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Two DC Water employees in front of fire hydrant
Photo courtesy of DC Water

Microsoft is pleased to sponsor the “Intelligent Future: Summit on A.I.,” which The Atlantic is hosting to convene thought leaders for a conversation on the future of artificial intelligence and its power to fundamentally transform government, industry and society.

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I’ve been focused lately on the potential for AI to empower employees and shape the workforce of the future. While it’s important to discuss the future of AI and its impact on society, I’m excited to share how AI is already making a difference in government organizations today, optimizing operations and creating a seamless experience for citizens. Thomas Kuczynski, vice president of Information Technology at DC Water, is joining me to explain how this world-class water utility is using Microsoft AI for preventive maintenance. Like many public utilities, DC Water faced mounting pressure to reduce water waste and costs, while increasing business efficiencies and doing more with less. This prompted DC Water to begin its total digital transformation journey shortly after Kuczynski joined the organization in August 2013, with the goal of addressing those challenges as well as improving customer satisfaction, increasing system reliability and optimizing operations.

Becoming a digital utility

For DC Water, the path to becoming a “digital utility” started with several Microsoft Azure-powered initiatives, such as:

  • Creating the first-ever Internet of Things smart water fountain, which monitors, tracks and reports water quality in real-time, ensuring safe and reliable drinking water at the point of use
  • Applying analytics to the wastewater treatment process to identify and address operating anomalies with pumps
  • Developing an IoT platform to monitor wastewater treatment assets, manage energy and avoid costly maintenance.

“DC Water IT is dedicated to delivering value to customers and improving our operations,” explained Kuczynski, who leads a 60-member team and is responsible for a $20 million budget. ”DC Water has a long and rich history of innovation – applying the latest technologies to improve operations and increase reliability, and customer engagement is a natural extension of that culture.”

The beginning of AI at DC Water

With the single largest advanced wastewater treatment facility in the world, DC Water’s first foray into AI is a solution to detect and classify sewer pipe cracks, defects, root infiltration and attachments. DC Water’s pipe anomaly detection system dramatically improves traditional manual inspection methods by fully automating the detection and classification of pipe anomalies in its 1,900-mile sanitary and combined sewer system. Using Microsoft’s Cognitive Toolkit, the evaluation process is reduced from hours to minutes. Defects are precisely pinpointed and output from the process will be used to create predictive models for pipe performance, allowing DC Water to make informed, data-driven decisions on replacing or rehabilitating pipes.

“The efficiencies from the AI-based image recognition and processing make it possible to increase the amount of pipe that can be scanned, increasing the ‘known knowns,’” Kuczynski said. “This allows DC Water to better target investments for repair and replacement. These more targeted investments help us improve the overall reliability of the system and avoid service interruptions.”

Continuing to innovate with AI

While the pipe anomaly detection system reflects DC Water’s first AI solution, there’s much more to come. The utility met with Microsoft Research in March to discuss multiple AI, IoT and machine learning ideas to optimize operations and deliver improved services for the more than 700,000 District of Columbia residents and 17.8 million annual visitors. “DC Water has an incredible amount of data collected over our 160-year history,” Kuczynski added. “Our leadership and technical experts are data-oriented professionals who recognize the strategic opportunity of using technology to gain better insights that enhance decision-making, reduce our energy consumption, avoid wasting clean water, improve the reliability of the system but, most important, help to better serve our customers.”

Preparing for AI and the future of work

Microsoft and our partners are fortunate to collaborate with DC Water, other leading utilities, and state, local and federal government agencies, which are leveraging our trusted cloud platform and AI solutions for smarter and more secure citizen services. At the same time, we believe business, government and technology leaders have the opportunity and responsibility to prepare our workforce for how AI will change the future of work. Please read this recent article, where I offer four areas of focus to support the future workforce in the age of AI.

Microsoft also delivers a vast array of digital skills programs to help ensure young people are equipped for future jobs, while our AI Business School provides practical guidance to leaders on how to foster an AI-ready culture. To reinforce our commitment to empowering government to strategically apply AI, on May 28 we’re introducing a new, curated content selection within AI Business School specifically tailored for government leaders. Until then, please: