The world is becoming increasingly digitalised, and we are reaping many benefits from this, in terms of convenience (from online shopping to rainfall radar), security (credit card fraud detection), efficiency (just-in-time delivery at the supermarket, or directly at home), knowledge (all the information at our fingertips) and so on. On the other hand, our use of all these digital services brings in new challenges in the areas of privacy, monopoly, power, influence, etc.
In the water industru, too, we are seeing the digitisation movement. Some time ago, we have started to call this application of digital technologies to water practice, often based on data and models, interdisciplinary and with a touch of human interaction in the mix, hydroinformatics. And hydroinformatics is cooking on gas. There is a leading scientific journal (Journal of Hydroinformatics), a biannual international conference (HIC International Conference on Hydroinformatics) and many water companies have their own data science team, hydroinformatics ambassador, etc. The company-wide value of data is becoming more and more recognized and companies are putting more and more effort into realizing company-wide access to data. As a result, (hydro)informatics is penetrating all corners of the business.
Does this mean that all becomes hydroinformatics? Is a big data analysis of customer data of a water company hydroinformatics? Is calculating groundwater flows with a hydrological model hydroinformatics? Is a probabilistic prediction of water availability over 25 years hydroinformatics? And does this make all employees in the water sector hydroinformaticians? The answer to these questions is a matter of time and maturity of application.
Over the past decades we have incorporated many ICT solutions into our daily lives without calling ourselves computer scientists. The average adolescent of 2020 gets more done with his computer, smartphone or tablet than the computer scientist of 20 years ago on the computers of those days. Also in the water industry, the new technologies, implemented in dashboards, apps and AR devices, become commonplace and simply a handy and familiar tool. But just as with a power drill, where you need to know when to use the hammer action, and especially when not to use it, and which drill bit for which material, every user needs to be and remain aware of the limitations and suitable application areas of the tools and data analyses. So hydrologists remain hydrologists and asset managers remain asset managers.
Yet there a catch. It is not inconceivable that some current jobs at water companies will eventually (or more quickly) be taken over by “robots” – artificial intelligence. After all, computers are more and more capable of talking to customers, and process control can be automated to an ever-increasing extent – this can also be hydroinformatics. And perhaps this applies to many more functions in the even longer term. For the time being, this development offers opportunities and an way to deal with the ageing of the workforce – in the longer term, a broader public discussion about the role of humans in relation to artificial intelligence and robots in production and services will be essential.
And hydroinformatics itself? We must continue to see it primarily as a field of research that continues to focus on the (further) development of new technologies, methods and ideas from an ICT perspective in order to make them available for their eventual operational, tactical or strategic fields of application in water practice, until these too eventually become commonplace. The further autonomization of the water industry and the application of artificial intelligence in more and more fields is also part of this. We must not lose sight of the potential negative effects of this on humans. But this development does offer many opportunities to design more resilient networks, serve customers more effectively, detect and remedy failures more quickly, minimize the footprint of the water supply system, and so on.