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Fairfax Water’s Tammy Powlas on producing good quality water cheaply

We talk to utilities a lot here on GreenMonk, but mostly electrical utilities. Recently I had an opportunity to talk to Tammy Powlas of water utility Fairfax Water to learn more about what they do.

It was a fascinating chat we had. Fairfax water makes extensive use of technology and also embue a culture in their employees of putting the customers’ needs first, and as a result, they produce safe, consistent, and cheap water for their constituency. This is vital work considering how important water is to our everyday lives.

Here is a transcript of our conversation:

Tom Raftery: Hey everyone! Welcome to GreenMonk TV. I am talking today to Tammy Powlas who is a senior business analyst with Fairfax Water. Tammy, water utilities, it’s an interesting field and one that we don’t talk about enough often. I think people take water for granted often, but it’s one of our more valuable resources. Can you give us a bit of background first on Fairfax Water? What kind of size are you, who do you deliver water to, and what kind of challenges you’re facing, that kind of thing.

Tammy Powlas: Okay, yes, Fairfax Water, we are the largest water utility in the State of Virginia. Currently, we serve 1.7 million people water, and one out of every five Virginians gets their water from us. We serve the Fairfax County and surrounding counties. One of our challenges or immediate challenges is we’re acquiring two new water utilities in our area. The other thing about Fairfax Water, we pride ourselves on being one of the lowest cost water utilities in the Washington, D.C., Virginia, Maryland area.

Tom Raftery: Great! So you give cheap water to people. Does that necessarily mean that’s good water?

Tammy Powlas: Oh, absolutely! We have a lab group who does testing. We have two sources of water. They are very active in testing that. Our customers can request at anytime, what’s the quality of the water. So we pride ourselves on giving the best lowest cost water in the D.C. area, and it’s always available.

Tom Raftery: And to coin the phrase, do you eat your own dog food, are you a –

Tammy Powlas: Yeah, I am a Fairfax Water customer. I live in Fairfax County. I have been a Fairfax Water customer since 1999. I’ve had good service from Fairfax Water as a customer. I do eat my own dog food, yeah.

Tom Raftery: So how do you manage to keep the prices down?

Tammy Powlas: Well, for us, I think it comes from the general manager on down. We are public sector water utility, I forgot to mention that. So revenue, we’re not tied to revenue, but we pride ourselves on always doing what’s the least cost or what’s the most cost efficient thing for our customers. So everything always has to have a business case. We do a cost benefit analysis, and it’s always questioned from the general manager, the finance manager, is this going to fit our customers, is this the best solution for our customers. So we pride ourselves on always thinking in those terms and the whole company does.

Tom Raftery: Okay. Is technology helping out at all?

Tammy Powlas: Oh, absolutely! We’ve been using the SAP utilities solution since 2004, and that has really helped us integrate all our solutions together from billing, from maintenance, and very importantly, financials. So that helps us manage the cost, manage our maintenance, manage our bills, everything is all together. We have integrated financial statements in SAP that even using a business object software, it’s all come together and really helped us be more efficient for our customer.

Tom Raftery: Okay. I mean water utilities, and utilities in general, have large issues around infrastructure management. How do you handle that?

Tammy Powlas: That’s handled also in SAP using the Plant Maintenance Solution. We’ve been lucky, because our infrastructure is relatively new compared to our surrounding utilities, surrounding jurisdictions like Washington, D.C. which to me has a lot of issues with the aging infrastructure. So for us, we’re very active in predicting what’s going to go wrong, planning our maintenance, so that’s part of our whole company.

Tom Raftery: Sure! I mean what are plans moving forward for tech roll outs and the interesting projects on the horizon, to help you better serve your customers?

Tammy Powlas: Oh, absolutely! For sure after data migrations, I would see it’s giving more visibility into how our customers are using the water, how am I consuming the water, how do I compare to my neighbors. So we’ve been relatively lucky. We haven’t had to tell our customers to boil the water, we haven’t had water shutoff, we don’t regulate the water and say you can only water on every other day. So we’ve been fairly lucky with that. But, I think given that people want to be more sustainable, I think they are going to want to see how am I managing my water and how am I consuming and how do I compare to my neighbors.

Tom Raftery: And smart meters?

