunately, these methods tend to generate relatively small amounts of money. To develop a robust and effective CAP, a utility needs to access its rates revenues. There is mounting evidence, and publications, that paying for a CAP through rates revenue ultimately helps a utility’s bottom line. States like Indiana have recently revised their statutory language to make it clear that utilities can include CAP development in the rate setting process. 

Conclusions

These three affordability topics – defining affordability, measuring affordability, and funding CAPs – have been the focus of much research and publication up to this point. While there is still room for more work in all of these areas, there are additional areas ripe for exploration, especially when it comes to how a utility can take advantage of new technologies around communicating with customers. Stay tuned – we will explore this in subsequent installments of this blog series.

Smoke on the Water: Valor Staff Tours California’s State Water Project

By: Maryana Pinchuk

Smoke and fire may have been in the air (literally) in California these past few weeks, but water is never far behind as a subject of concern for residents of the state. Earlier this month, while fires raged from Los Angeles to Sacramento, my colleague Renee and I accompanied staff from the Municipal Water District of Southern California, as well as other water utility staff and interested citizens from Southern California, on an inspection trip to learn more about the California State Water Project.

As Municipal Water District of Southern California Director Larry McKenney pointed out at the start of our trip, the state of California has the 5th largest economy globally (just ahead of Britain), and its productivity depends largely on the mostly water-scarce state’s ability to move water. The State Water Project is a system of dams, pumping stations, reservoirs, and aqueducts that conveys water from a small water-rich area in the northernmost part of the state to the dry but highly populous communities in the middle and south. The project is the largest provider of water and power in the state, and one of the largest in the world.

Sunset over the San Luis Reservoir, the fifth largest reservoir in the state.

Sunset over the San Luis Reservoir, the fifth largest reservoir in the state.

This sophisticated system of water conveyance begins in the Feather River near Sacramento. Water from the river collects in Lake Oroville and passes through Oroville Dam before proceeding on to the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta. The water then travels down the California Aqueduct to the San Luis Reservoir, where it is pumped further south to meet the water needs of Southern California communities, including Los Angeles and Santa Barbara to the west (via the Castaic and Pyramid Lake reservoirs), and San Diego and Orange County to the east.

Pyramid Lake Reservoir, completed in 1973, is the deepest lake in the state. Here, water is held and conveyed to Castaic Lake Reservoir and from there supplies northwestern Los Angeles County.

Pyramid Lake Reservoir, completed in 1973, is the deepest lake in the state. Here, water is held and conveyed to Castaic Lake Reservoir and from there supplies northwestern Los Angeles County.

The State Water Project may not exactly be the most well-known tourist attraction in the state, but it is the secret engine that powers some of the most iconic features of California, from the glitzy pools of Hollywood to the more modest groves of California almond trees – a crop that, like asparagus, melon, cotton, and other local cash crops, thrives in the dry and temperate Mediterranean-like climate of the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta.

Cotton growing in the Delta. We learned that California cotton is sold and prized worldwide for its high quality and even ends up in some products marketed as “Egyptian cotton”!

Cotton growing in the Delta. We learned that California cotton is sold and prized worldwide for its high quality and even ends up in some products marketed as “Egyptian cotton”!

Joe Del Bosque discusses almond cultivation and shows us his trees

Joe Del Bosque discusses almond cultivation and shows us his trees

Almonds, we learned from longtime Delta resident and farmer Joe Del Bosque of Del Bosque Farms, are a cousin of the peach tree, and farmers have learned to graft almond saplings to the hardier peach roots, which are less susceptible to rotting in heavily irrigated soil. But the ingenuity of the Delta farming community is meeting its match in the precarious ecology of the Delta, where a system of levees built in the 1800s to turn marshland into farmland is beginning to show its age, and where soil erosion and earthquakes threaten the $50-billion-a-year agricultural business.

Over breakfast in the state capital, with the lingering smell of smoke providing an uncomfortable reminder of the increasing danger posed by climate change and extreme weather, we were shown a presentation about the challenges facing the Delta in the next 50 years. We watched a model simulation of the probable effects of a major earthquake – long overdue in the area – on water quality in the Delta. We all winced as the model showed the levees disintegrating and a cloud of salt water from the San Francisco Bay pumping steadily eastward hour by hour. According to the simulation, by the end of a week after the initial quake, all of Southern California’s water supply would be rendered non-potable.

Suisun Marsh , one of the few preserved tidal marshes that showcase how the Delta looked before it was transformed by agriculture.

Suisun Marsh, one of the few preserved tidal marshes that showcase how the Delta looked before it was transformed by agriculture.

