Getting to Know Our Summer Interns: Introducing Celine

This is part 2 of our intern introduction blog posts. Part 3 will be posted later this month and in August. You can read part 1 here.

By: Celine Clausen

I am a 23 year old woman from Norway and graduated with a bachelor's degree from the Norwegian School of Economics. As a part of my masters, I am attending a 10-week long program called Innovation School, during which I am studying at UC Berkeley and interning with Valor Water Analytics - A Xylem Company. 

Why I wanted to work at Xylem

It was mainly the combination of sustainability and technology that sparked my interest in working at Xylem. By contributing to solve challenges related to water, Valor also contributes with their software solutions to the resolution of water scarcity issues. I also liked how Valor is addressing one specific area, with the focus is to be the best in this area, rather than delivering several halfway solutions in several different areas. Also, I wanted to work for a company that will be relevant in the future, and I believe that Valor’s technological solutions are going to provide many water utilities with valuable analytics in the years to come. 

How I like working at Valor

It is very interesting to learn about an industry that is completely new to me. It is a fun challenge to understand how Valor's solutions work and the great value they bring to water utilities. I am also overwhelmed by the friendly people working here and the good vibe in the office. Valor has a very flat structure where all thoughts and opinions are heard, and even as an intern I feel appreciated which is very motivating when working. 

My future plans

I want to keep working with global challenges and combine my business degree with my interest in preserving the environment. Therefore, I will lead my master degree in a more sustainable direction, by studying energy, natural resources and the environment with an underlying business focus. 

As I enjoy learning and new challenges I can see myself working a few years in consulting before entering a more specific industry. My time with Valor has been a great learning experience, as I have learned how to quickly understand and adapt to a new industry and business area.

Life in San Francisco

I am a very active surfer so I am trying to surf as much as possible in areas close to San Francisco. Surfing has also been a great way to experience the culture, see the surrounding nature and meet new people. I also spend a lot of time checking out the different parts of the city and eat good food. San Francisco is a very cultural city, and I really enjoy all the art and music there is!

My best San Francisco experience

My best experience in San Francisco was celebrating Pride in Dolores Park with good friends. It was such a happy and colorful experience. I believe no other place does celebrating Pride better than San Francisco.


Getting to Know Our Summer Interns: Introducing Amanda

This is part 1 of our intern introduction blog posts. Part 2 and 3 will be posted later this month and in August.

By: Amanda Jennings

I just finished my bachelor's degree in Economics and Business Administration at the Norwegian School of Economics, and have travelled to San Francisco to be an intern at Valor Water Analytics this summer! 

Why did I choose Valor Water Analytics?

As a recently graduated Bachelor student, I am currently in a place where I need to start making decisions about what I want to peruse as a master's degree, and beyond this what I want to work with in the future. Up until this point, my studies have been heavily focused on the theoretical. Being an intern in the tech-capital of the world, where innovation, culture and creativity intertwine, is a rare opportunity to witness the day-to-day inner workings of an organization with a purpose. 

One of the master degrees I am considering is Energy, Natural Resources and the Environment. This is why Valor caught my attention. I am not an engineer, as many of my co-workers are, but I am interested in their vision. Valor brings tech to water, in order to make utilities more efficient and to conserve one of the most valuable resources on earth.

What is your background?

My mother is Norwegian, my father is English and I lived in Latvia up until the age of 12. After this, I moved to Norway. Before starting university, I attended an international school. Because of this background, I have always been interested in the outside world, meeting new people and learning about new places. 

What do you do in your spare time?

In my spare time I love to read. Sitting outside in the sun with a good book is difficult to beat. But as I study in Bergen, also known as the rainiest city on Earth, this isn't always so easy. It should therefore come as no surprise that I also enjoy travelling, ideally to places where it rains less 240 days a year. I love being active, playing sports and being with friends. 

What do you like about your work at Valor Water Analytics?

Valor's company culture is what sets it apart from other jobs I have had in the past. I have been here about a week now, and I have only been met with positivity. From "Bagel Breakfast Monday's" to "Hump-day Lunch Wednesday's", Valor manages to bring joy into the workplace. I have been invited out for coffee, to a baseball game, to a summer picnic, and more. It's an inclusive environment, where people actually want to get to know the interns. 

I have travelled quite a distance to be here, and I am very excited to start my summer in a new city, filled with new life and new experiences!


Interns at Valor Water - Supporting Future Generations of Water Enthusiasts

By Sabrina Strauss, Office Manager

Valor Water has since its founding supported interns by giving them an opportunity to get an insight into the world of water utilities, software engineering and product development. 2019 has been no exception to this. 

