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.

Customer-Side Water Leaks: Achieving the best outcome

By Callie Smith (Winter Intern @ Valor Water Analytics) and Janani Mohanakrishnan (Chief Delivery & Product Officer @ Valor Water Analytics)

The average city water utility in the United States loses up to 30% of their water through leaks and unbilled usage, according to Navigant Research. Many of these leaks are on the customer-side. Given this high annual water and revenue loss, why do some leaks go unfixed even when they’re identified? What additional role can utilities play to achieve the best outcome of none to very few customer leaks.

SPLIT OWNERSHIP

Let’s first consider the system in which we’re operating. Water leaks can occur on the utility side (transmission and distribution networks) or on the customer side. Water utilities are typically responsible for any leaks leading up to the retail water meter (assuming the water meter is curbside), whereas customers are responsible for leaks that occur within the bounds of their property. Accountability for customer-side leaks becomes more convoluted when factoring in the customer classification, e.g. multi-family residential buildings or mobile homes. The duties of owners and tenants can vary by state, and lease contracts are highly variable.

Split ownership can interfere in the resolution of known issues, as exemplified by a water quality issue that occurred in Providence, Rhode Island, last summer. Prompted by the lead water crisis in Flint, Michigan, North Providence & Providence Water announced last summer that they would reduce the number of lead water lines serving residential properties. The water utility was responsible for replacing lead lines from the water main in the street to the curb, but was not allowed to spend ratepayer funds on private property. The North Providence program was set up to finance replacement of the pipes from the curb to the water meter. As the program was unable to pay for any old plumbing ‘behind the water meter,’ residents were faced with potentially paying for customer-side lead service line replacements and any other internal lead fixtures, a cost ranging from $3,000 to $10,000, as estimated by the EPA. Many customers could not pay these amounts, and since the risk of partial lead replacements could actually increase levels of lead contamination in the water, the Providence Water Board halted the lead pipe replacement program.

BRIDGE THE GAP WITH DATA AND CUSTOMER CARE

So how can we bridge this ownership gap when it comes to customer leaks? There appears to be three main reasons why customer leaks continue unchecked: (a) lack of leak data analysis and notifications, (b) lack of information on customer responsibilities (especially in apartment/landlord/tenant cases), and (c) lack of financial programs or incentives from water utilities or cities for quick resolution.

Many utilities conduct customer leak analysis – either in house or through an external partner. Leak information, once available, needs to be packaged in a way that then inspires customers to action. Valor Water Analytics provides leak detection through our Hidden Revenue Locator solution, for 10+ clients across the USA. We notice that >50% of customer leaks self-resolve in a day or two, and have determined that it is more valuable for customers to be alerted only of ‘longer drips’ or ‘major leaks.’ In addition to reducing the amount of notifications, the mode of communication also plays an important role in inspiring action. The average water utility customer still likes to be notified of leaks via phone.

East Bay Municipal Utility District conduced a social study to test customer response to a home water report service that integrated water use data, norm-based evaluations, and educational suggestions about water use. The study found that those using the customer portal were more likely to conserve water and participate in the municipality’s rebate and audit programs. The study did not specifically consider customer response to leaks; however, it did find that more digestible notifications and evaluations resulted in improved customer action.

Since utilities have intimate knowledge of customer water consumption, utilities could easily provide information on customer responsibilities, while sending out leak notifications. Let’s say a major leak was detected from water meter readings for a rented home. Responsibility between the tenant and landlord depends on state laws and lease agreements, a fact that could be mentioned to the resident upon notification of the leak. The utility could also offer information on leak severity (in gallons and dollars), and a survey for the resident to narrow down the potential location of the leak within their property. Additionally, utilities could provide customers with a list of plumbers, typical costs, and information on any financial programs applicable to their situation. Water utilities with conservation targets have taken the lead in providing some of these supplementary measures for customer-side leaks. It will be interesting to see if this becomes a standard for all water utilities in the future.

