Customer Service

Austin Energy eyes data tool to get to heart of customer feelings

Texas-based public power utility Austin Energy is looking to use data it collects in a way that is much more granular in determining the degree to which customers feel positive or negative about topics such as bills or rebates, said Liz Jambor, Austin Energy’s Data Analytics and Business Intelligence manager, in a recent interview.

Specifically, Austin Energy is exploring what is known as sentiment analysis, which assesses the feelings and the ranking of positive and negative information derived from either survey data or from call data.

“You take the textual information – it’s all the words – and you run it through the tool and it first parses it into either that was a positive thing, a neutral thing or a negative thing,” and the tool will then provide a rating, Jambor said.

You can then group statements into various topics such as bills or rebates “and so you start to look at overall, are most of the comments positive or are most of the comments negative? And then go down further and say, well, if they’re negative, how far from neutral are they? Are they just kind of negative or are they extremely negative? 

The utility has looked at various platforms to do sentiment analysis including Microsoft’s Azure platform and Qualtrics, which Austin Energy uses as its online survey tool.

Austin Energy has determined that the R statistical computing environment is probably one of the most accurate when it comes to sentiment analysis. R is a free software environment for statistical computing and graphics, which compiles and runs on a wide variety of UNIX platforms, Windows and MacOS.

“What we’ve found in sentiment analysis is that words like “don’t” and “can’t” automatically swing it to the negative, even though that’s not what the person meant and R seems to parse out the entire sentence more accurately than do some of the others,” Jambor noted.

“We’re looking at that as a way to explain what people are feeling. Rather than just putting them into categories as we’ve historically done with our textual data, we’re now talking about the varying degrees of how positive or negative some of those responses are, so we get a feeling for what the opinions are out there,” she said.

“It’s something we’re excited about starting to use,” Jambor said. “Once we are officially on the Azure platform we’ll be able to broaden that because it will give us the computing power that we need.”

In her role as Data Analytics and Business Intelligence manager at Austin Energy, Jambor manages a department that covers a wide range of areas including market and customer research, data analytics, engineering analytics, contracts, grants and compliance. “We support Austin Energy and other City of Austin departments,” she noted.

Examining health impacts of weatherization and building a data lake

One of the projects Jambor and her team are currently working on involves examining the health impacts of Austin Energy’s weatherization program.

Her department hired “a woman whose background is epidemiology, but we brought her on because of her skill set working with data and she is starting look at the health impacts of our weatherization program” in certain communities.

“We’re hoping to partner with the local medical organizations” to combine their data on different health issues and “overlay that data with the weatherization that we’re doing to see if we can start trending decreases” in things like asthma or airborne type diseases “so that we can show that weatherization is not only saving you energy, but it’s also impacting people’s health.”

Jambor’s team is also building a “data lake.” A data lake gives users the ability to place “just about any kind of data” in one location and “as long as you have ways to attach it,” it makes it easier to access and pair together data in order “to tell a better story about your customers,” the Austin Energy official noted.

Austin Energy hopes to launch the initial stages of the data lake before the end of Fiscal Year 2019. The utility will use Microsoft’s Azure platform, Jambor said. “We’ve tested it and we’ve found that it’s going to serve our needs. There’s also a lot of other functionality with it that we’re pretty excited about, so we should be able to start doing some really cool data analytics off of that.”

Jambor noted that she was recently in a meeting with another utility “and came away with like ten projects I want to do just based on us having the data. One of them is being able to predict outages based on historic outages and weather patterns.”

Using data to target market programs

When asked to discuss examples of how her team’s research efforts resulted in Austin Energy developing a new strategy or approach to its customers, Jambor said that “probably the biggest change that we’ve been able to support is how we market to our customers.”

As early as five years ago, “our marketing strategy was the shotgun approach and so we just sent to everybody. We narrowed that down to sending by zip code, but we still found that that wasn’t the best way do it,” she said.

“Now what we’ve been able to do through combining a lot of different data sets is really target market our programs to the people who are most likely to participate,” she said.

