Untapped potential: how flowing data can help California deal with the drought

California faces an unprecedented drought.  The scariest part isn't the past few years of dry weather though, even though that's generated a great xkcd graphic:

Think these last 4 years look bad?  Imagine what California will look like if we're just at the start of a multi-decade mega-drought, something that's well within the long run historical record.


California water's low hanging fruit: sharing data

You might imagine that California water utilities share their data on what conservation programs work best at reducing water use.  They're all working towards more efficient water use, right?  

Note the State began collecting aggregated monthly water usage data at a utility level last June.  And many utilities are among the best in the world in working with researchers and piloting projects with the technology community.  So things are moving in the right direction.

Yet granular, household level water usage, conservation program, and customer characteristic data -- precisely what you'd need to run effective analytics on what's working to reduce demand -- isn't shared between utilities and only rarely with academic researchers.

There's good reasons for not sharing household level data publicly.  Knowing how much water a home uses could aid criminals in figuring out when you're on vacation for instance.  But there's no reason such data couldn't be put in a secure private database only accessible to qualified researchers and water professionals.  

And for anyone who thinks such data collection isn't necessary here's my two simple questions:  what's the actual average retail price of California water?  (That number doesn't exist -- just survey estimates.)  How can we say we're doing everything to encourage conservation if we don't even know how much we're charging?

Why water data matters

The digital revolution has transformed how countless industries operate (and not just on the web).  Look at how data is being used in Walmart's logistics or Targets ad targeting or Capital One's fraud detection.  There's a ton of analytics in use in industry today that A) aren't used in water because the data isn't shared and B) could definitely used to great effect a la those examples.

Why then don't public water utilities share household level usage, conservation, price and customer characteristic data so that they can work better together to deal with the drought?  Is it really crazy to expect that in California -- the home of the digital revolution -- we'd use digital tools that agencies already have to share data to improve the effectiveness of those programs? 

NYC has used data and analytics in this way to better target and improve fire inspections almost 10x over previous response rates.  California has a similar opportunity to target water conservation rates.

Why not seize that opportunity, as California has countless times throughout our history, to pioneer the new?

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