KNOWLEDGE INSPIRES ACTION

In conclusion, there is a multitude of factors – economic, environmental, social — that influence how customers respond to water issues. Knowledge is the first step towards addressing these issues, however, policy changes and a shift in our thinking around water use can be a great help in reducing customer-side leaks. Valor Water Analytics is helping this goal by partnering with utilities to provide information to residents, in a way that will incentivize people to take action on their customer-side leaks, and save them from expending a precious resource.

Why Eliminating Ambiguity in Your Data Matters

By David Wegman, CTO @ Valor

The next time you strike up a conversation with your friendly neighborhood computer, take note of how long it takes before you get frustrated.  Despite the advances in artificial intelligence over the past decades -- and despite the incredible capacity humans have for adaptation -- human-computer interaction is unnatural (from the human perspective, anyway).  Every touch point where people provide input to computers, or receive output from computers, is an opportunity for misunderstanding.

 

Even as our systems are getting smarter all the time, there are some simple steps we can take to eliminate ambiguity.  Data architects serve an important role, helping to ensure that information is not lost or garbled in translation.  These techniques are essentially an investment.  Every minute spent on avoiding problems up front can save much more time down the road when things aren't working properly.

 

Date formats

 

Which came first, 3/7/2017 or 5/4/2017?  The answer depends on where you are in the world when asking the question.  In the United States, dates are commonly represented as month/day/year, so these dates would usually be interpreted as March 7 and May 4, respectively.  In many other countries, dates are represented as day/month/year, so they would be interpreted as July 3 and April 5, respectively.

 

This becomes problematic when a data file, which includes date information, is read by a computer system.  Each time the system encounters a field known to be a date, it must decide how to interpret the information.  Fortunately, most modern systems allow us to choose the format of the date for inputting and outputting dates.  However, if the date format is not chosen carefully, it can result in one of the most pernicious types of errors in computer systems: one which does not raise a flag immediately and lays dormant for some time.  A date which is incorrectly interpreted can result in a myriad of problems, as was widely publicized at the end of the last century.

 

Given enough data points, it may eventually become clear whether dates have been written starting with the month or day (e.g. if one of the values is 3/15/2017, the format cannot be day/month/year because 15 cannot refer to the month, so the format is probably month/day/year).  This approach is suboptimal because it requires an additional step which is not guaranteed to work properly in all cases.  A better approach is to avoid the problem altogether by taking care when choosing a date format.

 

To eliminate ambiguity when working with dates, when possible, use the format YYYY/MM/DD.  This represents a four-digit year, followed by a two-digit month, followed by a two-digit day.  March 7, 2017 would be represented as 2017/03/07.  This format is widely understood and eliminates the ambiguity that can occur when the year appears at the end.

 

Field delimiters

 

A common method for storing tabular data is in CSV (comma-separated values) format.  In a CSV file, each line contains one row of a table.  Within each line, a delimiter character appears in between each value, demarcating the columns.  The delimiter character is usually a comma or a tab.

 

A problem can arise when one of the values that needs to be stored contains the delimiter character.  For example, a person's name may contain a comma (e.g. "Martin Luther King, Jr.").  In this situation, a line containing this value will contain an extra delimiter character.  Software which treats each occurrence of the delimiter as a new column may be confused by the fact that the number of columns is inconsistent from one line to another.

 

One strategy is to choose a delimiter character which does not appear in any of the values.  This technique can help minimize problems, however it is not guaranteed to completely avoid them as new data files are created in the future.  A better approach is to wrap values that may contain delimiter characters in double quotes, and to ensure that literal double quote characters are specifically labeled (or "escaped," in programmer speak) using a backslash character.  This ensures that the data file will be parseable regardless of the data that needs to be stored.

 

 

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Units of measure

 

Sally's water meter recorded 350 gallons of water used.  John's recorded 200 cubic feet of water used.  Who used more water?  This is a question with a simple answer (John did).  But what if the units were not specified?  If all we know is that Sally used 350 and John used 200, we might decide that Sally used more, but only if we first assume that their meters record water using the same units.  Even if that assumption is correct, if we don't know the units, we won't be able to bill properly for the water or compare the quantity to an amount stored in other systems.

