Whether it’s through active participation in advisory groups, in-person events, sharing our work with their wider networks or helping us connect to industry experts, our constellation members are an integral part of Icebreaker One.

Aligned with our ethos of collaboration: ‘to go far, we go together’, they contribute to our mission of making data work harder to reach net zero. Now we want to highlight some of the important work they do for both people and the planet.

This week, I speak with Melissa Tallack, Managing Director of C2Life and co-lead on the Stream initiative. The conversation covers our ever-changing relationship with water as well as looking at the water sector’s journey into open data. We also discuss the important decision to value encouragement over mandates and to champion collaboration over siloed work.

Ross: Hi Mellisa, thanks so much for taking the time to speak to me. Could you start by giving me an idea of your background in the water sector and your journey so far?

Melissa: I joined the water industry off the back of its privatisation. Privatisation was in 1989 and I joined in 1993. I first joined Anglian Water, only planning to stay for a couple of years, but I discovered that there’s a lot to do in the water sector. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a variety of roles from frontline operations to scientific to asset management.

The last third of my time at Anglian Water was spent in the world of data and information. The reason I stepped into that role was because, in 2014, a regulation change came into place that required us to make different investment decisions. It meant not just looking at capital expenditure (CAPEX) and operating expenditure (OPEX) but now also total cost of expenditure (TOTEX). Data became critical here, as you need more and more reliable information to make these decisions. 

There was also a strong feeling in the sector that the data we had wasn’t up to standard, everybody felt it was either bad or simply not good enough. And yet, no one was really prepared to step forward and do anything about it. Myself and a couple of colleagues then started leading a piece of work around enterprise information management to solve that challenge. That sort of began my career in data and my interest in data as a fundamental resource in the company.

Following this, I went on to stand up an alliance of partners to work alongside Anglian Water in tackling the challenges of enterprise information management. I ended up running the data service and digital service within Anglian Water which modernised big data analytics platforms as well as modernising a lot of technology and practices within Anglian Water. 

During that time we were increasingly thinking, if we only use our own company data to answer these questions, we’re going to end up with a very siloed view of the world. We wanted to bring in external data sets and open data sets, but we also believed that by publishing our own data sets, we could get more eyes on the problem. Getting that diversity of thought was key and we were already used to being challenged from the outside in, so it kind of felt like a natural progression.

At the same time Northumbrian Water were gathering like-minded people together to talk about open data. They shared our view that this was the way forward but agreed it would be better if we all did it together. We got enough indication to suggest it was valuable and we then set our eyes on securing some funding to enable us to build out this thing which would enable open data for the sector. This marked the beginning of ‘Stream’. 

Ross: It’s fascinating to hear the journey that the water sector has been on and your place in it! Could you help me understand the Stream initiative better?

Melissa: What we’re trying to do with Stream is lower the barrier to publication as much as possible. It doesn’t matter how rough and ready it is or if you can’t connect to it programmatically, we will get there and we’ll build that capability together within the consortium of water companies. What’s important is getting data out there. I understand that people are reluctant to release data because they might be worried about it being the right format. But some data is better than none. That is definitely the philosophy we’re adopting. We’ll learn through doing, we’ll learn what people value and we’ll improve our own capability as a sector by doing this. But you have to start somewhere. It’s about building a two-way conversation with your community of users. You have to encourage, you can’t mandate.

In terms of datasets it’s very early days and so far, we’ve only released three datasets. One of those is a very foundational dataset that focuses on the boundaries between water companies. The other one that’s been published is drinking water quality. Traditionally, people would have to go to a company website and enter in a postcode to get a value for that postcode, which is useful if you want to look at one data point, but actually not very useful if you want to look at this compared to elsewhere in the region or in another water company. Now, by publishing historical drinking water quality data, you are able to do that comparison. Having said that, it’s a downloadable data set and not one that you can connect to programmatically. So I think that will probably limit the use of that data.

Ross: So it seems like there needs to be transparency not only of the data but also transparency and honesty in the ways we approach it? Where do you envision the key benefits coming from in the Stream initiative?  

Melissa: I think the environment is probably going to be a key beneficiary because that’s where a lot of the focus is. And, I hope it is, because the fundamental hypothesis behind opening water company data is to encourage transparency and trust and to drive innovation. By helping the environment, these benefits should trickle down to helping people and societies because whether we like it or not, we’re all intrinsically linked to the water environment because we rely on clean water to survive. But water companies are just one of the players in the natural environment. We can’t solve that problem alone and we need to rely on other people to work with us. A key ingredient to all of this is people’s willingness to collaborate. 

What’s promising is that we first started talking about this in April 2020. It shows you the level of commitment from the water companies to do this because we’re all still here and we’ve grown in number. In fact, we’ve now got all but two of the UK water companies as members of Stream so it’s great to see an industry actually pulled together like this. Don’t get me wrong, there is a varying spectrum across the water companies but there is certainly a strong willingness to collaborate and do this together because we know the benefits are greater if we’re working as one.

Ross: Do you think our relationship to water and the water sector has changed?

Melissa: Our relationship to water has changed, especially over the last few years. During Covid more people were spending time outside, taking up wild swimming. In fact, I think our relationship to water is always shifting. Water scarcity is certainly an increasing problem in the face of climate change and changing weather patterns, certainly for the vast majority of the UK but in the South especially. It’s here that water consumption and unaccounted for water leakage are key issues to address because we’ve got to have enough water to go around. 

If we’re able to make the operational data more transparent, people can be better informed and make different decisions about what they do with water. As an example, if you knew how you as an individual compared to people who live in the same type of property or have the same demographics and were able to see that information, would you make different decisions? And it’s not only the individuals, but what products and services can be built off the back of that data to help. 

But as I mentioned, there are many other factors and stakeholders involved. We operate in a system of systems. Take energy and water, for example, they have a strong reliance on each other. And while, historically, water has been more reliant on the energy sector, this relationship is beginning to invert. When people think of water, they think about drinking water but people rely on water for a multitude of reasons. And now, you’ve got a large number of hydrogen projects coming up where water is, of course, fundamental.