Water Technology

Getting to Know Our Summer Interns: Introducing Jordan

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This is part 3 of our intern introduction blog posts. You can read part 1 here, and part 2 here.

By: Jordan Manthey

I’m 21-year-old and from Tampa, Florida, going into my 4th year as a UC Berkeley undergraduate student, studying computer science and data science. Growing up along the Gulf of Mexico provided me with a conscious appreciation for water and consequently sparked my interest in Xylem and its mission to Solve Water. My experience as a software engineer intern here has allowed me to apply the skills I’ve learned from university to real-world problems. Though I feel that my classes have prepared me well for a career in software development, there are still several gaps between academia and professional work-- specifically around working in a team environment. Valor has done a phenomenal job bridging these gaps for me this summer, and here I’ll highlight some of my key learning experiences as an aspiring developer.

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JIRA

At best, my computer science classes have permitted one partner on projects to ensure academic integrity for all students, however, these restrictions no longer apply in the workplace with a full team of software engineers. I’ve found it incredibly useful to ask questions, take in suggestions, and learn from other people’s code in order to facilitate my own work. Valor uses an issue and project tracking software, JIRA, which reinforces this type of collaboration by allowing team members to make comments and share code snippets on any task. Because JIRA shows which people are assigned to each problem, it has been perfect in showing who to look for help when needed. I have learned that this tool is critical for software development and can highly increase team productivity when used correctly.

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DOCKER

I also quickly found it necessary to make sure my own projects are compatible with the company’s existing software and work properly on each team member’s machine. This problem has always been handled for me or completely overlooked in school, so I was intrigued about learning the ways in which Valor standardizes their software. Here we use Docker Engine, a software tool that deploys virtual containers to provide each team member with the same development environment across platforms. It’s very powerful knowing that the team will be able to run my code as expected when I work within the Docker container, and vice versa.

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UNIT TESTING

 I‘ve had experience creating unit tests for my academic projects to ensure my code behaves as expected, but this has always been a posterior exercise for my own sanity. Throughout my internship, I’ve experienced the benefits of writing unit tests before beginning the implementation process. Tackling real-world problems is typically not as clear-cut, and it can save significant time to consider the end goal of your program before you even get started working. This method will similarly make debugging sessions easier since you already have proper test suites to traceback any issues. Unit testing maintains a greater purpose when working within a development team-- It not only proves to others that your code runs properly, but it also will act as a signal to team members when their own changes compromise your work later down the line. 

Though I took what I’ve learned at UC Berkeley and applied it to my internship, I now plan on carrying what I’ve learned at Valor over into my final year as an undergraduate student. I give many thanks to the enjoyable and supporting team I met here this Summer as I learned and laughed a lot. But most importantly of all, I’ve mastered the Bay Area public transportation system.


Xylem Digital Solutions West hosts Norwegian Business School Delegation

By: Sabrina Strauss, Office Manager

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On July 26, 36 students from the Norwegian School of Economics’ Corporate Innovation program visited the Xylem - Digital Solutions’ San Francisco office to learn about innovation in the water industry.  The 36 students are all enrolled at a summer business certificate program at UC Berkeley. CEO Christine Boyle and their professor Leah Edwards have been working together for several years to help students gain office experience and learn about innovation in Silicon Valley. For the past 3 summers (2017-2019), Valor / Xylem has hosted two summer interns from the program, with both Xylem and the interns learning a lot each year. Interns have helped with marketing material, product documentation, and user group event planning. We also host them to a baseball game each summer. 

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The 2019 program on Corporate Innovation focusses on startup methods utilized within bigger organizations, as well as the acquisition of startups as a way to kickstart innovation in big companies. The one-day visit aimed to provide students real -life examples of corporate innovation, with a focus on the water industry. 

Christine Boyle started the session with an introduction of Xylem and their business mission, as well as the development of their relationship with Valor Water Analytics, which led to the company’s acquisition in 2018. Valor Water is now part of the Xylem - Digital Solutions group.  Next, Xylem staff delivered sessions on product management, data science & AI, and software development practices at Xylem. 

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The students showed great interest in each presentation, and had great questions.  It was a pleasure to have the group and their Professor stop by, and we are looking forward to the next batch in 2020.


Congratulations Imagine H2O Asia!

By: Christine Boyle, CEO

On July 16-19 in Singapore, Imagine H2O Asia launched its inaugural Asia Water Innovation Week. Activities were hosted by Enterprise Singapore, and in collaboration with Singapore PUB. Eight companies were selected for the inaugural Imagine H2O Asia cohort, from an application pool of 110 water startups. Here is a listing of the cohort companies, plus WateROAM, a participant of the San Francisco 2019 cohort:

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Xylem - Digital Solutions Director Christine Boyle delivered a talk to the startups called ‘All the Way to the Exit: A Founder’s Perspective on Managing Growth’ during the Day-2 activities at Singapore Water Exchange. Founders were engaged and full of the energy it takes to build a successful water start up. 

The culmination of the week was Demo Day Presentations and Awards. Each founder gave a four-minute long demo to an audience of investors, startups, utility officials, sponsors, and more. Nine judges deliberated to decide on the 2019 prize winners. After a hard-fought deliberation session, the judges selected Pani Energy as the 2019 Imagine H2O Asia winner. MicroHAOPS received honorable mention.

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Three cheers to Nimesh Modak, Tom Ferguson, Scott Bryan, Kelly Trott, Kelven Lam, and Ellie Baker for this successful launch in Asia.

Valor Water at the GAWP Annual Conference in Savannah

By: Alex Puryear, Business Development Manager

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Once again, the Georgia Association of Water Professionals annual conference in Savannah proved to be a great event. Georgia utilities have always been at the head of the pack when adopting new technologies to help them lower their non-revenue water. For this reason, Valor Water has seen Georgia as a key state to succeed in.

 This year’s turnout surpassed expectations. We were able to connect with many current clients and meet new prospective clients who were excited to hear more about our apparent loss solution. I especially enjoyed hearing my colleagues, Jennifer Stevens from Emnet and Brad Gresham from Wachs Water give presentations to the group.

If you ever find yourself in Savannah, make sure to check out The Olde Pink House or Alligator Soul. Both great places to eat!

Looking forward to future GAWP events.

You can find more information about the Georgia Association of Water Professionals on their website.

Getting to Know Our Summer Interns: Introducing Celine

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

By: Celine Clausen

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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.


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.

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.

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.

Zero visibility: Issues in Water Use Data Resolution

BY DAVID WEGMAN, CTO, VALOR WATER

In the beginning -- that is, before HD television -- there was standard definition television.  Back then, nobody complained much about the quality of the image.  In reality, the reason why people didn't make a fuss was that they didn't know what they were missing out on.  The same goes for the transition from cassette tapes to CDs and a host of other evolutionary enhancements in audio/visual quality over the years.  Ignorance is bliss.

Doing the Right Thing: Ending Water Cutoffs

By Janani Mohanakrishnan, PhD

Intro

“What keeps you up at night?” This was a question posed to George Hawkins (GM at DC Water), at a recent water conference. He promptly replied “Figuring out how to keep providing water to my growing population of low-income customers”. Later that week, a colleague mentioned her displeasure at having her water cutoff because of a system error. She had paid her active utility service deposit, had no history of nonpayment and was still cutoff without notice. Guilty until proven innocent!