April 7, 2023

Q&A with Ashley Ward: The Duke Internet of Water Technology Adoption Program

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
Q&A with Ashley Ward: The Duke Internet of Water Technology Adoption Program

In the United States, water data are collected by a variety of public agencies—each with its own data standards, formats, platforms, and sharing protocols. Variability exists not only between different states, but also between agencies within the same state, and even between departments within the same agency. This data fragmentation often forces water managers to make decisions without a complete picture of their water resources.

To build an accurate water picture, public agencies must modernize their water data infrastructure. The Duke Internet of Water (IoW) Technology Adoption Program (TAP) was designed to address two main aspects of water data modernization: technology adoption and an organizational and cultural evolution in how data are managed, shared, and deployed for decision-making. The program includes an introduction to and training on available technologies, as well as close engagement with public agency staff and leadership to facilitate the organizational transformation needed to adopt modern technologies and approaches.

Ashley Ward, senior policy associate in the Water Policy Program at the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability, led development of TAP. Her recent report, Technology Adoption at Public Agencies: Identifying Challenges and Building Opportunities to Modernize Public Water Data Infrastructure, details the research behind the program, recommends a roadmap for technology adoption at public agencies, and includes a pilot case study from the New Mexico Water Data Initiative.

Q: You interviewed leaders and staff at water resource agencies across the United States for this program. What is one thing you learned that made you think differently about what public agencies need to do to modernize their water data infrastructure?

I learned so much from those we interviewed that it is difficult to narrow down to a single lesson. However, one common feature across states and agencies was the need to think beyond water data infrastructure. We need to examine agency policies, such as those about procurement, that may not be directly related to water data infrastructure, but often provide significant roadblocks to modernization efforts. Many of the policies and procedures around purchasing and hiring were put in place decades ago—before modern data practices and technologies—and are unable to accommodate the agency needs of today.

Q: Open Space Technology (OST) is a self-managed, participatory process specifically designed to address organizational change. How has OST informed your vision for the Duke Internet of Water Technology Adoption Program?

Years of community engagement have taught me that people will engage more thoughtfully and are more likely to be drivers of change if they are leading the process. Open Space Technology makes that possible by empowering participants to identify the topics that need to be addressed and generate solutions to those issues.

Originally, we imagined leadership training for executives at state agencies; however, after exploring the OST approach, we learned that the transformation we are hoping to facilitate within state agencies needs to happen with people from across the spectrum, from executives to their staff. Facilitating the intra-agency conversation is much more impactful because the solutions generated during these engagements are more likely to be implemented and sustained in the long-term. Once we saw the effectiveness of this approach, we reimagined our Technology Adoption Program around OST.

Q: How are you evaluating the impact of the pilot TAP engagement on the New Mexico Water Data Initiative’s work? 

We are currently conducting a six-month follow-up with the participating agencies in New Mexico to learn where they are in the process of implementing the suggestions they generated during the TAP engagement. We expect to hold a roundtable at the end of the summer to walk through what worked, what didn’t, and what roadblocks they encountered that made implementation more difficult than expected. I think this follow-up work is not only good for us as we evaluate the impact of the program and process, but it is also good for those who participated in the TAP engagement to come back together and share their experiences from the last several months. In a post-engagement survey, participants were overwhelmingly positive about the OST process and expressed interest in repeating it annually. 


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