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Facing future challenges with digital tools

In 2020 hydroinformatics acquired the formal status of a research theme within the Joint Research Programme of KWR and the water utilities. And in early 2021, KWR established a research team for this rapidly growing discipline in the water sector. Digital tools are indispensable in addressing big issues such as climate change, feels KWR researcher and Chief Information Officer Peter van Thienen. ‘The core feature of hydroinformatics is that it helps us prepare for a future that presents uncertainties of all kinds.’

We live in an information age, and the water sector, too, has to deal with a steadily growing flow of data. Choices have to be made about what needs to be measured. What makes sense? How are data to be stored and managed? And how do you extract the right information from the enormous quantities of data? ‘It is the purpose of KWR’s specialised Hydroinformatics team to answer these questions,’ says team leader Ina Vertommen. ‘What the water sector needs most of all is to get better at learning to think within uncertainty. Thanks to their processing power, computers take nuances into account, so that models can explicitly incorporate this uncertainty. Through the water sector’s wider deployment of hydroinformatics, we will be brought ever closer to reality.’

Digital tools

The new team’s areas of activity revolve around research, software development and data management. Van Thienen explains: ‘Hydroinformatics is about developing digital tools to help us face the challenges of the future. That future involves many uncertainties, but we still want to be able to prepare for them. Research is needed to enable the development of the appropriate models, to provide us with the insights we want. Data management ensures that the data required by these models are available. And software development means that something useful is produced from this for the end-user.’

Gondwana web tool

Even before the Hydroinformatics team was established at KWR, the institute had already developed various digital tools. Vertommen mentions a successful project from 2020: the development of a web version of Gondwana, which is a digital tool for the optimisation of drinking water distribution networks. Gondwana makes it possible for the water sector to design better-performing and more resilient distribution networks and monitoring networks, for less money. ‘The web tool for instance calculates precisely where to deploy sensors to monitor water quality, or pressure sensors to trace leakages. Instead of designing a pipe network by hand, we can use the tool to automatically generate different designs. We then work, step by step, towards an optimised network.’ Such tools combine the right algorithms with domain knowledge. This is why the Hydroinformatics team also seeks close collaboration with other KWR teams; in the case of Gondwana for example this was the Water Infrastructure team, where the tool’s development was carried out.

Complex set of problems

With climate change, population growth, migration, aging infrastructure and other big issues of our time, the water sector finds itself faced with numerous challenges concerning the water provision and water demand. In 2020, KWR published an IWA Digital Water White Paper on this subject, which describes how hydroinformatics can help deal with uncertainty in the world and uncertainty in the future. Van Thienen: ‘This involves a complex set of problems, for which you need to conduct a huge number of calculations and take a multiplicity of elements into account. Humans can’t do this themselves: we need tools that we build with computers.’ To enable the computation of complex problems, KWR has since 2020 collaborated with the European Partnership for Advanced Computing (PRACE), which provides access to supercomputers for extra computing power.

Growing acceptance

The new KWR team will work in the period ahead on the mission and strategy that it wishes to pursue. It also hopes to work with partners in launching a number of interesting hydroinformatics projects. Apart from the water utilities, collaborations are being sought with universities, research institutes, Water Authorities and engineering consultancies. ‘I’d like to see the acceptance of hydroinformatics keep on growing,’ says Van Thienen. ‘That the subject is very much alive, is demonstrated by the appreciation for the knowledge exchange meetings we have organised within the Joint Research Programme four times a year since 2018. We are continuing to organise them in 2021.’ During these sessions water-utility staff, academics, business people or KWR researchers talk about recent developments and implementations of hydroinformatics in theory and practice. Van Thienen: ‘When it comes to the digitalisation of the water sector, much remains to be done, both worldwide and in the Netherlands. And we see that many water utilities are looking for support in this area. By setting up our team, we made it tangibly clear that KWR is glad to lend a helping hand.’