Getting digital right in California water: the fierce urgency of now

The California Urban Water Conservation Council (CUWCC) just put out a report on a “market transformation framework” for “sustainable landscaping.” This seemingly niche issue acquires urgency when you consider the severity of California’s drought, likely future water resource supply constraints from climate change, and the variety of actions already taken to reduce indoor water usage (note the prevalence of low flush toilets for instance) .

Outdoor conservation thus becomes paramount. This report offers many great ideas about how to improve the sustainability of California’s landscaping. I won’t talk about those. (If you want to see their valuable though more conventional policy analysis, read the report.)

Instead I’m going to go down their list of suggested strategies and articulate some big low hanging digital fruit to better realize these goals. Quoted material in italics.

“Watershed Approach

Lack of ‘Watershed Approach’ Buy-In” — CUWCC

This section focuses on organizational and management challenges. Yet tools like the new DWR geospatial water management planning tool and better data sharing are invaluable for effectively coordinating across jurisdictions, prioritizing resources and identifying challenges — in short managing. As the old adage goes, you can’t manage what you can’t measure.

Examples: The Data Driven City by Mike Flowers. Singapore’s One Map integrating not just water but all public data geospatially

“Economic Incentives”

Incentives (e.g., rebates, tax credits, etc.) are often insufficient, unproven, unknown, or appear daunting to property owners.” — CUWCC

This speaks to the need for data analysis on what’s working where and why so we know what conservation incentives to prioritize. Example: NYC Mayor’s Office of Data and Analytics use of predictive models to prioritize scarce resources.

Also, to the degree that they “appear daunting” there’s an opportunity to have a better user experience in getting a rebate. Example: UK’s Carer’s Allowance Digital Tool and analysis of the tool’s impact.

“Messaging”

“Multiplicity of brands and outreach programs promoting sustainable landscaping throughout state yields disjointed and inconsistent messaging.” — CUWCC

Data presents an opportunity to better target bill inserts using best practices pioneered in California companies like Facebook or Google. Better use of digitally native messaging has the potential to bridge communication gaps. Examples: Boston’s use of open data to improve the school assignment process.

“Performance Criteria and Codes, Standards Regs and Enforcement”

Here’s another opportunity to better share data on what’s working through existing channels such as metered water usage. This category also presents an opportunity to experiment with a distributed internet of things instrumentation approach to adaptively assess the impact of landscape changes on say evapotranspiration. Example: In the long term, this seems like a potential opportunity to explore Tim O’Reilly’s concept of algorithmic regulation.

“Research”

“Data quantifying cost/water savings and positive externalities associated with sustainable landscaping are non-existent, not in agreement, or unclear. Agencies lack data capture capacities. Pilot projects are rarely well-documented or conveniently archived.” — CUWCC

This statement clearly articulates the need to organically share relevant usage, customer characteristic and conservation program participation at a household level. That’s what you need to effectively conduct research and empower utility analysts to deal with these issues. So again why not have a secure private database for the water community to share this data?

Examples: NYC’s databridge. US Census bureau data which is shared publicly in aggregate format but available in greater granularity for approved research projects.

Note DWR already recognizes the need for improvement:

“DWR acknowledges that significant improvements can be made in how data is entered into DOST. Plans are already underway for revamping the system for the 2015 cycle.”

So the challenge is to get from where we are to what’s possible (and really necessary to achieve these goals) digitally. I’ll offer a final personal anecdote as a cautionary tale about the importance of that transition.

Many moons ago, I worked at a state agency that shall remain nameless in a past life on a similar data collection effort to track flows across different state and local agencies. First, we had a giant excel spreadsheet that everyone passed around but that clearly got unwieldy since excel is an analysis rather than database tool. There was a clear need to build something more technologically robust but we lacked the capacity so we paid silly money to a consultant to try to make the problem go away.

This story has been told far too many times, perhaps most dramatically with Healthcare.gov. Yet it’s also important to realize that this doesn’t have to be the case. There no metaphysical reason government can’t do digital right as UK’s Government Digital Services illustrates. Moreover, we’re talking about California, birthplace of the digital revolution and pioneer of everything from farmers markets to 3D animated movies.

Why not bring that pioneering spirit to bear on our pressing public problems like the current drought?

Cheers,

Patrick

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