Left: The two Data Science interns Jian Wang and Yihan Wang; Middle: The two summer interns for the Product and Delivery team, Amanda Jennings and Celine Clausen; Right: Software Engineer intern Jordan Manthey

Left: The two Data Science interns Jian Wang and Yihan Wang; Middle: The two summer interns for the Product and Delivery team, Amanda Jennings and Celine Clausen; Right: Software Engineer intern Jordan Manthey

Our two University of San Francisco Data Science interns Jian Wang and Yihan Wang finished their 7 months long practicums end of June, and everyone at Valor wishes them well in their careers!  Jian and Yihan worked closely with Valor’s Data Scientist Dr. Bahman Roostaei since the beginning in November 2018. Yihan's focus was predicting the likelihood of service interruption for a customer based upon their payment behavior. He worked on projects including: developing a pipeline to preprocess data, train and evaluate models and predict the probability for such events to happen. Jian focused on two problems: Forecasting the consumption of each individual customer using mathematical models, and, clustering the consumption histories of customers along with relevant metadata. This included correlating each forecast or each cluster with the flagged meters.


Beginning of June, we welcomed our 3 summer interns: Jordan Manthey, a student at UC Berkeley, with expected graduation in 2020, who is working with the Software Engineering Department; and Celine Clausen and Amanda Jennings from Norway, who are both enrolled at the NHH Norwegian School of Economics, with an expected graduation in 2021. They are supporting the Product and Development team during the summer. Jordan, Celine and Amanda will be with Valor Water until end of August. Each one of them will be introduced with individual posts on the Valor Blog in the upcoming weeks.

Valor Volunteers at San Francisco Zoo for Watermark Event

By Glen Semino, Senior QA Engineer

15601863034770.jpg

On June 8th, 2019, the Valor Water Analytics team participated in one of Watermark’s supported volunteer events. It was organized by the San Francisco Zoo’s Horticulture Department. As part of the event, participants get to spend the early hours of Saturday morning beautifying the zoo by helping to clean up designated areas. This includes weeding, as well as general garden clean up related work. Beyond that, one gets to learn about the Zoo and about ways to spread the message of habitat conservation. 

15601863035162.jpg

Those from Valor and other volunteers at the event were tasked with weeding particular areas of the zoo. At the end of the work hours, it was very satisfying to see the areas everyone had worked on and how the beautiful vegetation was no longer clouded by weeds. It was also amazing to see how many bags of weeds had been gathered at the very end. We also had a chance to speak to one of the organizers and learned about the challenges the zoo faces.

15601863499846.jpg

Overall it was a great way to spend a Saturday morning helping to renew the SF Zoo. These Watermark Volunteer events really give us a sense of pride in our community and continue to inspire us to help those around us.

To learn more about this event and the San Francisco Zoo you can visit: http://www.sfzoo.org/learn/volunteer.html. 

As part of Xylem Watermark's main mission to solve water and educate our local communities about water issues in the world, we have more Watermark Volunteer events coming up at Valor Water Analytics in 2019. To learn more about Xylem Watermark, you can visit: https://www.xylem.com/en-us/watermark



Challenges and innovations: Current and Future States of Water Affordability: Part 3.

Note:

This is the third 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 posts one and two here.

Where We Can Go Tomorrow: Exploring Novel Interventions for Nonpayment Reduction

By Maryana Pinchuk, Stacey Isaac Berahzer, and Christine Boyle, PhD

In our two previous blog posts in this series, we explored the definitions and metrics used to assess affordability, discussed the role of customer assistance programs (CAPs) in addressing affordability, and considered some major challenges that utilities face when setting up CAPs. In this post, we will briefly discuss rate structures and policy changes that influence affordability, as well as cover additional novel interventions that may reduce utility customer nonpayment in the water sector and related sectors.

Rates and policies shape affordability

black-blocks-close-up-1329328.jpg

As a recent study on affordability in New Jersey points out, before even considering a CAP, it is important for a utility to examine how its basic rate structure affects low-income customers’ bills. The study points out that “rate structures that rely heavily on fixed charges, as opposed to volumetric charges, will tend to disadvantage low-income customers, as they tend to use less water than higher-income customers.” This lower volume of use also makes declining block rate structure less equitable for low-income customers. The study concludes that “reforming a utility’s basic rate structure can go a long way to reducing burdens on low-income customers, reducing the need for additional, income-based assistance.”

