GIS Helps Austin, Texas, be Water Wise in the Face of Drought

As the city deals with long-term drought, an app is helping to monitor and document water use violations.

by / October 7, 2014
Many parts of the West and Southwest are struggling with the same imperative: be water wise in the face of ongoing drought conditions.   
But Austin, Texas, isn't simply relying on old ways to monitor water use violations during its long-term drought, which is nearing extreme conditions. The city is harnessing GIS technology for its workers to track and curb those violations. 
The GIS tool is saving Austin money too, not just water. With the elimination of seasonal staff and employee overtime due to streamlining of processes and additional revenue from violations, the city has saved an estimated $600,000, said Steve Hutton, GIS manager of Austin Water Utility. He added that the tool has enhanced inspector productivity by about 50 percent.   
The Water Conservation Inspections App is a nearly out-of-the-box solution built using Esri's ArcGIS Online platform. Austin Water Utility was an early adopter of the company's pre-configurable GIS platform for water utilities and helped drive the vision for the conservation tool, said Mark Robbins, senior account executive for water utility at Esri. Austin's site license agreement with the GIS company simplified the process of adopting the application after being approached by Esri. 
"We really put this app together and thought we were providing a quick and innovative solution, but that we might be replacing it with something else later," Hutton said. "But it's proven to be a very reliable and essential tool for the conservation team." 
Before the tool's deployment, the city had a paper-based operation to track violators. In that system, everything was separate — information on clipboards, for example, had to later be reunited with photos and videos. The new application makes data collection easier with the ability to attach information and self-populate fields, and it improves the quality of data, using GIS addresses that are standardized and compatible with Austin's existing systems.
In the field, inspectors who patrol 24/7 use the technology's Collector App when they spot a violation. Using a tablet or smart device, an inspector can collect basic information related to the violation, create a GIS data point by using the tablet's location, assign a violation code, attach a photo and add notes such as codes for gated subdivisions or a heads up regarding potentially dangerous locations. That information is captured in real time and can be either immediately or later synced with the city's centralized GIS. The whereabouts of inspectors via tablet locations can also be viewed and coordinated using the tool.
Back at the Austin Water Utility offices, supervisors and legal staff can view information on the tool's Operations Dashboard, which depicts violation trends or patterns, helping direct water violation monitoring and tracking efforts. In addition, historical data on water restriction violations is used to improve patrolling patterns such as locating areas with repeat violators, Hutton said. 
Another possibility with the technology is combining water use data with other demographic information to help better direct a utility's efforts. Another municipality utility using the tool, Robbins said, was able to catch on to the reason residents were not responding to a water conservation campaign — a majority of people in the community were Spanish speaking while the marketing had been in English.  
It took Austin Water Utility three weeks in May 2013 to deploy the tool; its GIS analyst customized it to meet the city's needs in catching water violators. Since then, the utility has enhanced the application by adding additional GIS data collection layers, including customer meters, car washes and gated communities. It is now considering other enhancements like implementing laser range finders for more accurate distance measuring and using higher accuracy GPS units for better positional data.
To honor Austin's work, Esri awarded the city the Special Achievement in GIS Award. Both the water utility application and the city's capital improvement project tool were highlighted as a part of the award. 
About the award, Ross Clark, manager for enterprise geospatial services for Austin, said: "It's trying to recognize that the city as a whole runs an efficient and kind of forward-thinking GIS operation. And the water utility in particular has done this great application and they are a good example of that type of thinking."
Jessica Hughes Contributing Writer

Jessica Hughes is a regular contributor to Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.

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