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Day of Action Targets Data on California’s Water Rates

During an international day of action, Californians will be focusing on standardizing water-rate data in a project that could have benefits for everyone, from customers to utilities to entrepreneurs.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
A water meter is installed at a new home in Fresno, California, in September 2014. The California Data Collaborative is helping utilities and customer gain more insight from their water rates with a new open data tool.Scott Smith, AP

It’s time to liberate some data.

March 4 is International Open Data Day. Almost 200 events (and counting) have been organized by local groups to focus on how open data can be used to better understand things like environmental or human-rights issues, or tracking the flow of public money.

The Los Angeles-based California Data Collaborative (CaDC) is hosting one such event tackling water rate data for the more than 400 water utilities in the state.

If you want to know how much your utility charges for water, that is public information and you can find it on the utility’s website. But the information isn’t published in a standard format – it may be an image or a PDF file or an HTML table – which also means it is not “machine readable,” making compiling and analyzing water-rate data across multiple utilities time-consuming.

That’s why CaDC, a coalition of utilities using data tools to help water managers, has been working on the open water rate specification (OWRS) project. OWRS is a centralized location where water rates are published in a plain text format. The project site explains: “OWRS is based on YAML, and as such it is designed to be easy to store, transmit and parse in any programming language while also being easy for humans to read.”

The project is “the first step toward integrating water data across the board,” said Varun Adibhatla, a member of the CaDC team. This is part of a larger goal in California to modernize the state’s water information system and integrate data across agencies, which was given a boost last year by the signing of the Open and Transparent Water Data Act (AB 1755).

“The benefit of standardizing is that you can do all this other great modeling and studies and build apps off it,” said Adibhatla. It is similar, said CaDC’s Christopher Tull, to what has been done with the standardization of transit data that allows Google maps and other applications to build trip planners, timetables and other handy tools.

“You can start thinking about building those tools but in order to do that, the first step, the low-hanging fruit, is to standardize the data,” said Adibhatla.

Here’s how the open water rate specification would show a flat water rate structure. (California Data Collaborative)

Here’s how the open water rate specification would show a flat water rate structure. (California Data Collaborative)

And it’s not just building apps that would be possible. Here are a few other benefits complied by Tull:

  • For water users ranging from residential homeowners to small businesses to large corporations, a standardized water rate allows for better understanding of how much they will pay to consume water. Furthermore, a standardized water rate format can help families or businesses who move within the state better understand how their costs may be affected.
  • For water suppliers and retailers, being able to compare rates across different service areas helps them engage in a peer-review process to better understand how water rates are established across various service areas.
  • For the academic community, being able to access the different rates across the state in a standardized format helps research water economics.
  • For entrepreneurs, a standardized and machine-readable data format for rates offers a pathway to drive innovative ways to consume and conserve water.

So far CaDC has compiled information for 17 water utilities in California. But on March 4, in honor of International Open Data Day, it hopes to quickly push the numbers up to 50 or 100 at a “hack-a-thon” event – the open water rate spectacular.

“It’s a call-to-action day where we have a megaphone to say ‘come and join us – we can do something meaningful,’” said Adibhatla. Eventually, he says, the hope is to connect this data for at least 200 water agencies in California.

That would allow CaDC to “build an ecosystem of useful things in this format that will then create incentives for water agencies to do it themselves,” said Tull.

Before this, a project on such a scale would mean a consultant being paid six figures and knocking on the door of every water utility asking for their data, said Adibhatla. “That’s the whole ethos of International Open Data Day – it’s liberating data that was closed – data liberation and data acquisition at the same time.”

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