 

Quantitative values (i.e., measurements) should always have units specified.  When preparing a data file, you can provide information about units as a separate field.  For example:

 

Alternatively, units can be provided in documentation which accompanies the data.  One advantage of including units information inline in the data is that anyone with the data will automatically have units information, even if the documentation is not accessible.  Another benefit is that the units can vary from one record to another, as in the earlier example of two different people whose water meters recorded in different units.  However, in some cases it may not be practical to provide units inline, and good documentation can help fill this gap.

 

Keep clear and carry on

 

Data parsing errors are not unusual.  However, with a small investment they can be minimized.  By avoiding common data pitfalls and making the right choices at the outset, you will eliminate unnecessary troubleshooting and set yourself up for success.

Valor Water Analytics Intern Blog: Krishna Rao

Valor Water Analytics Intern Blog: Krishna Rao

Hi, I'm Krishna!

I am an environmental fluid mechanics and hydrology engineer currently pursuing my masters degree  at Stanford University. I work on the intersection of data science and water hydraulics to create intelligent statistical models. Apart from my course curriculum, I also pursue research in eco-hydrology remote sensing as a research assistant. Thanks to the long commute to work, I am catching up on my reading. I am currently reading Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.

 

Valor Water Analytics Intern Blog: Jakob Grinvoll

Valor Water Analytics Intern Blog: Jakob Grinvoll

Hi, I’m Jakob!

I’m a 25 year old student from Norway. I’m currently part of an exchange program at UC Berkeley in coordination with my school in Norway, The Norwegian School of Economics. The program is called Innovation School and is the perfect excuse for spending the summer in San Francisco. I spend one day a week at UC Berkeley and four days here at Valor. So the main part of the program is gaining experience from working in San Francisco which has been, and is, awesome.

Valor Water Analytics Intern Blog: Alex Pan

Valor Water Analytics Intern Blog: Alex Pan

Hi, I'm Alex!

Hi, I’m Alex! I’m going into my third year at UC Berkeley, where I study computer science. I’m originally from Novi, Michigan, where I was born and raised until I moved out for college. I’m currently working full time as a software engineering intern for Valor, which is about a 45 minute commute from my apartment from Berkeley. I’m super excited about working hard, seeing the city, and enjoying the weather.

How Dashboards Helps Decision-Makers at Water Utilities

How Dashboards Helps Decision-Makers at Water Utilities

By Renee Jutras, Full Stack Developer

Data has become part of the way we tell stories today. Online articles use maps and graphs to add a splash to their stories because, as they say, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. And it’s true - a well thought out data visualization can convey much more information than just a description, and let the viewer draw their own conclusions about the information. The difference between a clear positive trend and a potentially coincidental trend is instantly recognizable on a graph.
Dashboards take graphs even further by adding organization and interactivity. The best dashboard helps you continuously monitor whatever your pain points are while giving you the power to explore your data visually as freely as possible.

In order to take water utilities further into the future, better technology is needed. Valor Water Analytics’ dashboards put vital information at the fingertips of the decision-makers at utilities, so that they can start to make actionable decisions based on their data.

Valor Water Analytics Intern Blog: Priya Dhandev

Valor Water Analytics Intern Blog: Priya Dhandev

I graduated with a degree in MS in Electrical Engineering from Santa Clara University CA in December 2016. I went to Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur, India for my undergraduate program in Electrical Engineering. During the MS program where I was specializing in VLSI Design & Testing, I discovered my love for programming!! To enhance my knowledge and to learn the required skills to be a skilled software developer, I took severalcourses on Coursera, Udacity and Udemy. 

Broken Meter Beater

Broken Meter Beater

By Steve Birndorf

So, I’ve been thinking about broken meters quite a bit lately (and, when I say “broken meter,” I’m referring to all sorts of different issues--under-registration, non-registration, decay, stuck meters, zero reads, etc.). Every day, as I talk to municipalities and water agencies around California and around the country, broken meters are a topic of universal importance and concern. Everyone’s got ‘em, and everyone is trying to get rid of ‘em. And, broken meters don’t just go away when you fix them...they are a recurring problem which occur year after year after year...

 

Broken meters, significantly impact water utilities. They leave revenue uncollected, they impact revenue stability, they make compliance difficult, they result in truck rolls, they impact conservation efforts. The list goes on.