Customer Service

Data, data everywhere: How can we drink it?

We’ve lived in a world of big data in recent years. Companies target their advertisements to you based on your online search history. Baseball managers use statisticians to make decisions about their lineup (think of Brad Pitt, my fellow Mizzou alum, in Moneyball).

We leave data footprints wherever we go and in whatever we do — even if we drive someplace with our smartphones in our pockets (without even mapping the destination!). We can make a concerted effort to ramp up our personal privacy controls (I confess to taking the radical step of signing off of Facebook earlier this year). But there are still ways that the companies and institutions in our lives can record some of our specific actions, preferences, and connections.

As we’ve unfortunately learned from privacy breaches and news about companies misusing data, there are plenty of people who are eager to use our data for nefarious purposes. Indeed, as we continue to connect more devices to the internet of things, privacy and security threats will only grow.

That doesn’t mean that all collecting and analyzing of data is bad. On the contrary, data is what helps us to better understand our operations, customers, and the world we live in.

Companies like Uber recognize the importance of data and are continuously finding new ways to put data to use. Uber recently announced plans to integrate new transportation options into its app, including bikes, car-sharing services, buses, and trains. It will also share more of its data on traffic patterns and curbside use with cities to facilitate traffic planning and management.

In The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s title character opines that “it is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Public power utilities have increasing opportunities to theorize — and implement — WITH data. Smart meters and advanced metering infrastructure are yielding reams of data. Technology can often produce more data than we know what to do with. But we can and should figure out ways to make sense of the data and use it to provide better service to our customers. Data can help us predict what retail customers might want and value if they sat down and thought about it. Then we can consider how to provide that before they think of it.

Public power utilities are also exploring other technologies to collect information and improve operations. For example, the New York Power Authority is collecting data from more than 24,000 sensors that monitor all of its generation and transmission assets, to identify problems early and improve efficiencies.

When it comes to measuring our performance, utilities have long relied on reliability metrics such as SAIDI and SAIFI. While utilities should continue monitoring these figures, public power utilities have found that knowing the top culprits that cause outages or discovering trends in problem areas has helped us find ways to improve operations.

We can share data with our customers but must be mindful of what they really want to know and how the data we share can help them monitor and take control of their use, or better understand their bill. And when customers adopt a new technology that will undoubtedly have an impact on our service, such as electric vehicles, we as utilities must make sure we have the information we need to adjust accordingly.

Data by itself does not translate to meaningful information or knowledge. That’s why we as an Association work for you to translate industry reports into useful context through publications such as the annual public power statistical report, which accompanies this issue. It’s also why we urge you to participate in our tracking and benchmarking services such as the eReliability Tracker (for outages) and the Public Power Data Source (for customer service).

We want you to be able to use the information you get from us to provide better service, improve your operations, and educate your workforce and customers. Please let us know if you have ideas about how we can improve in these areas. It is elementary, dear reader, that solid information and feedback from you, our members, is more sensible than us theorizing about what we think you want!