David Steffelbauer and our new research area hydroinformatics

David Steffelbauer is the leader of our new Hydroinformatics research group since May 2022. To introduce David, understand what drives him and get an insight into hydroinformatics, we asked him a few questions:

David, what brought you to hydroinformatics and eventually to KWB?

I actually studied technical physics at TU Graz in Austria. Then I specialised in theoretical physics and computer science and wrote my diploma thesis on "Andreev-Reflection in One-dimensional Quantum Systems". At the same time, I worked as a student assistant at the Institute of Urban Water Management, where I wrote programmes for real-time data transfer and analysis from sewage treatment plants and canals. From the beginning, I was fascinated by how important and, at the same time, hidden the issues of urban water management are from society. I also realised how underdeveloped the field is in terms of digitalisation and how much impact you can have with established and simple algorithms from physics or computer science. After a few detours, I decided to do a PhD on model-based leak detection and localisation in drinking water networks, which was my beginning in hydroinformatics. After projects in Austria and China during my PhD, I came to the Netherlands on a Marie Curie PostDoc Fellowship to TU Delft and Leiden University. I then moved to Norway, where I worked at NTNU in Trondheim as an Associate Professor for Hydroinformatics in Smart Water Systems.   

Since the clocks sometimes tick more slowly in the university sector (e.g. projects have long lead times) and the problems are often more theoretical than practical, I became curious about the field of applied science. That's when KWB came in the picture. After my first meetings, I was 100% sure that KWB was the ideal place to quickly and unbureaucratically develop innovative solutions to practical problems in the water sector. In other words, it was exactly the place I had been looking for so long for to generate maximum impact from my research for society.

What is hydroinformatics?

Hydroinformatics is made up of two words, "hydro" for water and “informatics” for computer science, or ICT (Information and Communications Technology). So actually, two subjects that at first glance don't seem to fit well with each other. So far, there isn’t a strict definition, but in my understanding, hydroinformatics is the science that deals with using algorithms (e.g. data science, machine learning, AI, optimisation) to solve urgent water problems - and there are more than enough of them.

Why is hydroinformatics socially relevant?

There are quite a few challenges in the water sector:  climate change, pollution, social challenges, financial constraints, under-investment, urbanisation, ageing infrastructure.... in the worst case: fewer resources under simultaneous increase in water demand.

The digital revolution of the last decades - for example, the exponential growth of computer power, more and more sensors (such as through the Internet of Things) and enormous amounts of data - as well as the success of artificial intelligence in almost all areas of life, create countless opportunities to develop cost-effective solutions to manage water challenges. We have a great opportunity to make better use of our existing systems and resources. And this is exactly what hydroinformatics focuses on.

What specific projects will your group tackle?

Initially, we’ll focus on asset management, namely by further developing SEMAplus, our sewer system deterioration forecast solution. But we’ll see where the journey will take us rather quickly. There are already so many ideas and new ones appear every day.

How’s the cooperation with our other groups?

The cooperation with the KWB colleagues is just great. It's rare to see a team that’s so passionate about what they do. In every conversation I have with people here, new ideas about what we could work on together in the future come up.

Basically, I see a connection between hydroinformatics and all other research focuses at KWB, as every group works with data and/or simulation programmes and will thus benefit from the application of digital tools, data science, machine learning, etc. That’s why I’m particularly pleased that hydroinformatics is meant to be a strategic cross-sectional group, which gives me the opportunity to work with all of KWB’s research areas in an interdisciplinary way.    

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