Mobile, the utility industries and beyond


It is hard to over-state the huge advances mobile devices have brought to companies in the last two years. We’ve featured a few examples here on GreenMonk in the past.

I was at the SAP for Utilities event in Copenhagen last week to moderate a panel and while there I happened to sit in on Rory Shaffer‘s talk on how mobile is impacting utility organisations, and it has been equally transformative there too!

Rory tells stories of how mobile apps and devices are helping the field work force reduce safety incidents, improve work quality, and shorten work cycles. For managers and executives, it allows them to see at their fingertips how their assets are performing, check customer trends and financial and regulatory exposure. Customers are also seeing new leaps forward in how they interact with their utilities thanks to mobile. Texas company CenterPoint Energy have a Mobile Outage Tracker app, for example available on both the Android and iOS platforms.

We are seeing a rise in the number of utilities with mobile portals for customers, faster resolution of issues thanks to mobile, and utilities starting to respond to their customers on the customers’ channels of choice (often Twitter or Facebook on customers’ mobile devices).

Rory cited some impressive outcomes from the rollout of mobile solutions by Pacific Gas and Electric. Their field worker productivity rose by 47% after the deployment because the new mobile solutions reduced their paper based workflow from twelve steps to five. Other advantages encountered included an increase in the average number of monthly work orders per employee from 43 to 87, substation inspection time reduced 80% from 2.5 hours to 20 minutes and reduced data entry time by an average 30 minutes per day.

Reductions in the number of steps by substituting with mobile also yields advantages like fewer data input errors, reduced paper use, and increased transparency across the organisation.

Most of these advantages achieved from the rollout of mobile applications are not unique to the utility industry, but are applicable to most industries across the board (particularly those with field service staff, it has to be said). The story of how mobile is changing enterprise is just starting out and if the efficiency gains of the last 24 months are any indication, we are in for exciting times ahead.

Image credit Tom Raftery


Public transportation, smartphones and economic development – a winning combination for Miami-Dade

It is hard to make public transport interesting, but Miami-Dade Transit in Florida is certainly giving it a go!

Their Metromover automated people mover is the most successful downtown people mover in the United States, and it is free!

Their Metrorail and some of their Metrobus services have on-board wifi (based on cellular service), and it is free.

They have smartphone Transit Tracker apps for iOS and Android devices allowing passengers to get realtime information on arrival times, station information and trip planning.

And they plan to make more improvements still. One of the ideas I particularly liked is outlined by Carmen Suarez, an Enterprise Architect with Miami-Dade Enterprise Technology Services Department at 01:30 in the video above.

The idea is to send push notifications to the smartphones of people who have the Transit Tracker app on their phone. The notifications would advise people of special offers/discounts from local businesses near their destination. It sounds simple enough, but as Carmen points out in the video it gives people yet another reason to use public transport, it helps reduce traffic congestion, and it promotes economic development in those areas. Win, win, win.

What cool public transport and smartphone-related stories have you come across?


IBM’s mobility play: MobileFirst

Airplane mode on iPhone

One of the big talking points at this year’s IBM Pulse was IBM’s recent unveiling of its new platform for mobile, MobileFirst. My colleague James covers the announcement in details on his RedMonk blog, but I thought I’d talk a bit about the GreenMonk perspective, as we haven’t covered mobile here very much to-date, and it is becoming increasingly pervasive.

Mobile is now huge. I know this is self-evident, but it is totally game-changing. Now everyone is instrumented, interconnected, and intelligent, as IBM themselves might say.

What does this have to do with sustainability? Well, we here at GreenMonk take a broad view of Sustainability and as we noted in our write-up of the Pulse conference, IBM’s Smarter initiatives all play to a sustainable agenda. Sustainability is all about doing things more efficiently. Mobile definitely enables that.

You only have to think of the application IBM rolled out last year to help staff and students crowdsource cleaning up of the Los Angeles Unified School’s District. And, it is also making a big splash in the Enterprise space, as witnessed by SAP’s Operational Risk Management mobile app; the ESB and IBM mobile app to help finding and scheduling charging of electric vehicles in Ireland and many similar initiatives.