Policy changes also have the potential to make a big difference. At the state level, New Jersey is being encouraged to adopt language for water similar to the 1999 state law known as the Electric Discount and Energy Competition Act.  That act declared that it was the policy of the state to ensure “universal access to affordable and reliable electric power and natural gas service.”

If such legislative changes were to occur, water affordability would jump to an even higher priority for utilities, and we could see a lot more activity in this area. Among other things, utilities could be mandated to “report on key metrics related to rates, customer bills, and low-income affordability.” However, as we previously discussed, many utilities currently lack the underlying data to track these metrics.

Customer communication to drive behavioral change

balloons-3534209_1920.png

While there have been discussions on using CAPs, rate structures, and policy to influence customer nonpayment, an area yet to be explored in depth is how changes to customer communication might increase the willingness of some customers to pay. From conversations with multiple utilities about affordability and nonpayment, it is clear that customers have different reasons for not paying their utility bills. While some do lack the financial means to afford their bills, nonpayment can also result from sticker shock, knowledge gaps, and other factors that impact the customer’s decision to pay. These factors may seem daunting to understand and address, but some tools and techniques may offer a path forward for utilities interested in changing customer nonpayment behavior.

Behavioral nudges are lightweight, targeted interventions that aim to implicitly and positively influence consumer behavior. There are many examples of nudges that have proved successful in influencing consumer behavior in the realm of conservation. Some examples include:

  • Providing information to consumers about how their consumption compares to their neighbors’, in order to conserve resources. This intervention was successfully leveraged by Opower to reduce energy consumption. Customers who received the comparative energy reports reduced their household energy consumption both immediately after receiving the notifications and in the longer term.

  • Creating data visualizations that build consumer awareness. In Cape Town, South Africa, a publicly accessible map of neighborhood water consumption was used to demonstrate to individuals that a large number of households are abiding by conservation guidelines, in order to normalize conservation targets. This intervention was deployed during a major drought and may have helped avert the “Day Zero” water crisis.

  • Sending targeted notifications to consumers to encourage positive behaviors. Researchers found that conservation-oriented bill inserts successfully helped consumers reduce their water use in South Africa, and that notifications emphasizing the social recognition and public good of conservation – as opposed to notifications that offered conservation tips or emphasized the financial cost of wasting water – were most successful at encouraging conservation behavior during the Cape Town “Day Zero” drought (you can read more about the research here).

Innovative communication techniques to reduce nonpayment

What lessons can utilities struggling with nonpayment learn from these successful conservation-focused nudges?

As we mentioned in our last post, water utilities have traditionally only communicated with their customers through a monthly, bimonthly or quarterly water bill. Many of the interventions above show that by prioritizing timely, targeted customer communication, utilities have the opportunity to positively change customer behavior. These interventions also relied on a deep understanding of the region-specific underlying factors that influenced consumers’ behavior – for example, understanding that social recognition was a more important factor in conservation for water consumers in Cape Town than lack of knowledge about the cost of water or tips on how to conserve.

We believe that the techniques that have worked for conservation may also work for nonpayment. By using predictive analytics, a utility’s customer base can be segmented into water customers at risk of nonpayment, based on the root cause of each’s customer’s failing to pay bills. Valor has found that sending targeted messages to these specific customer segments can motivate non-paying and late-paying customers to pay on time. In a pilot at a mid-sized utility in Georgia, we were able to reduce the amount of outstanding customer payments by 50% and decrease the total number of service shutoffs by 50%, year-over-year.

Targeted marketing to ease chronic nonpayment

accuracy-bullseye-center-226580.jpg

Of course, nudges alone will not fully solve the affordability problem. Identifying different segments within nonpaying customers also means separating customers who for various reasons won’t pay their bill despite having the financial means, from those who can’t pay at all. For these customers who chronically struggle to afford water, CAPs and other affordability programs are a good solution. Using predictive analysis on customer data, utilities can identify which customers fall into this segment – instead of guessing or using outdated or inaccurate historical data – and tailor their CAP marketing efforts specifically to this group to increase CAP enrollment.

The future of affordability

800px-Funny_Direction_Sign.jpeg

When thinking about how utility affordability will look in in the next five to ten years, CAPs, policy, and rate structures play an important role. But it is also important to consider the tools that other industries – e.g., credit card companies, cellular data providers – have instituted to solve customer nonpayment. This includes more flexible payment options, such as installment plans, pay-as-you-go, pre-pay, and more. These alternative payment systems only increase the need for predictive analytics (to understand which customers need what type of assistance) and customer notifications (to communicate effectively about progress to payment). No matter the payment system that a utility offers, we believe the key to reducing the vicious cycle of nonpayment, late fees, and service shutoffs is ensuring that utilities a) know and understand their customers, and b) communicate early and often with them to get ahead of nonpayment.

Accelerating tomorrow now: Key insights from the Utility Analytics Institute’s 2019 annual summit

By Maryana Pinchuk

From May 6 to 8, staff from US and international energy utilities gathered in Charlotte, North Carolina for the Utility Analytics Institute’s annual summit. The theme of the summit was “Accelerate Now,” and throughout the sessions, speakers highlighted how advanced analytics could be used to achieve a variety of goals for utilities, from making smarter business decisions to optimizing the productivity of operations staff and increasing customer benefits. Overall, the summit served as a rallying cry for companies like Xylem to develop more tools to help utilities overcome the obstacles of today and prepare to meet the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow.

Smart decision-making in the age of big data

Sensus Data Scientist Vincent Toups delivering a lightning talk on the history of data science at Sensus – with bingo cards!

Sensus Data Scientist Vincent Toups delivering a lightning talk on the history of data science at Sensus – with bingo cards!

Whether it’s coming from sensors, loggers, or smart assets, the amount of data available on each meter, customer, and square mile of utility distribution network continues to grow each year. For savvy utilities, this wealth of information presents an opportunity to make smarter business decisions. As one example, Mohamad Hussin, Senior Engineer at Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), discussed building a machine learning model to understand the actual expected life of a transformer. When DEWA analyzed the data in their service area, they found that transformers were lasting an average of only 15 years in the field before replacement, even though the expected lifespan according to traditional industry guidance was 30-40 years. Through predictive modeling, DEWA was able to more accurately identify which transformers were truly likely to fail, versus ones that were functioning correctly but were likely to get taken out of service for other reasons, e.g., because of a lack of demand in that part of the grid. This knowledge allowed DEWA to prioritize testing and replacing the right assets, saving money on unnecessary field service.

This type of data-driven asset condition assessment is the approach advocated for by Xylem and demonstrated in solutions like Valor’s Hidden Revenue Locator for customer metering and data handling inaccuracies. When utilities use analytics to facilitate smarter asset management, they lower the cost of O&M and drive greater revenue recovery.

Test-and-learn mindset to get the most of out of operations

Discussing customer needs at the Sensus booth

Discussing customer needs at the Sensus booth

Brian Savoy of Duke Energy touched on the importance of implementing a data-driven operational process for increasing worker productivity. Brian, Senior Vice President of Business Transformation and Technology at Duke, discussed the recent evolution of Duke’s internal tool and process development practices from classic waterfall – i.e., a years-long R&D phase before any new product or process was built and operationalized – to a nimble agile process, where an idea could be formulated, developed, and tested in a matter of weeks. This new data-driven approach to operations allowed Duke to pilot radically transformative processes and see returns right away. An example Brian shared was developing an iPhone application to assist with field operations. The app doubled the productivity of Duke’s field crews when it replaced the clunky and expensive legacy tools Duke had been using to track personnel and materials during field maintenance.

Brian’s story provides a valuable lesson in how applying data-driven thinking and technology to basic utility operations practices can increase efficiency. Valor’s proven method of program delivery follows these principles, relying on a two-stage diagnosis and drill-down approach that allows utilities to optimize their deployment of personnel and realize efficiency gains.

Transforming customer service through data and technology

Together, advanced analytics and a data-driven mindset can also dramatically transform the relationship of the utility to its customers. In a panel Q&A discussion, representatives from Exelon, Evergy, and Duke discussed how they’ve implemented predictive customer analytics and chatbots to assist customers with frequently asked questions. Combined, these innovations have freed up their customer service staff to take on more complex customer communications that they previously would not have had time to engage in. Patty Durand, President and CEO of the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative (SECC) presented findings from SECC consumer surveys that indicated an even greater desire from utility customers to get more meaningful, actionable communications from their utilities about their consumption, as well as ways to save money on their bills.

Xylem recognizes that the future of utility customer engagement – whether for customer leaks or nonpayment – relies on targeted, just-in-time, proactive communication strategies. Valor’s solutions suite includes tools for proactively identifying water leaks and anomalous gas usage behind the customer’s meter in order to facilitate notifications to customers. To tackle the tremendous and growing affordability challenge that utilities and their customers are facing, Valor also provides a predictive nonpayment management solution that can help utilities avert the vicious cycle of nonpayment and service shutoffs with proactive communication and intervention strategies.

Challenges to implementing data-driven solutions

In addition to the many success stories, speakers also discussed the obstacles they have faced when adopting advanced analytics. Their challenges included talent acquisition and retention; data quality and quantity; and siloed data – i.e., only being able to see insights from their own service area. While EPRI, the Electric Power Research Institute, has aggregated data from multiple energy utilities in order to help provide deeper insights on common issues and trends, many utilities are still limited to the data they have, which may be insufficient for building and training robust machine learning models.

Sensus and Valor team picture

Sensus and Valor team picture

Key takeaways for the water sector

Coming from a company that focuses primarily on water, the tools and practices shared by energy-focused utilities, vendors, and nonprofits at the UAI summit were excitingly cutting-edge. The water sector has many lessons to learn from its energy counterparts in advanced analytics and data adoption. But my key takeaway is that companies like Xylem that offer cross-cutting, hardware-agnostic solutions have a huge opportunity to help water utilities – which in the US tend to be smaller and more fragmented than electric and gas utilities – overcome their data quality and quantity challenges. With every program that we deploy, we build a database of best practices and rich insights into customer meters and behavior that can help the next utility we work with make smarter business decisions, optimize operations, and improve customer service. Together, we can help the utilities of today transform their data into insights that will guide them through the challenges and opportunities of the future.


Team Spotlight: Introducing Global Product Manager Heidi Smith

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.

DSC_0235.jpeg

Heidi, a 17-year software product veteran, has worked in the clean-tech space since 2007 in a range of capacities including product development, process management, team management, and software engineering. Recently she served as Director of Engineering at Geli, which optimizes and controls energy storage systems. Prior to Geli, she was the first employee, then CTO and Head of Product of Carbonflow, a carbon credit software company. Heidi graduated summa cum laude from Vanderbilt University where she double majored in Mathematics and German.

Q: What is your professional background?

A: I’ve been working in software companies for over 15 years. I started out as a Programmer/Software Engineer and worked in a variety of industries: e-commerce, HR software and financial software. About 10 years ago, I made a conscious decision to focus more on environmental software. At that time, I joined a company called Carbonflow, and I was their first employee, and later CTO. I was with the company for about 6 years, and they created carbon credits-related software, following the UN’s Kyoto Protocol. I did a bit of everything: software engineering, and team & product management. We also had mainly international clients, and I enjoyed working with them. After Carbonflow, I did some consulting for a variety of smaller environmental service companies and other companies. Directly before Valor, I worked on  energy storage software at Geli. At Geli, I started in software engineering, but became an Engineering Manager later.

Q: Why did you decide to transition full time into Product Management?

A: Product Management is something I did in all the different companies I have worked at, but in a more limited respect. Even while on the software side, I was always interested in how a user is going to use the software: is this a good experience for the user, and what is it that they are trying to solve. Therefore, I always ended up interfacing between what the customers wanted and what the engineers were building. Since I was doing it part-time anyway, it seemed like a natural thing to transition into the PM profession.

Q: Why did you decide to apply at Valor Water Analytics?

A: I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next in my professional life. I had known Janani for about 6 years at that point, and she introduced me to Christine about one year before I joined. I talked to Christine about Valor, and I really loved her vision and her no-nonsense, very decisive approach to running a company. And I found a lot of her ideas very refreshing. So I kept in touch with both Christine and Janani over the course of last year, and at some point Janani approached me about the Product Management position opening. I had been wavering between Engineering and Product Management positions. When Janani talked to me about what Xylem was doing and the opportunity of integration of all these different software companies focused on water solutions, I wanted to be part of it. I really liked the idea of doing Product Management in a period where Valor is still trying to work out how they are going to work together with the other companies and what their products are going to look like.


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:

46441167_132522824401951_8471224809789849600_o.jpg

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.

46440533_132522837735283_616278427736997888_o.jpg
46491616_132522781068622_6781872361042870272_o.jpg
IMG_9291 (1).jpg

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!

IMG_9305 (1).jpg
IMG_9303 (1).jpg

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.

56927213_177900949864138_422844014237057024_o.jpg
57119663_177901009864132_2395786870001762304_o.jpg

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.

57599636_181798532807713_3429170050257387520_n.jpg
57561107_181798292807737_2680023192856166400_n.jpg
58373665_181798526141047_3141682643318341632_n.jpg
57544634_181798166141083_5966440676362027008_o.jpg

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

question-2736480_1920.jpg

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.

question-mark-1872665_1920.jpg

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.

puzzle-2692245_1920.jpg

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

speak-238488_1920.jpg

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.

DSC_0234.jpeg

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.