Recently named one of “Mazars Top 10 Most Influential Women in Water,” Xylem’s Dr. Christine Boyle is a water technology leader and innovator. Based on her research, she developed Xylem Revenue Locator, cloud-based software that enables water utilities to target two key components of apparent loss: customer metering inaccuracies and customer data handling inaccuracies.
Dr. Boyle is dedicated to mentoring women in data and healthcare technology industries. She is also a trustee and governing board member of Cal Nevada American Water Works Association, an active member of ACEEE (Association of Women in Water, Environment, and Energy) and a volunteer judge for the annual Imagine H2O Water Technology Prize.
What originally drew you to want to work in water?
I started my career working for the world’s largest online Chinese books and music store (hooloo.com, now defunct). I was a logistics and operations manager and helped design the end-to-end supply chain and fulfillment center. It was great work and it helped me become fluent in Mandarin Chinese! Although the technical work fascinated me, I longed to make an impact in a different way with my career.
After some time spent traveling in the developing world, seeing first-hand the impact of dirty water on health, I decided on water resources for my graduate school studies. I chose to attend the University of North Carolina PhD program in water resources planning, and I have been deep in the water world ever since!
How did you develop your decision intelligence software, and how is it helping utilities address water financial sustainability?
While I was a research assistant and data analyst for UNC’s Environmental Finance Center, I worked on a project called “Customer Billing Analysis for Water Utilities.” We applied techniques like data mining, customer segmentation, and advanced statistics on customer billing data. The aim was to identify opportunities for utilities to improve their financial resilience, from the data. We looked for things like price elasticity, drought impacts on revenue, and impacts of various rate structures on revenue stability. We wrote many papers on this! See the EFC website to learn more.
Our team recognized that as water customers continued to conserve water, utilities were struggling over how to cope with lower revenue with increasing costs. After I graduated and moved to California, I saw in 2013 firsthand how utilities where facing exactly these issues in the middle of an epic drought. They struggled with balancing water conservation, the cost of water to their customers, and the need to upgrade their operations. I knew that the work I had done at UNC could dramatically help utilities in California, and beyond, solve their revenue problem, even during droughts. That is when I hired a great computer programmer, Ms. Renee Jutras, and we started building, and selling, what is now Xylem Revenue Locator.
How has joining Xylem opened new frontiers for you to solve water?
Now at Xylem, our whole team is excited to scale and meet my original goal of deploying Xylem Revenue Locator on every water meter in the world! We are also working together with our customers to help them solve other issues, using Xylem’s broad portfolio of digital solutions. We are developing new business models, such as performance-based contracts and risk-sharing models, to make it less risky for utilities to purchase new technology. We are also working on a new set of analytics and software solutions to help utilities better serve low-income customers and reduce non-payments and shutoffs. This is Xylem’s emerging water equity product line.
You are a great champion for women in water. What’s the best way to create more opportunities for women to innovate and lead in the sector?
Good question! My few ideas on this are: 1) for men and women to mentor young women professionals, in Xylem and beyond. This will help young women professionals navigate through a complex set of professional choices in front of them; 2) call out poor behavior and passive, or active sexism when you see it. Over the course of my career, I can’t count how many times I have seen women talked over in meetings and I will stop and say, “Suzie, I don’t think the room heard you, can you repeat your point?” I also don’t feel shy about stating to conference committees and professional groups, “hey, there are very few women here, and I think the (conference, panel, meeting) would benefit from a more diverse set of stakeholders.”
The number of women entering the water sector is great, it’s up to all of us to promote and engage women so they feel welcome and stay in the sector. I’m proud to work for a company that is committed to championing women.
When you think about technology and the future of water, what are you most excited about?
I am really excited about technologies that radically bring down the cost of infrastructure over the status quo. This will help utilities manage the cost of water, make water more accessible to people, and give utilities a chance to invest. Through sensoring, data analytics, and optimization, a prudent water utility should be able to decrease massive costs on big grey infrastructure (think tunnels, reservoirs, pipes), with the same or better environmental and water quality impacts and customer service. I think of the South Bend case study and how SA Water in Australia is managing water loss as great examples – this is the future.
I am also excited about water reuse and closed loop systems, both at scale (e.g. NEWater in Singapore) and decentralized to allow for high-quality water supply in remote and unpiped communities. Bill Gate’s Foundation’s recent Reinvent the Toilet Challenge was very inspiring to me. Take a look at the website to see the next generation of toilets: “flush to brush,” here we come.
You can work in any sector you choose, why do you choose to work in water?
The water sector is like a wine, it gets better and better each year. The projects I have had an opportunity to work on, the great colleagues and friends I have made, the technical challenges I work on everyday – it’s an awesome career path. I am 15 years in, since I started grad school in 2005, and I can look back and see the impacts I have made through my work. It’s gratifying and exciting as the future is filled with more opportunities to innovate and solve complex social and technical problems.