Tammy Powlas: Smart meters, we have not looked at that yet. I think that is coming. What’s interesting is some of these jurisdictions that we’re getting, they have automated meter readings, and I think that will come. I think that’s got to be on the horizon. I am giving you my personal opinion, I don’t speak to Fairfax Water but I think that’s going to happen for sure, because I think the customer demand hasn’t happened yet, but I think that’s going to happen over time.

Tom Raftery: As people see the advantages of the smart meters for electricity.

Tammy Powlas: Yeah, absolutely! I can see that today with my own electric bill. I can log on and do all that and there’s a lot of benefits to that and there is a lot of incentives for the utility company as well.

Tom Raftery: Okay, cool! Tammy, that’s been great. Thanks once again for talking to us today.

Tammy Powlas: Absolutely! Thank you, thank you Tom!

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Utilities should open up API’s to their smart meter data

Smart meter

The world of utilities is changing with the roll out of smart meters. One of the biggest changes will be the wealth of data that utility companies will suddenly be flooded with.

As we noted in a previous post on GreenMonk, Centrica has:

18 million residential accounts and one million business accounts. Right now they are billing residential accounts every three months and they are managing 75 million meter reads per annum.

With the move to smart meters, Centrica will take electricity reads every 30 minutes and gas reads once per day. This means a shift from 75 million meter reads per annum to 120 billion meter reads a year. 120 billion – that’s billion with a b. That’s a phenomenal amount of data to have to deal with.

What will utilities do with this sudden influx of data?

Apart from the traditional billing function, many utilities have no idea what, if anything, they will do with the data. And this is hardly surprising, this is a new level of energy consumption information that we have not had access to previously. And furthermore, utilities have not traditionally been in the data business.

So, what should they do with all this new data? Obviously, I have a couple of ideas (more on that later), but likely you do too, and possibly so too do some utilities.

However, to really maximise their chances of coming up with a good use of the data, it’s best to expose it to as many people as possible. Crowdsource the ideas.

Utility companies should now give serious consideration to exposing their data, anonymised, through the use of openly documented API‘s and allow developers have at it. They should then run hackathons and competitions to see who can come up with the best applications making use of the data. Why not?

A couple of ideas – how about an application to highlight exceptional energy use. For example, would customers pay an extra €1 a month to receive an alert if their elderly relative’s lights didn’t go out at 11pm, or come on again at 8am? Or for people with holiday homes, would they pay €1 a month to be alerted if the lights went on when they’re not there? Or if the electricity went off (and there was food in the freezer, or worse beer in the fridge!), for example?

If utilities were to open the data to developers, who knows what amazing ideas would emerge – developers are after all, as we are fond of saying, the New Kingmakers.

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SAP for Utilities event 2013 was all about utility customer communications

Huntington Beach

GreenMonk attended the North American SAP for Utilities event in Huntington Beach California last week. The theme of this year’s event was Designing the Modern Utility. This was our fifth time attending the event, and for the first time we saw a significant focus on the voice/opinion of the customer (although in fairness, we didn’t attend the event in 2012).

Utility companies, as we have said many times in the past, have a very poor record with customer communications. Typically, the only times you hear from a utility company is when they are sending a bill, a disconnection warning, or notice of a rate increase. None of these are very positive interactions. It is no surprise then that in an age of increasing customer importance, trust in utility companies is the lowest level it has been in years.

It is hardly surprising though. Many utilities are coming from a situation where they are, or until recently have been, regional monopolies. Their customers had no choice of supplier, and so the utilities didn’t feel a need to listen to their customers views. Furthermore, utilities are, by their nature, extremely conservative organisations. They need to be, given they are handling such necessities as water, gas and electricity. So any change in their attitude to customer communications will happen slowly.

Change, it would appear, is very much underway now in the utilities industry. Jane Arnold from City of San Diego Public Utilities, San Diego’s water utility, gave a talk entitled Putting the “E” in Customer Engagement. Kevin Jackson from Oklahoma Gas and Electric (OGE) discussed in his talk how OGE have rolled out 800,000 smart meters and are using these to provide their customers with access to realtime energy consumption information. They hope that by providing customers with this information, and by rolling out time of use billing to defer the need to build a new power plant in 2020.

And Tracy Kirk from New Jersey’s Public Service Electric and Gas Company (PSEG) talked about how PSEG started to use Twitter to begin a two way conversation with its customers. Then it was hit with Hurricane Sandy, and Tracy outlined how Twitter helped PSEG to manage its customers expectations and reduce frustrations associated with the hurricane’s damage to its infrastructure.

