Thames Water gets smart

Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth By Mark Chillingworth April 8, 2021
Summary:
Wave two of a major transformation of the UK’s largest water company, Thames Water, is underway reveals transformation director Mike Potter.

Image of a tap running water
(Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay )

By the time you read this article Thames Water will have deployed the first Smart Water technology into its massive fresh and waste water network. Smart Water, a utility sector form of internet of things (IoT), is the second stage of a massive change programme at Thames Water that began following a total overhaul of the business' technology estate between 2017 and 2020. Mike Potter has moved from CTO to Digital Transformation Director to lead the digitisation of Thames.  

Thames Water is investing £1 billion in a transformation programme set to conclude in 2025. As the UK's largest water provider, 15 million customers in the nation's capital city and nearby regions rely on clean tap water and waste services from Thames Water. As well as the technology transformation Potter leads, Thames Water is investing £5 billion in the Thames Tideway Tunnel, also known as London's Super Sewer. He says: 

This is an area that has water scarcity and is being hit by climate change, with strong economic growth.

Thames Water, in common with peers across the nation, is being directly impacted by climate change, a situation exacerbated in the south-east by population density, dry weather and few water reservoirs. Potter explains:

Most of our customers see it raining and think the situation must be ok. The weather events that we get are extreme, and we capture less of the water during an extreme weather event as most of it runs off into the rivers, and not into the aquifers, so it is hard for a water company to capture that water.

So we have to reduce consumption by helping customers use less and having a relentless focus on stopping leakages. This means there is a huge opportunity to use technology to service our customers and reshape our investments in the light of issues like the pandemic and climate change.

Potter's new role reflects a pipeline of technology change that has been taking place at Thames Water since 2017. Back then Thames Water realised that its technology operations were not fit for purpose, and a major refresh of the technology estate was instigated to give the business efficiency. With modernised networks, infrastructure, end-user computing, application estate, data centres and mainframes in place, Potter has a new remit to lead the second stage of a five-year technology digitisation programme. He adds:

This is about how do we create the capability and culture across the business to digitally transform and define the work in a different way? The fundamental driver is how do you invest and sustain this huge network of assets, whilst continually lowering the cost of doing that.

Potter says of why his role and title is now focused on digital transformation:

It is about better use of the investment, making sure that we meet regulatory demands as well as social and environmental pressures. Customer expectations are huge.

Multi-channel methods seen in retail will be adopted for the customer facing parts of Thames Water, field forces operating or maintaining pipes, pumps and reservoirs will be given new applications that will remove silos and disconnections, all of which, he says, will be powered by data.

As a result, Thames Water will be moving off much of the technology put in place during the first stage; mainframes and data centres are set to be replaced by four cloud based platforms: Microsoft Azure, Salesforce and SAP and AWS. This is leading to systems integrators having less of a role at Thames Water and the business having its own in-house technology skills that Potter says will be able to exploit the three platforms to their maximum for the business. 

We are breaking our technology supply chain so we are less dependent on legacy IT and systems integrators, and we can work with more SMEs.

To exploit the platforms effectively, Potter and Thames Water are working on an engagement programme to make sure all levels of the business have a powerful voice he says. Where teams may have been the recipients of technology led change in the past, Potter says close involvement with all roles and layers of the organization will be essential to getting the maximum return on investment from Salesforce, SAP, AWS and Microsoft. Engagement goes beyond the business too; with an increase in the number of partnerships with small and specialist technology providers. He adds:

We are working with Explore AI from South Africa to bring strong data science to our business as they have the skills in this area. In addition we are working with small niche suppliers to help with things like targeting leakage to build a digital fingerprint of our network.

For me, that doesn't mean my job is getting any easier. I now have to have the capabilities in-house to manage these technology platform providers and that is a different challenge to managing a systems integrator.

Potter has long been a believer that a CTO's role is to not only deliver new technology, but to also encourage the wider technology industry to get involved.  He spent over three years with HMRC, the UK's tax collectors, and led the championing of APIs. Potter adds:

We encouraged the software industry to come in with us and that changed the business model, and as a CTO, you are then able to identify where the business is going.

Get Smart

Two smart programmes are underway at Thames Water, one for clean water and another for waste. Potter says the smart approach is about improving how Thames Water responds to events.

Next month, we will release the first module of a blockage prediction model as part of Smart Waste; this will use data sets and machine learning to build predictive algorithms around blockages and the impact on the customer so that we can be a more proactive business rather than reactive. Longer-term Smart is driving our investment strategy.

That modelling, Potter says, is already helping Thames Water better understand where monitoring sensors should be placed in its network.

We have some acoustic loggers that were very binary and triggered an alarm. Now we are using AI to look at the data coming off those acoustic loggers, and we have found there is enough difference in the signal to predict leakages and be proactive. Source level data is providing insight rather than just an alarm. Digital transformation of the asset network is therefore in three stages; the first is to have a predictive model, secondly, you can predict where to put sensors in place, and thirdly you fine-tune your findings based on the data.

Skills

As Thames Water moves off legacy technologies and adopts new digital methods, it will require new skills, not only in the technology team. Potter was instrumental in developing the skills base at HMRC and has set about the same course at Reading headquartered Thames. He says:

The government was not a place to have a compelling technology career when I joined the public sector. So you have to create brand attraction. People don't want to come and work for me. They want to come and be part of the possibilities, and they want to work with people like them, so it is important to exemplify the people that do the great work, and that is what we did at HMRC. It worked really well, and we attracted over 700 people to come and work in government.

Those intrinsic motivators are the same at Thames Water. We are doing some incredibly exciting work with data. We are now connecting people to the mission of water scarcity and climate change, and we have recruited over 100 people. We also focus on winning awards to recognise our people and get their story out.