For example, Austin Energy knows that if there is an audit on a home, a new home owner “probably will not act on that audit until about 18 to 24 months after being in the home,” she said.

Pitching new home owners with things like rebate programs right after they’ve moved into the home is not the best time, Jambor noted.

“So we’ve delayed some of that based on looking at the data and seeing when was the audit and when did people participate in the program.” Jambor’s team then looked at the type of home, the age of the home, and other home owners in the neighborhood who may have participated “because it’s kind of a birds of a feather thing. If you’ve got a neighborhood where a lot of people have participated, you target the remaining people.”

Combining different sets of data, Jambor and her team were able to take a legacy program that was “basically flatlining and saw a 25 percent increase in participation in the first year of doing some really cool targeted marketing.”

Retirement challenge looms

As is the case with plenty of other utilities these days, retirements are a challenge facing Austin Energy, Jambor said. “We have a huge amount of potential institutional knowledge that will walk out this door.”

There are some things that retiring Austin Energy employees “can document and say here’s how I do X, Y and Z,” but there are also “things we’ll never know because they just know it. So that’s a challenge in the next few years.”

Another challenge Jambor encounters in her role as data analytics and business intelligence manager is getting employees at the utility up to speed on using data.

“One of the first things is to get everybody comfortable with the amount of data that we currently have and we’re about to have and not be frightened of the amount,” Jambor went on to say.

“Part of what I take on as my job is we’re telling a story about this data,” she noted.

Jambor regularly emphasizes to her colleagues that in the grand scheme of things, it is not that much data “and here’s what it can now tell you, here’s how this data can make your job easier.”

DEED “offers a wealth of knowledge” for public power utilities

Along with her responsibilities at Austin Energy, Jambor is also board chair for the American Public Power Association’s Demonstration of Energy & Efficiency Developments program.

Jambor noted that the DEED program offers a wealth of knowledge for public power utilities. “It’s just an amazing library of research and work that’s going on out there,” she said.

“There’s also the opportunity to partner with either other utilities or universities,” the Austin Energy official noted.

In addition, the DEED program offers utilities the opportunity to “bring on some really great interns to do some smaller, student-based projects.” She said that Austin Energy has had “some amazing DEED interns.” Jambor noted that the public power utility had a DEED intern who became a part-time employee and is now a full-time employee. The employee is doing a rotational track “that we have within the utility where you spend time in a variety of different departments really learning about the entire utility,” Jambor said. “They get to learn about all of the utility before they settle into their final position.”

Austin Energy has also been awarded grants through the DEED program. “Even as a large utility, we don’t always have the money we want to do the things that we feel are important for our customers, so having that additional support to get that research done so we can prove to our stakeholders and to our council – this is really a good thing to do – is really important,” she said.

Austin Energy earned the 2019 Award of Continued Excellence in April from the DEED program. The award recognizes continued commitment to the DEED program and its ideals, including support of research, development and demonstration, improving efficiency, renewable resources, and support of public power.

Austin Energy has been an active DEED member for 35 years, garnering innovation grants, furnishing board members, and encouraging other utilities to join the program.

Over the years, the utility earned 14 DEED innovation grants and has been a sponsor and mentor for 31 DEED scholarship students studying in energy-related disciplines.

“The other great thing about DEED is it’s a sliding scale. Not everybody has to come in at the same price point as say Austin Energy does,” Jambor noted.

DEED staff “works really hard to help support all of the utilities to make sure that they’re benefiting from the program.”

Jambor said that DEED “is a wonderful resource that I wish more understood and more took advantage of.”

Jambor also involved with Association’s new Smart Energy Provider program

Along with her roles at Austin Energy and the DEED program, Jambor is involved with the Association’s new Smart Energy Provider program.

The SEP program is a best practices designation for utilities that show commitment to and proficiency in energy efficiency, distributed generation, renewable energy, and environmental initiatives that support a utility’s mission to provide low-cost, quality, safe, and reliable electric service.

In early June, Jambor was one of several public power officials who participated in meetings at the Association’s office in Virginia as a SEP grading meeting attendee and also participated in related activities on the SEP program.