There was even a keynote from Julie Albright, a research scientist at the University of Southern California, on the topic of the Social Utility, strongly echoing the closing keynote GreenMonk gave at the same event in San Antonio in 2011 on the topic of Potent Social Media strategies for Utilities.

Even the conversations in the corridors referred to the need for increased customer communications, far more than at any previous SAP for Utilities event.

Utilities are starting to realise the necessity of improved customer communications, and this can only be a good thing.

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Belkin brings the Internet of things home (with bonus IFTTT)

Home electricity consumption

We had a fascinating conversation with Belkin’s Kevin Ashton recently about home automation. Kevin is the general manager, global product management for Belkin Business.

Right now, Belkin have a nice home automation platform called WeMo where they have devices like Wifi connected wall outlets, Wifi connected motion sensors, WiFi connected baby monitors, and WiFi connected webcams. The platform also has smartphone apps for Android and iOS so you can connect yo your home on your phone or tablet from anywhere in the world and switch your appliances on/off, listen in on your baby, and even check the webcam to make sure your child/elderly parent are doing ok.

Wemo even connects to IFTT so you can set rules for your devices (turn on lights when sun sets, alert me if there’s movement in my house, alert me if there’s no motion in my parent’s home, etc.).

This would be very cool if Belkin just stopped there, but Belkin’s CEO Chet Pipkin, has an interest in home connectivity, and so the company is taking it’s home networking and internet of things several steps further.

Belkin recently announced that they are working on a new series of products branded Belkin Echo. They will bring to market two devices, Echo Water and Echo Electricity. The two devices are for analysing and reporting on your usage of water and electricity respectively.

One of the things which is unique about these devices is how unobtrusively they work. Echo Electricity uses a single sensor which can be placed at the meter, breaker box or in an outlet and it detects current and voltage signatures within the building’s electrical circuit to determine which devices are being used, when they are being used, and how much electricity they consume.

Similarly, the Echo Water sensor can be attached to your plumbing and it senses changes in pressure and vibrations which occur everytime you use your water. It uses these to identify every fixture which uses water (shower, dish washer, toilet, etc.) and can report on how much water each device uses. This enables you to use water more efficiently, and identify leaks before they become a serious problem.

We asked Kevin if people would buy one of these Echo products. He replied that “We all care about things which affect us now, and tend to discount things where the benefits are down the line.” The Echo platform, he said can help with immediate savings. It can identify waste, identify costs and potentially shut off water in the event of a burst pipe (which leads us to wonder if insurance companies might discount customers with an Echo Water device installed).

At the moment the devices are still in development but the US Department of Defense is currently trialling the Echo Electricity in an effort to increase its energy intelligence, and reduce its carbon bootprint. A “major US utility” is also trialling the Echo Electricity, and this gives a hint to one possible route to market for these devices. The Echo Electricity could well be a customer service differentiator for a utility company (especially in deregulated markets). Customers ringing to find out why their bill is so high could potentially get an immediate answer, and utility bills could become itemised, and so look more like a credit card bill, than the current single line item bill customers receive.

When will these devices be available?

Don’t hold your breath – according to Kevin, Echo Water will be generally available in 2014 while Echo Electricity is a bit more complex so there will be pilots through 2014 with it being generally available in 2015.

As Kevin said at the conclusion of our conversation, “The goal at Belkin is to launch the products when they work, not before”.

Image credit Tom Raftery

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SAP releases mobile app for utilities customer engagement

They say the secret to any good relationship is communication.

Most utility companies don’t seem to have received the memo though. In a lot of cases, the only time you hear from your utility company is when you receive a bill, or a disconnect notice. Neither are very positive forms of communication. It is no wonder then that utility companies generally are not held in high regard.

In an effort to help utility companies improve their communications, and connect more closely with their customers, SAP this week launched their Utilities Customer Engagement mobile app. The new mobile app is available now for download from the iTunes Store and Google Play.

SAP Utilities Customer Engagement

The app has lots of cool functionality, such as the ability to see and pay bills, check consumption and outage information and High Bill Alerts and other messages in the Message Centre, to warn customers when their bill is going to be higher than usual. This would have been very handy for PG&E to have had back in 2009 when their smart meter rollout was incorrectly blamed for customers suddenly receiving higher bills.

