This is the latest in my series of posts spotlighting underrepresented communities around the world and the entrepreneurs trying to help them. In this installment, I talk to a company tapping into water utility data to stop leaks, and stop people from losing their service.
Although many people work hard to ensure important resources like water are not wasted, there are still times when we lose it without even knowing it. When this happens, it means higher water bills, waste of one of our most valuable resources, and sometimes, customers getting their service shut off.
Unfortunately, this happens even to people with the best of intentions, without anyone even aware of a problem. In disadvantaged neighborhoods where people have a tough time making ends meet, this is especially harmful. Problems like water leaks and broken meters are spiking water bills so much these days that some people have no hope of paying them off. Valor Water Analytics is trying to stop this from happening by diving into the water company's data.
"We have a technology that helps identify leaks at the customer level," says CEO Christine Boyle. "We go to customers to help them solve leaks so they don't have high bills. We also identify things like tampering and broken meters and other kinds of problems so the utility can deliver water in the most efficient way possible.
Using Big Data and Data Science to Save Water
Boyle says there are two main problems happening here. One is a sustainability issue that harms the planet. The other is usually an undetected structural problem that makes life difficult for both customer and utility. Boyle says they both need to be addressed to solve the problem.
"What we figured out was that you couldn't answer the resources sustainability question without also answering the economic and financial question," Boyle says. "Our products are really trying to (solve both). For example, one of our products detects water loss."
Valor Water Analytics is primarily a data science company that works with water and gas utilities to perform advanced meter analytics. Essentially, they crunch water utility data and look for leaks. Boyle said major American utilities are selling a lot of water, and are pressing customers to conserve, but data shows they are losing large amounts of water through leaks. By informing utilities where this is happening, she hopes to help eliminate leak problems in the future as much as possible.
Help for Communities Losing Money and Water
The company has developed a "cutoff analyzer" that can detect and predict customers facing difficulty paying their water bill.
"It helps do outbound messaging and programming to help reduce the number of cut-offs in communities," Boyle says. "It could be just sending a courtesy alert text message that says, 'Hey, your water bill just hit $10. We suggest you go make a payment soon so your service doesn't get cut off.' This is just like you would get from your credit card. It also can help promote repayment programs."
This type of "efficiency outreach" has proven so effective so far.
"We have one program we are doing right outside of Atlanta, Georgia and we've also had a pilot in Michigan and the results are very good. We've been able to achieve reduction in cut offs up to 50%. That means that half the people that were shut off before our program are not getting shut off."
The company has been seeing increased revenue due to its relationships with utilities, but Boyle says she tends to measure impact in other ways. For instance, the number of gallons of water that communities save and the number of shutoffs and turn offs avoided both equal success to her. The company is active in six states, and her goal is to be in all major utilities in the U.S. before expanding globally to help international communities solve their utility issues as well.
There are benefits to this technology that expand beyond the water user. For example, the amount of money saved once leaks are fixed is often reinvested by the utilities into building reservoirs as well as other programs. For her part, Boyle is happy to see her company grow. But she's also hoping that her work continues to have a positive national, and eventually global effect on conserving one of our most valued resources.
If you like stories about entrepreneurs helping out underserved communities, check out some of the other stories in the series. Meet the the entrepreneur trying to solve homelessness one person at a time. Or, meet the team trying to tear down the glass ceiling that female entrepreneurs face as they look for funding.