Treasure hunting in the updated REWAB database

The tool that the water utilities use to comply with their legal obligations concerning the measurement of drinking water quality was updated in 2021 – with state-of-the-art software and a treasure trove of data, connected to national standards. KWR developed the tailored software programme, and was responsible for project leadership and management. Thanks to excellent coordination between all of the stakeholders, REWAB was delivered within budget and on time, and is now all set for the future.

REWAB, which is the Dutch acronym for the ‘Registry of Water Utility Water-Quality Data’, was created in 1992. KWR managed its digital environment right from the beginning. The system helps water utilities monitor drinking water quality, in the correct manner and with the right frequency. No other means exists to do this within the legal and regulatory framework. Every year the water utilities set up a proposed measurement programme using REWAB. They present the programme to the Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate (ILT), a public agency under the authority to the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. At the end of the measurement year, each water utility makes sure the data are entered into REWAB. The ILT and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) then determine whether everything is in good order. In this way, the drinking water utilities keep an eye on drinking water quality and know whether any adjustments might be called for.

Faster and more efficient

REWAB was last updated ten years ago. That software has now itself been updated on a commission from Vewin, the national association of water utilities. It is again safe from hackers. But REWAB 3 goes a lot further than this, says Marijn van Eupen, scientific software engineer at KWR and developer of the updated version. ‘The database is located in a central server. It no longer operates on separate workstations at the drinking water labs. This means that exporting and importing files is a thing of the past. And apart from the water utilities, the ILT and RIVM can also access the data. This makes REWAB faster and more efficient, but also a lot more transparent.’

Complying with national standards

There is also an automatic connection in the updated REWAB with the databases at the water labs, that is, the Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS). This facilitates the data exchange and dispenses with a great deal of manual work. Of all the data contained in the LIMS, REWAB filters precisely for those parameters required in the report to the ILT. A further important innovation is pointed out by Ton van Leerdam, KWR researcher and project manager of the updated database. ‘There is now a connection with the SIKB parameter code.’ The purpose of this national standard is to enable clear communication about parameters, such as chemical compounds. To avoid any confusion, each compound has a unique code. REWAB contains approximately 3000 parameters of this kind.

Treasure trove of data

Because REWAB has been used by all Dutch water utilities for over 30 years to store their data, it contains a treasure trove of valuable information, spread over time. With the software update, the data quality of the mandatory legal data was also scrutinised, for example, to check for any duplications and whether the measurement frequencies for compounds were present.  Based on this reliable dataset, all kinds of cross-sections can be made; for example, to investigate the impact of the prohibition of pesticides on their occurrence in the water samples. KWR is glad to help, by means of modelling work, to dig up such data from the REWAB gold mine, says Van Leerdam. ‘I ask myself whether the water utilities quite realise the wealth of data they have and of the possibilities it offers.’ But the data, which are the property of the water utilities, need to be handled carefully. Van Leerdam gives the example of a university that wanted to make use of specific parameters for an epidemiological study. Extreme caution is thus called for when drawing conclusions, because these should not be allowed to take on a life of their own. With this in mind, a protocol was created setting the conditions for the release of data from REWAB. In this way the water utilities maintain control.

KWR as a spider in the web

The updating of REWAB took two-and-and-half years. A period of time that reflects the biggest challenge the project involved: arriving at an end-product that would satisfy all the stakeholders. All the Dutch water utilities and water laboratories, the ILT and RIVM were involved. The BOK (the Dutch acronym for the ‘Management Committee for Quality Data Transfer’) functions as a consultative body. Funded by Vewin, the BOK has existed since the start of REWAB. ‘This February the expert group gathered for the seventieth time,’ says Van Leerdam, who recently became the BOK’s secretary. He describes how KWR, like a spider in the web, gathered all the elements together to bring the project to conclusion. Every month a progress meeting was held with the client. Leo Hendriks, director of the Drentse water utility WMD and chairperson of the Vewin Sources & Quality steering committee, took on this role. The project leadership at KWR was in the hands of Ronald Italiaander, laboratory team leader. Thanks to clear agreements and sharp decisions, the time and financial prescriptions were respected. Probably a unique occurrence in the world of software development, in Van Leerdam’s opinion. ‘It was a wonderful collaboration. The skills of the people on the team were the key to success.’

No complacency

The path we have travelled will pay off, thinks Van Eupen. Because he always involved everyone at each stage, allowed for trials of innovations in the database, and listened closely to the wishes these elicited, the users are happy with the new functionalities. But there is no time for complacency. ‘At KWR, we are keeping our finger on the pulse. A protocol was created to make it easy to enter new compounds into the database. In this context, we notice that PFAS parameters are becoming increasingly important, and we need to deal with this.’ And work will also proceed in the year ahead on the production of factsheets. These sources, which contain background information in a comprehensible language, also draw on REWAB data. For policy workers and communication advisors, the factsheets are useful documents, for example, to acquire insight into the origin of the compounds, how they can be removed in the treatment processes, and what potential risks the chemicals represent. According to Van Leerdam, the updated REWAB now satisfies the highest quality standards. Most of the wishes have been met: it is now faster, easier and more flexible. ‘This should allow us to keep moving ahead for a period.’