Facebook reported last December that the number of people accessing the site from mobile devices now exceeds access from desktop devices, and not surprisingly, this has also been true of Twitter for some time. Given that, it could be that SAP are missing a trick here. It would be very useful if in the My Profile section of the app, customers could enter their social media details (Twitter account, Facebook, Google+ etc.), then the app could send them messages and alerts to their social network of choice, rather than customers having to log into the app to see alerts.

This is a fundamental tenet of good communications – talk to the customer on their platform of choice, don’t force them to come to you. Perhaps in version 2.0.

Of course, this mobile app will only be any good, if SAP can persuade their utility customers to deploy it – whether they can pull that off remains to be seen (but, I know I’d want my utility company to roll it out!).

Image credit Lady Madonna

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Social media and utility companies

I’m moderating a panel discussion on social media and utilities at next week’s SAP for Utilities event in Copenhagen. My fellow panelists will include two representatives from utility companies, and one from SAP.

This is not new ground for me, I have given the closing keynotes at the SAP for Utilities in San Antonio in 2011 and the SAP for Utilities event in Singapore in 2012, both times on this topic.

In my previous talks on this topic I start out talking about how utilities have started to use social media for next generation customer service – this is an obvious use case and there are several great examples of utilities doing just this.

However, there are also other very compelling use cases for social in utilities. In the US over one third of the workforce is already over 50 years old, and according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics 30-40% of the workforce will retire in the next 10 years. This is not confined to the US and so recruitment and retention are topics of growing concern for utilities.

Now, utilities are rarely seen by young graduates as a ‘cool’ place to work. But this can change. Remember a couple of years back when Old Spice was the cologne your grandad might wear? Old Spice rolled out a social media campaign with a superb series of YouTube ads (the first of which has been viewed 45 million times). In the month which followed their sales went up 100%, and a year later their sales were still up 50%.

Videos like the one above produced by Ausgrid, while not about to rival Old Spice for viewership, do show a more human and appealing side of the company to any potential employees.

Rotary dial phone

Also, when I ask utility companies whether they allow employees to access social media from their work computers, the majority of times the answer is no, or limited. Even if only from the perspective of retaining good employees, this has to change. Today’s millennials are far more likely to use social media as a way to network and find information online (see chapter four of this three year old Pew Research study on Millennials [PDF] for more on this). Blocking access to social media sites, especially for younger employees, is analogous to putting a rotary dial phone on their desk, with a padlock on the dial. Don’t just take my word for it. Casey Coleman, the CIO of the U.S. General Services Administration said recently:

Twitter is a primary source to gather information about changes in my industry. It helps the organization stay current with the latest trends and thinking.

Blocking employees access to social media stifles them from doing their job effectively, and any employee who feels that s/he is not being allowed to do their job properly won’t be long about looking for a new one.

Social media can also be used internally as a means of retaining knowledge from retiring workers, and as a way of making employees more productive using internal social collaboration tools (Jam, Huddle, Chatter, etc.).

Finally, as I’ve mentioned before, with the rise of mobile usage of social media, there is now the ability to tap into social media’s big data firehose in realtime to improve on outage management.

There are bound to be more uses of social media (real or potential) that I’m missing – if you can think of any, please leave a comment on this post letting us all here know.

Also, the panel discussion is on next Friday April 19th at 3pm CET – we’ll be watching the Twitter hashtag #SocialUtils. If you have any questions/suggestions to put to the panel, leave them there and we’ll do our best to get to them.

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Logica’s Global Utilities Director, Nigel Spooner talks Smart Meters, Smart Grids and the DCC

At the recent Logica Utility Analyst day, I talked to Logica’s Global Utilities Director, Nigel Spooner about Smart Meters, Smart Grids and the DCC – here’s a transcription of our conversation:

Tom Raftery: Hi everyone, welcome to GreenMonk TV, I’m in the Logica building in London with Nigel Spooner. Nigel is Global Utility Director for Logica. Nigel we’ve had a bit of a discussion here during the analyst event that I have just been attending, around smart meters and smart grids. Now we’re in the middle of one of the world’s worst economic crises in a long time, why would utilities want to be spending money on rolling out smart meters?

Nigel Spooner: Yeah it’s a good question isn’t it, it is difficult when money is tight, but there are benefits to smart metering, both in terms of the consumer being able to manage their energy consumption more closely, and also in terms of the distribution companies being able to run their networks more efficiently, but also and importantly being been able to cater for consumers doing their own generation for instance with photovoltaics and also for things like incorporating electric vehicles into the network.

