Collaborative data sharing ensures water security for South African municipality

Editor's note: This story was written in partnership with ASU’s Smart City Cloud Innovation Center and the eThekwini Municipality.

The future of cities is becoming increasingly dependent on the use of data to make informed decisions regarding the planning, implementation and monitoring of basic services provided to the community.

When eThekwini, the third largest municipality in South Africa, wanted to create data-driven strategic decisions regarding equal access to their water supply, they turned to Arizona State University's Smart City Cloud Innovation Center following a visit to the university. 

Known as “the CIC” at ASU, the Smart City Cloud Innovation Center partners with agencies and organizations to solve pressing community and regional challenges using smart technology solutions. eThekwini and the CIC have been working collaboratively since July 2020 to understand the city’s data challenges in supplying water to over 3 million residents spread across 900 square miles.  

Smart solutions for water management 

Ranking with gold and oil, water is an officially tradable commodity in several countries because of its increasing rarity and precious value in energy production, agriculture and general public use. With water scarcity affecting every continent, the United Nations defines “scarcity” as both a physical shortage of water and “the failure of institutions to ensure a regular supply due to a lack of adequate infrastructure.” So even if a municipality has plenty of water available, managing it is as equally important as supply. 

To kick off the partnership between eThekwini and the Smart City Cloud Innovation Center, a series of virtual workshops were held with eThekwini’s data custodians, data users and water sector partners to unpack the data landscape in the water space. 

As both organizations operate within and serve water scarce communities, ASU was able to leverage on-campus experts to partake in these exploratory discussions, including Ray Quay, an ASU research professional and senior Global Futures scientist who leads research on water resources, climate change, regional growth policy issues and scenario analysis.  

Ryan Hendrix, general manager of the CIC, described the importance of this collaborative approach: “We know that the transformation into a data-driven smart city requires a carefully constructed process that uses a multi-stakeholder approach. These workshops use Amazon’s working-backwards design process that puts the customers — in this case residents of eThekwini — at the center of any solution, and uses a series of exercises that facilitates the co-creation and co-production of sustainable and inclusive solutions.” 

Student interns from the center played a major role in executing the design and development of the dashboard solution, including the development of a data lake and the water analytics dashboard.

The result of this collaboration is the development of a customizable water dashboard for use across the region. Known as SHANA — short for "ukushintshana," which means “exchange" in Zulu — the data exchange prototype highlights the art of possibilities when multiple data sources are integrated, analyzed and visualized.

“This work is going a long way toward supporting our city's vision of becoming a data-driven smart city,” said Sandile Mbatha, senior manager at eThekwini Municipality. “This process has allowed for a dismantling of silos and a creation of new data partnerships that extend beyond sectoral lines. The achievement has not only been the production of the proof of concept, but also the creation of a template for future data integration as a collective process.”

Using the Amazon Quicksight platform, the dashboard for eThekwini aggregates data from several points throughout the area, including the government-owned supplier of water for the province Umgeni Water. The dashboard provides an overview for four specific areas critical to monitoring water supply:

  1. Overall usage data by domestic consumption or non-domestic.
  2. Dam level status measures of water in each dam to indicate water leakage or overflow.
  3. Amount of water sold versus used.
  4. Consumption by month or season, including special indicators for COVID-19 usage or the drought of 2016–17.

This information helps the supplier identify critical areas, including water leakage, theft and dam overflow in order to concentrate efforts to mitigate identified areas of concern.

“We hope the partnership between eThekwini Municipality and ASU’s CIC will continue beyond this project and to other areas of expertise relating to enhancing efficiencies in the city’s service delivery system,” Sandile said. 

Learn more about how ASU’s Smart City Cloud Innovation Center integrates collaboration, technology and innovation in partnership with organizations in Arizona and around the world. For more information on this project, check out the story "Becoming data-driven: Lessons from tackling Durban’s water crisis" via Amazon Web Services.

Annie Davis
adavi111@asu.edu