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As you can tell in the photo below, I was extremely proud to accept the Smart Infrastructure Award we took home with IBM from Infrastructure Partnerships Australia 2013 National Infrastructure Awards in late March. For the Townsville City Council in North Queensland, Australia, this award is recognition of a great project that’s only been possible through our partnership with IBM and the application of smart thinking and technology.
Councillor Vern Veitch (holding trophy) and IBM’s Catherine Caruana-McManus receiving the Smart Infrastructure Award from Infrastructure Partnerships Australia
The pilot is breaking new ground in the way data is collected and analysed in near real-time. At its core, the program will help identify and enable ways for the people of Townsville to drive water conservation by empowering residents with smart technology to assist with positive behavioural change.
Why does a city located in the tropics need to worry about water consumption, given the incredible deluges we experience during our wet season? Like many towns or cities located in the tropics, we have two very extreme seasons – wet and dry. So when it’s wet, it is really wet; and when it’s dry, there is not a drop of moisture for months on end. And it is always hot!
The people of Townsville love their gardens. They carefully tend gardens and lawns as they proudly make our community a better looking place. But Townsville has a growing population and with our seasonally dry climate, almost 70 percent of the average household water consumption is currently used on lawns and gardens.
Not only that, but the infrastructure that supports the flow of water around the city and down from the Ross River Dam is aging. Since our average household consumes up to three times more water than other major Australian cities, through this project we are aiming to demonstrate that significant water consumption reductions are possible across the city. This in turn should lead to flow-on savings for the Council through reduced water treatment costs and deferral of capital investment.
Fortunately for Townsville, we were awarded an IBM Smarter Cities Challenge grant in 2011. The project team that visited us recommended a number of options to help us manage our city by utilising our existing infrastructure in smarter ways.
By using IBM’s Big Data expertise, this pilot project is an output of this grant. It delivers near real-time information about daily water usage from digital water meters to the Council and residents via a web portal. But delivering information on how much water a household is using is not enough to positively change behaviour. Where the real “smart” aspect comes in is via the analytics that IBM has developed.
Through the web portal, it provides personalised and actionable insights so households can better understand their water consumption patterns and even be alerted to potential anomalies to help indentify leaks. We can also encourage some friendly competition amongst the pilot community by comparing and contrasting usage with other participating households. A future application even includes the option of participants receiving a mobile phone text message stating rain conditions, allowing residents to change their water usage behaviours accordingly.
A similar pilot has been used very successfully with IBM and the City of Dubuque, Iowa, USA. The Dubuque Water Pilot Study resulted in a 6.6 percent reduction in water consumption and an eightfold increase in leak detection, so there is enormous potential for significant social and economic benefits here in Townsville if our trial is successful.
I would challenge other cities to explore how they too can use technology on existing infrastructure in smarter ways, and most importantly create a more sustainable future for their cities and citizens.
Councillor Vern Veitch is Deputy Mayor of Townsville, Australia. Vern spent many years campaigning for sustainable land and waterways management in North Queensland.
Since becoming a councillor, Vern has championed efficient and sustainable use of the environment and the Council’s role in providing leadership on environmental challenges facing North Queensland.
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