And there’s also social – I wrote a blog post last November about the intersection of big data, social and sustainability. What does this have to do with mobile? Well, in each of the examples outlined in the blog post, a significant amount of the data would have been entered via mobile. People as sensors. The internet of everything.

There are lots of other examples in healthcare, smarter cities (the Boston mobile app I mentioned in this post), education, etc.

The one place IBM may be missing a trick in mobile? Mobile endpoint energy management. IBM have an endpoint management app for mobile, but it’s focus is more on security than energy management, but, as we’ve noted here previously, battery life is a significant pain point for mobile users. A user whose device is out of battery, is a frustrated, disconnected, unproductive worker.

An Endpoint Management solution which manages mobile battery life (by having low power modes, or by automatically shutting down all but the frontmost app, or similar, for example) would be a definite win for any enterprise.

Full disclosure – IBM paid travel and accommodation for me to attend Pulse.


Using Mobile Endpoint Management to prolong smartphone battery life?

Low Battery Warning

Endpoint management is a term I came across relatively recently at a Symantec event – it refers to software used to manage client computers, laptops, and servers in an organisation (the endpoints of the network). Endpoint management software does things like automating the rollout of updates, manages licensing of software and often has a role in energy management of computers (ensuring they are shut down at the end of the day, not consuming resources when not in use). Also, policies can be set to ensure the power management of the machines doesn’t interfere with the installation of any patches.

With the increasing numbers of smartphones and tablets entering the workplace, a new class of enterprise software is appearing, mobile endpoint management. I’ve had discussions with Symantec about this last year and had a demo of IBM’s beta Mobile Endpoint Manager at this year’s IBM Pulse.

The IBM software, while not yet released, is still quite interesting. It has a considerable amount of functionality for securing devices and their data, as well as what IBM are calling micro-vpn – a nifty little bit of coding which allows for the ability to VPN from within an individual app on the mobile device.

One obvious trick that’s being missed though? Energy management for mobile devices.

The one issue that all smart phone owners share is battery life. This is also an issue for organisations which provide smartphones to their staff because many of those employees will charge their phones while at work, increasing the organisations’ energy and carbon footprints. Potentially worse though, is if the battery does run out, the staff member in question is harder to contact and may be cut off from company resources.

How do you, through software, extend the life of a smartphone battery?

Well, off the top of my head, a few things come to mind – how about scanning for services not being used and shutting them down (bluetooth, wi-fi, even 3G if battery life becomes critical). Also, applications not being used could be automatically force-quit so they aren’t consuming resources in the background. Shutting off notifications (and iCloud on iPhones to avoid unnecessary uploading of data.

All of this could be configured to kick in as the amount of battery life remaining dwindles. At 30% shut off notifications and Bluetooth, at 25% iCloud and any open, but unused apps, and so on.

Another opportunity for saving comes from poorly coded applications which consume power when they are supposed to be doing nothing in the background – the iPhone Skype app had this issue for a while. An intelligent Endpoint Management app would monitor all apps energy use on the phone and report anomalous use to the user, along with an offer to close it (and potentially even offer to report the issue back to Apple and/or the app developer).

If this is reported transparently to the phone user, with an option of an opt-out, and with estimates of the amount that this will extend the battery life, most people will buy into it very quickly.

And it saves money, energy, and carbon emissions. Win, win and win.

Anyone coding Mobile Endpoint Management and not considering energy management is missing a trick.

Photo Credit Tom Raftery


App idea: Using gaming and social media to reduce your energy footprint

Energy footprint

SAP runs an event called InnoJam at its developer TechEd conferences. The SAP InnoJam events are held during the weekend prior to TechEd. During these events, people from the SAP community compete against each other in teams building working prototypes of solutions to real business cases, using SAP technologies.

SAP solicit ideas for business cases to be developed at these InnoJams – I added one this morning on building a residential energy management application. The application would use a combination of gaming techniques (leader boards, achievement badges, etc) and sharing to social networks to keep customers engaged and incented to try their best to reduce their energy use.

Here’s my submission:

Energy management applications being rolled out by utility companies have a very short Mean Time to Junk Drawer (MTJD) – they are ‘all shiny’ for the first couple of weeks but the shine quickly wears off and they are soon put away in the proverbial Junk Drawer never to be opened again.