Tom Raftery: So this is kind of life smart grid stuff and can you give us a quick idea, I mean you talked just a little bit about it sidewise, give me kind of an overall picture of what a smart grid is?

Nigel Spooner: A smart grid is difficult to define very succinctly, but it is a distribution grid where there is much more control over the way that power flows both on to and off the grid. At the moment grids are very much one way. The power goes in from the power station, it goes through the network and into the consumer.

Increasingly we’re having to cope for the fact that the consumers themselves are generating power, they are also using things like electric vehicles which have to be charged up at particular times, they need to be controlled if the networks are not to be overloaded, and therefore the distribution grids have to be much more responsive to those loads and those demands going on them. Smart metering gives the distribution companies the opportunity to know what’s going on on that grid to a much closer degree, and in real time than they having been doing so far.

Tom Raftery: And advantages to consumers…

Nigel Spooner: To consumers the advantage is that they can get first of all more flexible tariffs, so we may be able to get tariffs that are much more aligned with the way in which we actually consume energy, rather than being just a blanket tariff that’s the same for everyone. There will be much more information on the energy that one is using, so that for instance one can see when one is going for a rather large load and to turn things off if you need to, but also there is the ability increasingly to respond to variable pricing, so that if we know for instance electricity is going to be expensive in three days time because of demands on the system, then we can react to that and make sure that our large items like air-conditioning units that’s on, do not get turned on when the price is very high. So we should be able to save both energy and money through the information that smart metering gives.

Tom Raftery: And, I’ve heard a bit about this DCC thing that’s been rolled out here in the UK, can you tell me a little bit about that?

Nigel Spooner: Well DCC is simply the organization that is going to be setup or is been setup by the British government to basically take charge of all the data that is coming off smart meters as we roll them out. This will be collected centrally and then distributed to the market participants and the view is that, that will be the most efficient way to manage this huge increase in information that smart meters are providing. By doing that it should make it easier for participants to come into the market and it should make it easier for consumers to get the best deal on their energy.

Tom Raftery: Where is Logica in all this?

Nigel Spooner: Well I’m delighted to say that all the things we’ve been talking about require relatively sophisticated information technology services to enable them to happen. Logica has for many years been in the business of providing the systems and the services that are required to make those infrastructures operate effectively and we will of course continue to do so.

Tom Raftery: Okay, great. Nigel that’s been fantastic, thanks for talking to us today.

Nigel Spooner: Thank You Tom.

Full disclosure – Logica paid my travel and accommodation to attend this event.

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Logica and EdP’s smart grid trial in Évora

Energy management devices

Logica brought me to the pretty Portuguese town of Évora recently to check out the InovGrid project which they have been participating in, along with EdP and other partner companies.

InovGrid is an ambitious project to roll out smart grid technologies to six million customers across Portugal. Évora’s InovCity is the first stage of the project. There are 35,000 people living in Évora, almost all of whom have been issued with smart meters by now.

The smart meters are connected in realtime to in-home displays (like the one pictured above) which takes energy consumption readings every two seconds and plots it on the screen. It can display the usage data as kWh, CO2 or more tangibly, the € cost. If the home or business has an internet connection, this information can be viewed remotely on a computer or mobile device (as seen on the laptop on the right in the image above). Interestingly, there is two-way communication going on here, so if smart plugs are installed in the house, they can be controlled (on/off) from the in-home display, or remotely.

The information displayed on the in-home displays, and remotely, is not the same information which is sent to the utility for billing purposes. This may lead to some discrepancies in the € amount on the displays versus the amount on the bill at the end of the month. The smart meters send billing information to the utilities over Power Line Communications (with a GPRS backup). Even with the PLC connection, there is far too much data in 2 second reads, so a lower rate of reads is sent to the utility for billing purposes.

Interestingly, the in-home device shown above was installed in a coffee shop in Évora and it was possible to watch the fluctuations in the consumption graph in realtime as coffee was being made for customers. Also, the coffee shop realised €500 savings per annum in their energy bill when they examined the information from the device and realised they were not on the optimal tariff. It also demonstrated to them the savings to be had from turning off the coffee machine overnight, so the extra information from the device helped influence their behaviour.

