Data is an intangible and powerful tool, the city of Dubuque, Iowa, discovered over the past few years. The city partnered with IBM Research in 2009 to create an initiative called Smarter Sustainable Dubuque. Aligned with Mayor Roy Buol’s platform of engaging citizens as partners, Smarter Sustainable Dubuque has deployed several pilot programs aimed at encouraging sustainable practices. The city now more closely monitors utility and transportation data, shares that data with its population, and reaps the benefits of smarter decision-making.

“In the end it was all about getting them information specific to them so they could do what they want to do, whether that was save money, save resources, reduce their carbon footprints,” Buol said. Through an electricity pilot program, a water pilot, a gas pilot, a transportation pilot and a public health pilot, the city is exploring the use of data to save money, improve environmental conditions, and encourage overall efficiencies.

Near real-time water usage monitoring

The city’s water pilot came first. What began with a small scale volunteer adoption with usage evaluated alongside a control group, the city eventually installed smart meters onto every home in Dubuque -- about 23,000 of them. Through an online portal, citizens can view their home’s water usage data, updated every 15 minutes. Citizens can see their usage, make adjustments, and also identify leaks.

Water usage data is also available to the city. While some citizens identify their own water leaks, the city has a plan in place for those households that don’t closely monitor their water data. If the city detects a leak by looking at a household’s water data, city staff notify the resident, saving money for both parties.

The smart meter system helps support a local business as well -- meters use a locally manufactured and patented valve that helps detect wasted water. A 157-year-old plumbing manufacturer called A.Y. McDonald owns the patent to a small valve that controls the water flow through the smart meter.

The water pilot program has led to a 6 to 7 percent decrease in city water usage and an eight-fold increase in leak detection, Buol said. “We saved over 50 million gallons of water and yet our revenues were up by $180,000,” he said.

The water pilot's success, Buol said, has also led to international recognition for Dubuque. The city of Townsville in Queensland, Australia adopted Dubuque’s water application. As a result, they won the IBM 2013 Smart Infrastructure Project award.

Other pilots under way

Dubuque is also looking at how data can help reduce gas and electricity usage. The city is in the early planning stages of a possible gas pilot program, Buol said.

For electricity savings, the city partnered with privately-owned utility provider Alliant to explore how smart meters might achieve similar savings as the water pilot. As reported by Government Technology in 2011, the company installed 1,000 smart meters around the city. The results are in, and participants saw a seven to 11 percent reduction in electricity consumption.

An individual could also share information on their appliances with Alliant to potentially achieve further savings, Buol explained. If a suitable replacement appliance was available that would allow a family a fast return on investment due to the energy savings the new device would offer, the utility company could make that suggestion.

While both the city and Alliant learned a lot from the project, Buol said the company does not want to expand the energy project at this time.

The city also hopes to have an early version of a smarter travel project finished this year. The existing bus transit system in Dubuque is inefficient, Buol explained, so the city outfitted 1,000 volunteers with a smartphone app that tracked their movements around the city. Using the data from the volunteers, the city identified patterns of movement and time that will influence changes to the bus system, helping it to better serve the people of Dubuque.

The city would eventually like to add more functionality to their travel application, Buol said, by gathering an individual’s travel data, and offering individualized tips and alerts. For example, a user could get information on available parking, or a notification when their normal travel route is impacted by a detour. Not all features will be available immediately, but Buol described development of a first version of the app as “very close.”

The Smarter Sustainable Dubuque initiative will continue for years to come, Buol said. Among the future projects the city wants to implement is a health application similar to Fitbit and other health tracking services. And while Dubuque is a relatively small city of nearly 60,000 residents, Buol believes these projects could be scaled to larger cities for even bigger savings.

The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government named Smarter Sustainable Dubuque as one of 25 honorees in its 2013 Innovations in American Government Award competition.

Photo caption: A smart water meter in Dubuque, Iowa.

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com