One of the worst feelings in business is to miss an opportunity because you didn’t hear of it until it was too late. Or worse, discover you’ve been wasting effort or even made a bad decision because of wrong intelligence. How can energy operators, service companies and investors assure they get the best opportunities with the best information?

Most of the upstream energy industry is moving from an era in which opportunities and insights came from whom you knew and how well you knew them to an era in which most business decisions are based on data.

Energy thought leaders agree. Sandeep Bhakhri, chief information and technology officer at EOG, said, “Data are king and one of our most valuable resources.”

Bill Braun, CIO for Chevron, said, “Advanced analytics… is critical to helping us stand out from the competition and deliver significant advantages.”

These are big companies with Big Data science teams, but the data gathering and analysis methods they use for proprietary advantage are becoming available to everyone, thanks to advances in cloud-based data analytics platforms.

How does this move apply to water management? Ten years ago when the hydraulic fracturing boom got going, “water” did not appear in any job title or department name in the industry. There were no water data. However, today, water is recognized as the biggest input, output, operating cost and supply chain risk in upstream. Every operator has a water team, and water impacts every business function from land to completions and production to finance. Energy operators and investors take water seriously. As venture capitalist John Doerr has said, you have to “measure what matters.”

Consider saltwater disposal. Operators need to know disposal capacity utilization, pressures and pricing to budget projects and compare building new disposals to acreage dedications to spot rates. They need to predict water production by formation and future disposal capacity. Disposal and treatment companies need to see how much water each operator produces, how much they might produce in the future, where water is going, and how nearby disposal, pipeline and treatment capacity compares. Investors need to do due diligence deals and predict returns.

These questions can only be answered with better water data.

Where should you start? First, you have to find it. Dozens of state agencies collect energy, land and water data. Billions of rows in thousands of schema are available to dedicated spelunkers. However, understanding them is a different beast.

Second, you must structure, clean and quality assure all these data. Oilfield data are notoriously incomplete, inaccurate and untimely. You’ll find plenty of 100,000-ft wells in the Texas Railroad Commission files. “Unique” American Petroleum Institute numbers refer to many wells. Production numbers are delayed by over a year.

Third, mapping and analyzing the data is hard. The datasets are so large and complex; it’s like hugging an elephant, a hippo and a rhino with your eyes closed—which part is which? Don’t guess wrong. Special tools and trained experts are needed—either by hiring a department like the supermajors or subscribing to platforms that spread the R&D load across many clients.

Companies like Sourcewater gather, clean and analyze water data for thousands of oilfield clients. The company pushes the edges of data collection with daily satellite imagery analysis of frac pits and well pads, real-time sensor feeds from water assets, and GPS locations from tens of thousands of vehicles.

As the industry enters the second decade of the shale revolution, water data analytics has become an essential strategic tool in every aspect of upstream energy.