With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
Chelsea A.J. Hawkins is a program planner at the Alliance for Water Efficiency. She recently worked with the Texas Water Resources Institute on a literature review about how water utilities can encourage water conservation efforts among consumers.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: Could you tell me a bit about your recent research about encouraging water conservation?
Chelsea Hawkins: It came about because I was working at the Texas Water Resources Institute on a project that had to do with advanced metering infrastructure, which basically is a metering system that can record high levels of data more frequently and that data can be used in a lot of ways to help a customer and the utility.
One of the ways that data gets used is that it gets put into what’s called a customer interface, so it’s basically a web portal where the customers can go and view that data. What I became interested in was, anytime you subscribe to any utility, electric or gas, whatever it is, you have an online portal where you can get your billing information and so on. If I were to log in and see my data, what does that mean to me as a customer? And specifically, what does that data do for me to encourage water conservation?
This research was a literature review effort where I went through a lot of social science information, pilot projects, where these interfaces and websites have been used at different utilities around the country and around the world to try to figure out what components are actually important and effective at getting customers to change how they think about water and encourage conservation.
This literature review is not every single element, but a lot of different elements that are used in those interfaces and explains what they are — not necessarily which ones are better or worse — but explaining what they are so that, going forward, utilities have it as kind of a starting point of what they need to include to really engage customers to make them aware about water conservation and its importance. (It's) also to get them to really engage in water conservation and be able to make decisions based on their data. I can read a bunch of numbers, and they don’t mean anything to me. Without any context or educational material or being able to reach out to the utility through that interface to ask a question about my bill or my use, without that, it’s just a number.
Trib+Water: There are a lot of academics and researchers who devote their time to water conservation and understand its importance. What is the challenge that people doing that work face in communicating that to the average consumer?
Hawkins: That’s a tricky question. I say it’s tricky because every consumer is different. When utilities or communities are thinking about engaging their customers or neighbors, it’s important to keep in mind who the customer is. There’s no silver bullet; there’s no answer that works across the board. You need to know your demographics. Is this community mostly manufacturers? Is this community low-income or high-income? Is this community highly educated in a university system where they’re tech-savvy to begin with? How intuitive will an interface be?
You really have to profile that customer base before you can figure out what’s going to work for them, what’s going to speak to them. In academia, it’s not difficult to do that in a case study or a trial experiment, but getting something that works for everybody — it’s like a unicorn. It’s not real, it doesn’t exist. It always changes, and that’s the challenge.
I think that’s part of the reason why I wanted to do this literature review, to give people options, and to give utilities and other academics some awareness of what’s going on and what’s been tried, what’s working in different places. It may not work in Community X, but Community Y may do very well with it.
Trib+Water: Did you find any examples used around Texas that worked particularly well?
Hawkins: The difficult thing in answering that is that these are very new. I am aware of some communities that have them and are developing them. For example, the Texas Water Resources Institute has one that they’re working with in a few communities around Texas, which is wonderful. But the data or the results of that, those experiences, aren’t even released. They aren’t available, so far as I’m aware.
As far as I know, it’s so new that it’s not out there yet for Texas.