We all rely on water – for drinking, washing, growing our food, and even leisure activities, among many other purposes. And, in developed nations in particular, we have come to expect ready access to a plentiful supply of clean water to fulfil all of these needs. 

The reality, even in countries considered to be ‘water-rich’ – such as the UK – is that future supplies are by no means guaranteed. The impact of climate change on the world’s water must not be underestimated – whether that’s the effect of increasingly hot and dry spells on water reserves or the damage and pollution that’s the result of storm-driven flash flooding. 

The environmental impact of our reliance on fossil fuels to generate energy is increasingly well-understood by consumers and industry alike. However there is much more limited awareness of the links between water consumption and climate change. 

Lost water is also a huge issue. Ofwat estimates that, in the UK, a fifth of treated water running through pipes is currently lost to leakage. Substantial resources must be deployed in finding and stopping major leaks, and many smaller leaks may go undetected, not only wasting water but potentially adding to water customer bills.

Meanwhile, modern usage of the UK’s water pipes and other assets simply do not match the expectations that were in place at the time the infrastructure was built, thanks to increased pressure from population growth, changing customer expectations and, again, climate change. 

Simply trying to build our way out of the problem is not a viable solution. It’s just too costly – both from a financial and a carbon perspective – time-consuming, and resource-intensive. There aren’t enough people or material resources in the UK to replace the entire UK infrastructure at the pace required to keep up with changing demands. 

So what’s the solution?

Instead, we have to think innovatively. Another solution is to make better use of existing data. Getting as many eyes as possible on as much water data as possible can facilitate diversity of thought and enable the innovation required, at speed and at scale. Stakeholders that Icebreaker One has spoken to have highlighted a wide range of benefits that could be achieved with better access to data. To highlight just a few use cases, better access to water data could help:

  • Identify the rivers most in need of clean-up initiatives
  • Predict asset failure based on analysis of previous faults
  • Drive awareness among consumers of the link between water consumption and the environment, and encourage behaviour change.

In some cases, data alone might do away with the need for pricier interventions. In others, it will help target resources to the projects and places that are most in need.  

What water data is already available?

There is no shortage of water data. A search for ‘water’ on Icebreaker One’s Open Net Zero data directory returns several thousand data sources linked to water. Data Owners include national and international regulatory bodies – including the UK’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), academic and research organisations, and, of course, water companies. 

However, it’s fair to say that while water companies hold a cornucopia of data, the amount that we’ve so far been able to surface via Open Net Zero is fairly limited. As outlined in Ofwat’s 2023 report on Open data in the water industry, to date the majority of water companies have published only a small amount of open water data (Wessex Water’s ‘Water Marketplace’ being one notable exception). The data that is available is often in formats that restrict its use: for example, ‘data’ is often published in the form of web interfaces or maps, rather than the underlying data being published via an API (ideally) or .xls/.csv file, for example. And, even when all water companies publish the same data, users typically have to seek it out on multiple, individual water company websites. 

While there are good reasons for water companies to keep some water data behind closed doors – data protection or national security concerns, for example – there’s plenty of other data that could be made openly, and usefully, available for analysis by industry, academics, campaigners, innovators and more. 

What needs to happen?

While water companies have been exploring innovative uses of data for several years, it’s typically been in the form of hackathons. This approach is exciting and has delivered real benefits, but it doesn’t work at scale. What’s needed is a hub for open water industry data, published in a central location, backed by clear data standards and licences, and supported by a Trust Framework

Cue the Stream initiative, an Ofwat-backed collaboration between 15 water companies in England and Wales, alongside partner organisations including Aimii, Icebreaker One, the ODI, and Sia Partners, who have come together to unlock the potential of water industry data. 

As Melissa Tallack, Co-Lead for Stream at Northumbrian Water, puts it: “If we were to put a label on what Stream is, it’s probably a data institution, helping people publish and consume water data for the express purpose of improving transparency, trust and innovation to deliver benefit to customers, society, the environment and the economy. It’s part of the national data sharing infrastructure of the UK and that’s why we always have interoperability at front-of-mind.

“It’s not the path of least resistance to get there. Going together is not as easy as each company going alone. But the 15 Water Companies who are currently a part of Stream are not doing all this for their convenience now. They are doing this for the long-term gain, to create a future path of least resistance for publishers and users alike so that data challenges never stand in the way of building transparency, trust and innovation.”

Through collaborating to make water company data openly accessible in a coordinated, consistent, standardised manner, Stream aims to essentially enable an uber-hack, without time constraints, that allows anyone, anywhere, to use that data to help solve the challenges faced by the water sector, industry as a whole, society, and the environment. 

To add a final quote from Melissa: “Can you imagine the potential impact that kind of scale could achieve in finding new insights and new ways to solve problems and generate value?”

Stream phase one

Over the last year, Stream partners – including Icebreaker One – have been working together to launch the first few Stream datasets. You can see the early fruits of our labours in the Beta launch of the Stream platform, here

But this is only the beginning. Over the coming months, water companies involved in Stream will be working to get more datasets ready for publication, so you can expect bigger and better things in the new year and beyond. 

Get involved in Stream
The data published on Stream is only as valuable as the challenges it helps to solve. We rely on potential users of water company data to tell us what problems they are trying to solve, and how water data can help. You can follow Stream’s progress on its LinkedIn page, or help us to shape the next phases of Stream by joining one of our advisory groups. Find out more at icebreakerone.org/stream