EV Parking spot

EV Parking spot

Other than the smart meters, we were shown the information display in the town hall, which shows the realtime energy consumption of the building. This information is also supposed to be available on the town hall’s website for citizens to see remotely, though I failed to find it there (doubtless due to my lack of Portuguese!).

Other nice features on display were dedicated parking places for electric vehicles (EV’s), complete with charging stations as well as LED streetlights with motion sensors which dim the lights in the absence of people on the streets. The EV parking place was predictably empty due more to the general unavailability of EV’s than anything else. The LED streetlights though was interesting. Very few towns or cities have, as yet, embraced LED streetlights and yet 50% of a town’s energy spend can be on streetlights. LED lights can save 80-90% of the energy cost over traditional streetlights, they can report back their status (obviating the need to have staff checking for lighting failures) and they have a much longer lifetime, so they save on maintenance costs as well as energy.

It would be interesting to hear back from the InovCity people how much Évora is saving on lighting costs from the move to LED (even if only the energy savings) but even more interesting would be to try to see if the rollout of the smart meters and in-home displays has led to any sustained, per home, energy consumption reduction.

One last comment on this project – I can’t help but feel that the provision of in-home displays is an idea whose time has past. These days most people have access to a tablet, a smartphone or a computer where they can access this information. I suspect as the InovGrid project rolls out beyond the 35,000 inhabitants of Évora to rest of Portugal, the IHD’s will become at best, an added extra option, or quietly killed off.

Photo credits Tom Raftery

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Potent Social Media Strategies for Utilities

I gave the closing keynote at the SAP for Utilities conference in San Antonio recently. I requested a video of my presentation, and I had it transcribed so I could post it here.

Good afternoon everyone. I?m painfully aware that I am the last thing standing between you and wine tasting, so I?ll try and keep this brief. I have 66 slides to get through in my presentation, so I?ll rip through them reasonably quickly and I don?t think there will be time for Q&A at the end but I?ll be at the wine tasting, so do please feel free to come up and ask me any questions.

Also my details are here. This is my best Steve Jobs? impression. You can see there my job title, my email address, my blog, my twitter accounts, my mobile phone although it?s over there at the movement, so no point in calling it right now and my SlideShare. SlideShare, if you are not familiar with it, is a site into which you can upload presentations and people can see them online at that site. I have uploaded this presentation to that site an hour ago and it?s already been seen over 200 times. So, you are the last guys to see it, sorry about that.

So, that?s me. Quick show of hands here, to see who you guys are. How many people in the room here work for utility company, okay. Good number of people. How many people here work for an organization that has an active social media account, be it a Twitter, Facebook? Reasonable number again, okay. How many people here work for an organization that actively blocks some of their employees from seeing social media? Quite a number as well, okay, interesting. Good that gives me a good idea of where to pitch the conversation.

So, I am going to run a video for you after this right, power of social media, if anyone doubts the power of social media, you might want to have a conversation with this chap, this is Hosni Mubarak former President of Egypt for 30 years, now behind bars, largely overthrown with a lot of organization done online using Facebook and Twitter. He is now being charged with corruption and murder, so, an interesting case study in the power social media.

So, I am going to run this video and it?s a video which gives you an idea of some of the things that are happening in social media at the moment. Some of the data points in it, and there are a lot of data points in it, so don?t try and take them all and just try and let it flow over you. Some of the data points in it are little dated to this point, the video was made about six months ago and so keep that in mind, things keep moving on at an incredible pace in this industry. So, here we go, I said here we go.

[Video Presentation - 00:02:45 - 00:07:02]

Okay, that?s my presentation thanks very much, kidding. So one thing I should about this slide, because I said it?s available on SlideShare, underneath each of the images, you?ll see a little bit of text there, it?s hard to read from here, it?s not meant to be read from here, it?s actually a clickable link, so if you do download the slide and I think Stephen maybe making it available as well through The Eventful Group site. Those links are clickable, so you?ll be able to go and find those videos and photographs and anything else that?s on the presentation.

So, that?s? all very good social media cures cancer all that good stuff, what does that mean for utility companies? Well, utility companies have a number of challenges facing them at the moment, they have a lot of challenges facing them at the moment, but there is a number of them in particular that I have identified that I think social media will be able to help with.

One of the things utility companies have is an aging workforce. The US department — the US Bureau of Labor Statistics has said that in the next 30 to, sorry in the next ten years, 30 to 40% of the utility workers are going to retire.

