A drought and a pandemic are tough at any time, but together they added up to a year of disruption in 2020 for Rebecca Chenery, the chief digital officer at Watercare, the organisation responsible for water and wastewater in New Zealand’s largest region, Auckland.
Chenery, who placed first in the 2020 CIO50 New Zealand awards, is understandably cautious when looking ahead to 2021, given the curveballs thrown at the organisation in the preceding 12 months. “We’re staying the course with our technology roadmap and everything we planned pre-COVID, but we have baked in a layer that makes sure we can adapt and accommodate change as we need to,” she says.
Data and data visualisation on 2021 technology roadmap
With major investments in modernising core ERP platforms and digital workplace tools now complete, the focus is on data and analytics, Chenery says.
The team is looking to implement smart metering technology and is testing devices to see how they perform in wet underground conditions. The data generated from these devices will be used to drive better decisions internally, enabling Watercare to more proactively manage leaks and anticipate issues.
“We want to know what’s going on in our network, because we’ve got a finger on the pulse of everything and we’re not waiting for some to call and tell us that there is a problem,” Chenery says. “We don’t want our customers to get in the shower in the morning and find there is no water. We want to be able to let them know that in the event of a fault, ‘You’re going to find there is no water, this is what we are doing about it, and this is when we will have it resolved for you’.
Watercare is on track to officially launch its ‘nerve centre’ in February 2021, which is being built at its headquarters in Newmarket. It will be a central hub consisting of large monitors that will display data collated from a variety of sources. The centre will be staffed by people representing a range of disciplines such as engineering, data science, and customer care. Also located in the space with will be external partners such as maintenance contractors.
“We’ll be trying to truly tap into the power of all the data that we have, particularly the data that we generate through our operational technology platforms,” Chenery says. “There has been a historic divide between corporate and control systems, and we think there is a real opportunity to bring that control centre data into the corporate world and really make better use of it for decision making and insights.”
Chenery says there is huge demand from the business for data visualisation that helps them understand what’s going on from a faults’ perspective, so they can identify the priority leaks and ensure repair crews are dispatched quickly.
“We’ve also done a whole lot of work with our data scientists around being able to predict consumption so we can, within a relatively low level of margin of error, predict consumption out over coming weeks and months, taking into account whether weekends holidays, seasonal trends,” she says.
Enduring leadership lessons from the pandemic year
When asked about leading an IT team during a pandemic, Chenery notes the value of the “back to basics” approach: communication and ensuring people on her team prioritise well-being.
“It’s really important to take very deliberate steps to connect with people regularly and keep the conversation going. As soon as there is a vacuum, you are at risk of people creating their own reality, and that reality in the context of this particular year can create anxieties, create worry that could be avoided if we just keep connected,” she says.
“It was a massively rough year for lots of different reasons, and I think sometimes it takes, for us as leaders, to share our own personal stories about some of the struggles that we’ve had, and maybe drop a little bit of the façade that we wear, and help people know that none of us are immune from those challenges,” Chenery says.
There is also huge value in getting away from the office and enjoying a well-earned summer break. When asked to name the one piece of tech she would take on holiday (aside from the essential smartphone), Chenery opted for her Bluetooth speaker. “That’s all I want to do—read a book and listen to music.”