In a New York Times op-ed today, Charles Fishman argues that we should use the current severe drought to improve how we manage and distribute water, potentially achieving vast efficiencies. When I was in Israel recently, my group visited a startup company called TaKaDu that analyzes data already collected by water utilities and allows them to identify leaks, leading to impressive savings. We were taken to TaKaDu to investigate the problematic thesis that Israel is “Startup Nation.”* But my topic today is not Israeli entrepreneurship and Middle Eastern geopolitics–it’s the use of data to save water. TaKaDu made a strong case that immense amounts of water are wasted due to the failure to analyze available information. (Energy is also wasted in moving water that subsequently leaks.) We should do something about that. But to me as a political theorist, two aspects of their presentation seemed a bit troubling:
1. TaKaDu has a patent for their general approach of analyzing data on water and providing the information to their clients via a “user interface.” In other words, the US government has given them a monopoly on this whole approach. Their founder and CEO, Amer Peleg, was disarmingly candid in his response to my question about their patent, basically saying that it may be too broad for the public interest, but he got what US law allows him. Peleg said that no one else may use mathematical algorithms to analyze water utility data. A competitor would have to try something totally different, such as applying quantum mechanics to water. I don’t know if Peleg’s interpretation of the patent is correct, but if so, this seems like bad US public policy. TaKaDu will save money and water, but not as much as a field of competing firms would save.
2. Peleg said that big water authorities were the best clients of TaKaDu, whereas the myriad small water boards typical of the US were poorly positioned to take advantage of data. They have too little data and not enough money to invest in efficiencies. This is interesting because my hero, the late Elinor Ostrom, achieved her original insights about the value of decentralization and amateur leadership by studying water boards. She showed that a vast number of hyper-local, amateur-led, partially overlapping water authorities in Southern California did a better job of protecting a fragile aquifer than any corporation or bureaucracy could. Her model of an adaptive ecosystem of volunteers looks very different from Peleg’s ideal of big data applied to big problems. It’s possible that the two models could be combined, but that would require careful thought and due respect for the decentralized or “polycentric” traditions of local government.
*Mitt Romney invoked “Startup Nation” as an explanation of Israel’s economic lead over the Arab countries. But when we visited an extremely impressive Palestinian firm inside the West Bank–one that bends over backwards not to seem “political”–we learned that their whole future depends on a long-delayed decision by Israel to allow an access road to their site. Obviously, inequalities in power and resources are relevant here.