To address the very real possibility that gradual (through levee erosion) or sudden (through a major quake) salinization may one day cripple the Delta leg of the State Water Project, the Municipal Water District of Southern California is proposing to create a set of tunnels through the area. This would ensure that fresh water could continue to be channeled through the Delta to consumers in the south, even if the Delta were flooded with brackish water. The proposal, called the Water Fix, has raised objections from some conservation groups that argue against diverting flow from the rivers in the area. However, others contend that what the wildlife that already struggle to thrive in the agriculturally-dominated waterscape of the Delta need is not higher throughput in the rivers, but other conservation practices – e.g., fish weirs and controlled flooding of fallow farmland to allow fish fry to mature in a predator-free environment before returning to the river system – that are not incompatible with the Water Fix.

A fish weir near Sacramento – during a major rain event, fish and water will be directed into this fallow field to mitigate flooding and provide a safe environment for fish fry to grow in.

A fish weir near Sacramento – during a major rain event, fish and water will be directed into this fallow field to mitigate flooding and provide a safe environment for fish fry to grow in.

We wrapped up our trip with a visit to the Jensen Water Treatment Plant, the last stage that State Water Project water passes through before being delivered to SoCal customers. In the hills to the north of the plant, the Los Angeles Aqueduct (not part of the State Water Project) delivers an additional supply of water from Mono Lake to the city of Los Angeles. As evidenced by the heated history of that water infrastructure project, culminating in the legendary California “Water Wars” depicted in the 1974 noir film Chinatown, controversies around water are far from new in this state. And yet, through over a century of conflict over water rights and allocation – as well as the additional issues posed more recently by increased water scarcity – California’s water infrastructure has continued to rise to the occasion and meet the ever-growing needs of the state and its residents. California’s water supply may seem precarious, but water utilities and their staff are certainly used to facing and overcoming challenges, and the successes of the past point to hope for the future.

Maryana and Renee from Valor at the Jensen Water Treatment Plant, with the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the background.

Maryana and Renee from Valor at the Jensen Water Treatment Plant, with the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the background.

Watermark Month of Service

The Valor Water Analytics team participated with several events during Xylem Watermark’s Global Month of Service, during which Xylem employees around the world came together to participate in volunteer events in service for their respective communities.

Beach Cleanup 10.28.18

The Valor Water Analytics team in San Francisco participated in their very first Watermark volunteer event, a beach clean up organized by the Surfrider Foundation SF Chapter. The organization’s mission is to protect oceans and beaches through a powerful activist network. They organize clean-up events on a regular basis and raise community awareness around reducing pollution in beach habitats. The Surfrider Foundation operates in several cities in California, as well as in other coastal areas across the United States, with 81 chapters in 10 regions.

It was wonderful to see a huge turnout at the cleanup event by Xylem employees, local school groups, and others in the community. There were more people than buckets for the collection of garbage and we noticed a variety of volunteers of all age groups, from toddlers to elderly people. The Valor Team was very successful in their search for trash and collected items including several cigarette butts, Styrofoam, beer bottle caps, and even a fork and spoon ended up in one of the buckets! It was a great experience and a huge inspiration for the team to participate more regularly in such events.

You can find more information about the Surfrider Foundation and their mission on their website: https://www.surfrider.org/

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Watermark 101 10.29.18

The Valor team is geared up and ready to give back! We held a Watermark 101 lunch and learn as part of the October MOS events to kick off Valor’s involvement with Watermark. The team learned more about the Watermark vision, how to get involved, and brainstormed events for the upcoming year. We wrapped up with a competitive game of Watermark Trivia! Topics included our local water system, Xylem and Watermark, state of our water infrastructure, and the national water investment gap. Not surprising, our winners were Valor founder Christine Boyle and Valor veteran Renee Jutras. The rest of the team will be studying hard for round two in the future!

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Halloween 10.31.18

This years Halloween theme was water. It was time to put on our thinking caps and get creative. Here’s how the Valor team did!

We had a rain cloud, a sea monkey, Dory, a dead meter, The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mermaid, and Leonardo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

And the winners...

Most On Xylem Message: TGPGP

Most "One of Those Days" Feeling: Rain Cloud

Most "Sharkey Kids Favorite": Dory

Most "Best Sea Friends Experience": Mermaid + Sea Monkey

Most "Can I Borrow That Costume": Leonardo

Overall Winner: Anomalous Zombie Meter

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Apparent Water Loss, Optimized Vision, and Entrepreneurship: Q&A with Valor Founder and CEO Dr. Christine Boyle

By Elizabeth Harvell of UNC Environmental Finance Center

Earlier this year, Valor Water Analytics (Valor) was acquired by Xylem Inc., a $13B water technology company that services utility and commercial clients across 150 countries. While this is big news in its own right within the water industry, it’s especially exciting for the Environmental Finance Center: Valor Founder and CEO Dr. Christine Boyle previously worked as a research assistant at the EFC while pursuing her doctorate in water resource planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Read the full interview on the UNC EFC Blog.

Valor Water Analytics Acquired by Water Giant Xylem

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We are excited to announce that Valor Water Analytics (Valor) was recently acquired by industry leader Xylem Inc (NYSE: XYL). Xylem is a $13B water technology company that services utility and commercial clients across 150 countries.

Dr. Christine Boyle founded Valor in 2013 with a mission to bring big data solutions to water utilities in order to improve their financial and water resource sustainability. To accomplish this, Valor created a suite of world-class software products. Valor’s products are now deployed in ten states across the USA, including notable utilities such as American Water and Suez. Its “Hidden Revenue Locator” product is widely recognized as a best-in-class technology for automated loss detection. The company remains committed to integrating its technology with all meters across the US and beyond. Valor will now execute on this ambitious vision under the Xylem umbrella.

The alignment of Valor and Xylem in product and vision made this acquisition the right strategy for Valor’s next stage of growth. Under Xylem, Team Valor continues and will spearhead Xylem’s Silicon Valley branch and lead Xylem’s advanced data science initiatives. Valor’s product lines will join Xylem’s existing suite of advanced analytics products. This exit demonstrates the value of building an innovative water technology that brings measurable value to the water sector.

Valor had previously raised $2.8M from investors such as the Urban Innovation Fund, Y Combinator, 500 Startups, Apsara, Hydro Venture Partners, Shore Ventures, Syzygy, and Matadero Ventures. These investors supported this exit and are excited for the next chapter of Valor.

Valor is looking forward to solving the world’s water issues as part of Xylem’s world-class team of dedicated water professionals.

Water utility websites: Moving from good to great

Jordan Schuster (Intern @ Valor) and Janani Mohanakrishnan (Chief Delivery & Product Officer @ Valor)

In the modern world, there is one thing as ubiquitous to Americans as water: the internet. The time that U.S. users are spending on websites and mobile applications continues to grow, and standards for visually appealing and informative content is higher than ever before. A great website can even be the deciding factor when a customer is choosing between competitors. When it comes to water though, customers rarely have a choice. Therefore, many water utilities have little incentive to provide a great customer experience through their websites. A recent study by J.D. Power noted that water utilities lag in satisfaction with their websites compared with gas and electric utilities, particularly in the areas of being able to update service, account login, make a payment, and review account information. This got us chatting internally at Valor, and we decided to do a quick study of twenty-five water utility websites to assess current state and develop our recommendations for a great customer experience.

THE STUDY

We identified twenty-five water utilities in total across the U.S. The distribution by region is presented below. Within each region, there was a mix of small and large sized utilities, and a mix of public and private utilities.

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We assessed these utility websites for five key performance metrics – Clear Bill Pay Access, Helpful Menus, Visual Appeal, Water Efficiency Content, and Report a Problem. Success was determined as the ability to either access the relevant content or gain the impression associated with the metric, in five seconds of opening the website.

THE FINDING

In general, the quality of the water utility websites we examined were pretty good. The table below summarizes how the websites performed against our metrics. There was no website that failed on all performance metrics. An unexpected finding was that over a quarter of the websites did not have the Report a Problem feature clearly listed. This is interesting since it would limit customer engagement with the website, and also prevent utility companies from having quick notice of major leaks or other customer issues. It is possible that utilities provide this information to their customers through other communication channels; this was beyond our scope to investigate. Another interesting finding was that not all utilities had water efficiency measures or conservation messaging prominently in the menu, or somewhere on the main page so that users would be inspired to learn more. This was especially lacking amongst the Northeastern utilities studied. It raises the question: Should we expect water awareness content from our utilities ALL the time, or only when there is drought?

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GETTING TO GREAT

How can water utility websites move from good to great? While the current state of utility websites is acceptable, we predict that more customers will want a great experience every time they access the utility website. With the plethora of talent in web design, and the reasonable costs for web engineers, there really is no excuse for not keeping websites up to date and customer-centric.

Here are a few features that would take water utility websites to the next level.

  1. Mobile App page – to download Bill Pay and Account Management Apps

  2. Text and Tweet links – for Alerts, Service Issues, and Feedback

  3. Photo and Video clips – that provoke Thought, and convey Customer Appreciation

  4. Multiple Language Translator functionality – for non-native English speakers

  5. Single sign on for all utilities that the customer uses – e.g. water, gas, electric

WHAT CAN I DO TODAY AS A CUSTOMER?

Check out your water utility’s website and mobile applications, and send them a quick message with your feedback. Let’s help our water utilities create websites that get us the right level of content whenever we want it. Water is earth’s most precious resource, and water utilities and their customers need to work hand and hand to move towards a better, wetter future.