Most of us don’t think about our water supply beyond the fact that we need and use it every day to survive. But my awareness of what it takes to provide communities with potable water has increased over the past few months, thanks to our Open Assembly Collective member Yorkshire Water.
When I share stories about companies that are tapping the gig economy to transform the way they do business, I don’t often get to talk about a utilities company. So I found it especially cool last June to meet with Neil Dewis and Kathryn Edwards, from Yorkshire Water’s transformation team.
Yorkshire Water was having a problem with two main issues. They wanted to cut “leakage” which in the U.S. we call non-revenue water, and they wanted to get their customers to reduce water usage. Both are common problems for water companies. What struck me as unique was Yorkshire Water’s approach to solving them. Instead of working toward incremental changes, their goal was to create transformational change.
In early 2018, Yorkshire Water committed to cutting non-revenue water usage by 40%. To do this, they focused on two key things: Being radically transparent about communicating their process and their numbers and using open strategies and tools. “Our goal is to change the way businesses solve problems,” says Edwards. “We are thinking ahead on how best to begin to build our own problem-solving capability.”
Yorkshire Water worked with The Leeds Open Data Institute to release 12 months of data from its current network meters to see if the crowd could find new trends or patterns. They included audio files since sound variation can be a sign of leakage. Overall, they shared seventy million lines of data during a two-day hackathon, which attracted around 90 data addicts from a combination of sources. Some came from the traditional supply chain of Aecom and Arups. Some came from a variety of universities. Quite a few were data hobbyists. There were also a good number of Yorkshire Water data analysts who gained a lot from working directly with people they wouldn’t normally engage with.
On day one, a member of the crowd submitted a code that eliminated false negatives. Someone else came up with an app proposal to use AI to automate the recognition of leak noise, another suggested a Fitbit for household water pipes that would cheaply monitor and fix customer pipes, consumption, and transfer data between water company and customer.
Yorkshire Water has now committed to a five-year innovation challenge and plans to partner with several platforms to crowdsource specific solutions every six months. “We were so pleased with the results of this first effort that Yorkshire Water now publishes all of its water supply and demand data every month,” says Dewis. “This lets our customers see in real time what stocks are looking like and how Yorkshire is using up its water. We want to do our thinking out loud, looking to our own people and the outside world to help shape our strategy from the outset. We plan to be open with the results from all of our crowdsourcing challenges, publishing all the successes and failures along the way.”
What I like about the Yorkshire Water story is their proactive approach to how work is changing. They could bump along for many more years doing business as usual. Instead, they’re seeing what lies ahead, and seizing the chance to innovate and adjust their business now to solve their water problems.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Forbes.