Now I was talking to Dave Fortis sorry Dave Legge sorry I am getting confused here, Dave Legge of FortisBC the other night and he told me that in his organization, that?s 50% in the next five years. So somewhere between 30 to 50% of employees are going to retire in the next five to 10 years from utility companies, that?s a massive loss of knowledge right there. It?s also a huge — it?s a huge challenge in the recruitment and retention area. Some of these things social media will be able to help with.

Utility companies have an image issue. They are thought of as at best boring by their customers and in some cases they have a bit of a credibility deficit. Consumers often are a bit wary of trusting utility companies when they say, we?d like you to use less power. They are facing, utility companies are facing increasing demands for energy at a time of dwindling supply and they are also facing increasing demands for things like customer service, for environmental footprint reduction and other things like that.

So, how can social media help? Well in the recruitment sphere, a very obvious one is LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a phenomenal channel for recruitment and one of the key aspects of LinkedIn that a lot of people may overlook is the groups? functionality in LinkedIn. This is the energy and utilities network, it?s a very, it?s a thriving community in there and for utility companies it?s a good place to go to kind of push out your brand, be knowledgeable, exchange information, get people on board and be seen as a company that?s plugged into social media and is willing to give away information that way your company?s brand is out there and it seem to be more social media savvy.

In terms of Retention, we saw a number of people in the room put their hands up and asked how many companies block social media, it?s a big mistake. Again, in a conversation with Dave from Fortis, he gave me a story of an interview situation where a young graduate was in an interview and there came time for the graduate to ask questions to the Interview Board, and he said, ?What?s your company?s policy on social media?? And the company said, ?Well, we block it. We don?t allow employees access to social media,? and his response was, ?Alright, thanks very much for your time,? and he walked out.

Now, that may well be an apocryphal story, but its indicative of a mentality in graduates who are now in university or who have recently left university they?re used to these tools, they use this tools all the time for information dissemination and for information collection. You bring them into your organization and you?ll need to, because you are losing a lot of people at the other end, you bring them into your organization and you have social media sites blocked, it?s like putting a rotary dial phone on their desk with a padlock on the dial.

So, another challenge social media can help with as I said is around image and the fact that utility companies were often perceived as boring. Another company that had this kind of stay and tired image was a company called Old Spice that makes men?s cologne and bath products and things like that. And they decided last year that they were to go on a bit of social media spree and rebrand themselves, will not rebrand but spruce up their image a bit. So they ran a serious of ads on YouTube and this one of them I?ll just run it for you.

[Video Presentation - 00:12:09 - 00:12:40]

This campaign went completely viral because that?s such a good add and then a ran a serious of follow up adds in fact they ran a 24 hour series of adds where people could submit questions on Twitter, and that actor would reply to the questions in a similar format. It went wild, it went ballistic, the ad itself has currently had about 36 million views on Twitter just that one ad, not all the other ads just that one ad, the other ads have lots of views as well. That?s cool, that?s great, but even more importantly Old Spice sale is increased 100% in the month following that campaign, and a year later they?re still up 50%.

The brand, the Old Spice brand has become sexy and cool and with a guy like that it?s obviously it?s going to be sexy, but it has become cool and hip and trendy.

I mentioned knowledge management and lot of knowledge walking out the door with the elder generation as they start to retire. Well, your not going to be able to suck the information out of their heads, not with an a device like this anyway, but what you can do, is you can start rolling out some social media platforms because the old knowledge management techniques never really ran so well, but when you make more interesting for people for people they start becoming more willing to share the information.

Now you don?t really want to be having the pointy haired bus type blogger on board, that one never goes down that well, but what you want to do is you want as you want to role as for example an internal blogging scheme, don?t bother trying to read that, it?s just an example, a screen shot of an internal blog at IBM. The blogger there is guy called Luis Benitez. One of the things to notice is, you see the little red circle up there, I?ve got that circling a way of recommending the blog post, if you are on the internal IBM blog and you read that blog and you go, ?that?s a good blog post, I got a lot out of that?. You can click on that little green button and it gets an extra star.

So it?s a rating mechanism for a blog posts on that internal platform, the IBM internal blog platform. IBM has got 18,000 blogs on their internal blog platform, 18,000 individual blogs and that?s a huge sea of information. And as people blog and I say put up posts they?re either recommended if they?re good or they?re not and they get lost if not good. You can see as well they?re on this platform on the right hand side, you?ve got similar blogs listed, so this is the one you find particularly, interesting you see similar bloggers there and that?s automatically generated based from the content.

