California fights drought with big data, cloud computing

Sensors, the Internet of Things, and hackathons will also have a role in historic drought

California is facing its worst drought in more than 100 years, and one with no end in sight. Conserving water has never been more important, and Silicon Valley has an opportunity to offer technological solutions to the problem.

Consider, for example, the approach the East Bay Municipal Utility District took to encouraging customers to reduce water consumption.

Using technologies not available in earlier droughts, the Oakland-based agency issued report cards on water usage to 10,000 of its 650,000 customers in a year-long pilot program. For instance, EBMUD would put worried-looking smiley faces on the statements it sent to people in two-person households who used more than 127 gallons per day -- the average for a household that size. The statements disclosed each household's actual water usage and urged the customers to "take action" -- and many did.

The usage reports helped to reduce water consumption by 5% by encouraging behavioral changes, according to a recent study on the EBMUD program. The utility said the reporting system, developed by WaterSmart Software, could "go a long way" toward helping the state meet its goal of a reducing water usage by 20% per capita statewide.

WaterSmart, a San Francisco-based venture-funded company, delivers its tools via a software-as-a-service (SaaS) setup. All the utility has to do is export its usage data to the platform; no integration work is required, said Peter Yolles, CEO and founder of WaterSmart.

What has changed since the last major drought in California, which occurred between 1987 and 1992, has been "the rise of whole new technologies, software as a service, big data, behavioral economics -- all three of those are new since the last drought in California," Yolles said.

The reports that the East Bay utility delivers to customers include recommendations for water-saving strategies based on their water usage histories, household characteristics, and season of the year.

One person who sees the drought as a way to bring about social change is Brinkley Warren, who, about two weeks ago, began organizing a hackathon to find solutions to the problem. His "Hack the Drought" movement has featured meetups in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Warren, who holds degrees in journalism and mass communications, is a Fulbright fellow and an entrepreneur. He said he is using the hackathon's "open innovation process" to bring together people with diverse skills.

The goal is to connect innovators and other creative types with water management experts to help frame the problem, and then form teams to find solutions. This approach is about "co-creating the product and the solution alongside the people who are actually facing the problem," Warren said.

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