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How Mathematicians in Chicago Are Stopping Water Leaks in Syracuse

SYRACUSE, N.Y.—It was a nightmare scenario: As thousands of Syracuse University basketball fans poured into town on February 1, 2014 for a big match against arch rival Duke, a water main break flooded Armory Square, surrounding the city’s iconic 24-second shot clock monument. Days before the game, there were 11 other water main breaks around the city.

Mayor Stephanie Miner was desperate for help to get a handle on the problem; on average, water lines in the city were breaking 332 times a year, nearly once every day. But she couldn’t get the state to help foot the bill for the onerous costs of updating the city’s underground infrastructure. She even tried to shame state officials with a “Hunger Games”-style ad campaign that showed her wading in thigh-high water wielding a wrench. Miner says that when she started asking federal and state officials for help, she got a lot of eye rolling. “They would say, ‘Stephanie, you can’t cut a ribbon with it. Stephanie, it’s not sexy,’” she says. She had to get creative.

That’s when she turned to big data. To get to the bottom of the problem of catastrophic water main breaks, Syracuse first had to understand what was happening underground and where. Using an algorithm developed by a team at the University of Chicago, the city put reams of information, scattered among various departments, to work. With a predictive system that can point to the hotspots along its 550 miles of pipes, the city hopes to save millions of dollars a year by fixing mains before they break. For other cities dealing with the same whack-a-mole approach to infrastructure repair, a proactive approach could change everything.

The American Society of Civil Engineers, in its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, estimated that the U.S. endures 240,000 water main breaks a year on more than 1 million miles of pipes, many of them laid in the early to middle years of the 20 th century. If cities keep up their average of replacing pipes at 0.5 percent a year, it would take about 200 years to replace them all. If they last that long, of course.

Other cities could use Syracuse’s big data approach to anticipate their own water delivery problems. Flint, Michigan, for example, which is facing a few more issues than water main breaks, is hoping that as it replaces its old damaged lines a good data management approach will help prevent other nightmares.

“Where they are in Syracuse is the direction we want to go,” says Mayor Karen Weaver. Syracuse sent its innovation team to Flint, where they looked at the city’s mapping system and records of water main breaks and realized that the Syracuse formula could be useful there, too. Sam Edelstein, chief data officer for Syracuse, says, “The hope is that the solutions that we come up with are scalable and can be used elsewhere.”

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Syracuse is a city that cares about water . Syracuse is one of only two cities

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