How do you make energy management applications more engaging, bringing utility company customers back again and again to try to improve on their previous energy reduction steps? You do it by turning it into a game and allowing customers to share their progress on their social network of choice!

SAP have a new application for utility customers called Smart Meter Analytics which runs on HANA. The flood of data which will be coming from Smart Meters means HANA is necessary to do meaningful analytics on Smart Meter data (Centrica talk of going from their current 70m smart meter reads per annum to 30bn when all of their smart meters are rolled out – that’s a lot of data).

Smart meters give far more granular reads on energy consumption, allowing for residential energy management applications to be built and indeed SAP’s Smart Meter Analytics application has an Energy Efficiency Scorecard for residential customers.

But, if you build an application for energy management which allows people to compete against each other. If you introduce point scoring, leaderboards, and achievement badges and add to it the ability to share your progress with your social networks (a bit like FourSquare), then the application becomes far more compelling.

Also, the mobile app would want to have a way to check energy consumption remotely, and if a device has been left on (TV, aircon, oven, etc.), remote power-down from the mobile app.

Now, for utility companies to get this to really fly, they could offer prizes to schools in their locale – the school district with the greatest energy reductions gets a new energy efficient computer lab, or new energy efficient lighting, or… (you get the idea) – pester power from the pupils in the schools on their parents, combined with educating the younger generation on the importance of energy reduction is a major win-win!

The cool thing about this is that because it is based on the utility company’s Smart Meter Analytics, it is the customer’s actual energy use, not pledges, or estimates – so reductions reported are real, and realtime.

What do you think? Do you think this is a good idea?

Photo credit Tom Raftery


Mobile phones – distributed air quality sensor network?

Since giving my talk on sustainability in the mobile phone sector at Mobile 2.0 in Barcelona a few weeks back and writing my post about how Augmented Reality on mobiles could be transformative for Green tech I have been thinking a lot about how mobiles could make a significant positive contribution to the planet.

The context behind this is that while there are 1 billion PCs in the world and 1.4 billion internet users, there are 4 billion mobile phone subscriptions and climbing. One possibility I posited at Mobile 2.0 was that mobiles could become clients for grid computing projects like IBM’s World Community Grid. This would add significantly to the compute power of the grid (but for now battery life considerations probably means this is still a few years out).

The other thought rattling around in my head was probably sparked off by my discussions with IBM execs around their Smarter Planet initiative. It occurs to me that if mobile phones had built-in air quality monitors, you could very quickly build up a real-time map of pollution hotspots. Current municipal pollution monitors are static and far too few in number to give a meaningful picture of air quality but if mobile phones had this capability, the combining of the air quality information with the GPS data from the phone would allow for pinpointing of pollution trouble spots very quickly.

Obviously for this to be effective, the data would need to be anonymized and uploaded to a central server. Also, the pollution information would need to be made freely available for everyone’s consumption. There may even be a business model there for someone to pay mobile phone users to sample air and upload the information.

A quick bit of research around this thought and I found the video above showing that not alone is it feasible but it wasn’t a hugely original idea on my part 😉

With the recent news of urban pollution being responsible for lower IQ in children and being implicated in premature births of infants and preeclampsia, there is a definite health imperative for something like this. Especially in China, where air pollution is causing massive health problems. Imagine if the Chinese authorities mandated this the way they mandated that all mobile phone chargers use usb back in 2006! Very quickly economies of scale would drive costs down and competition amongst manufacturers would mean smaller chipsets to do this.

Original Rockwell GPS receiver - image from

Original Rockwell GPS receiver - image from

For anyone who thinks that air quality monitors would be too bulky for mobile phones, just have a look at what the original GPS receivers looked like (large backpacks) and now they are embedded in most smart phones!

One final thought harking back to my post on Augmented Reality, with air quality data from mobile phones uploaded to the cloud (unintentional pun, sorry!) it would be very straightforward to create an Augmented Reality view of air quality allowing mobile phone owners to ‘see’ pollution in their immediate environment – imagine how quickly that would drive home to people the seriousness of their air quality situation.