On the left hand side you got a what?s called tag cloud, clicking an any of those words from the tag cloud get?s you related content. So, it?s an incredible way of getting information spread out through the organization and collate it back in again. And as I say there is 18,000 of them there, this other blog, it?s a friend of mine, a guy called Andy Piper. Andy Piper celebrating in this blog post his sixth anniversary as an internal blogger on the IBM blogging platform, so he he?s been out there six years, in fact the blogging platform, the internal blogging platform IBM has, has been going strong for eight years now.

So IBM have this stuff mastered and they?re not the only ones there is lots of other companies doing, but it?s a great way of capturing information and sharing it throughout the organization. You don?t have to just stick with blogs, you want to be taking a broad approach to this.

This is a screen shot of Wikipedia and just happens to be the SAP Wikipedia page, but the circle up there is circle you don?t bother trying to read it as far way I know and small but the circle there is circling the edit button, you might not have noticed it, but on every single Wikipedia page there is an edit button and this means you can click on the edit button and change the content of the page and that?s what makes Wikipedia so powerful, anyone can change the content of any page and the size.

So if you know something is wrong on the page you can go and correct it. And, an example of this for me that was really interesting was a few years ago when I was living in Ireland, I was working in the kitchen at home on my laptop and I had the radio on in the background. And it was around the time of the Papal enclave; they were electing a new Pope. And the radio was on I was listening to music and the next minute the news broke into the programming and said the Cardinals are out on the balcony in Saint Peter?s Square, we think they?re going to make an announcement.

And the next minute the voices start coming over speaking Latin, no idea what they were saying, but I heard the word Ratzinger, and I recognized he had been mentioned in a couple of previous news broadcasts as Cardinal Ratzinger, a German Cardinal who was up for the papacy. So I immediately pulled up Wikipedia, type in Ratzinger and I?m redirected straightway in real time before the Latin has finished to the webpage on Wikipedia of a Pope Benedict, whatever number he is. I started reading down through it and I see a section in it about alleged Nazi links in his youth and I call my wife over to look at and said, look at this and I refreshed the page and it?s gone. It?s been edited out, it turns out it wasn?t true what have been said there.

So it happens in real time, stuff is corrected. If you go in and you make a change on that SAP page or any page in there and it?s factually incorrect, the chances are within minutes it will be edited back out.

PBworks is a company that provides a hosted wiki for you, so I was using that when I based in an organization called it@Cork really good, there is a number of other ones I will show up in a second, I just happen to use this one, its hosted Wiki. What we use to do with that one in the organization was used to have weekly board meetings and whoever was taking the minutes would plug in their laptop to the data projector and they take the minutes and will be displayed upon screen for everyone who is in the meeting to see.

So everyone was watching the minutes as they were being taken and if people were given an assignment or signed up to do something, that was noted in minutes and their initials put beside it. And during the following week, they would go in themselves and update the wiki page on how they were getting on with their assignment. So that the following week, when everyone came to the meeting, everyone had already read the minutes of the previous one and the updates to it and then the next meeting happened everyone was on the same page, everyone saw that minutes for that meeting, so everyone saw and everyone signed off on the task that have been assigned and everyone saw in real time how they?re being updated, that?s just one used case for a Wiki, but is a really good one, it saves a lot of e-mails for example.

PBworks are one company that provide them, another one is Socialtext, another one is MindTouch they?re all good, I?m not going to recommend anyone above the other, they all provide the same kind of functionality.

If people are not into writing, maybe some people are better at speaking than writing, put up a video blogging platform for them or go around with the camera and just start interviewing people, asking them what they are doing and put up on a central site, or put up an YouTube and have it for internal viewing only if that?s what you want or let everyone see it, why not?

Well, they?re kind of communications platforms, and sharing and collaboration platforms are available, are ones like Salesforce?s chatter.com which allows you internally to have a kind of a Facebook and a collaborative Facebooking application internally. You can invite customers in as well if you want or not, but it can be internal or internal and external. You get similar functionality from things like Huddle and this is SAP?s StreamWork application, which is reasonably similar as well, and this is Rypple. Rypple is a performance management application, which is collaborative and sharing and it?s open and transparent and everyone sees. So it?s another one of these applications.

The point about these applications is these are the kinds of applications that people are using in college at the moment, and these are the kinds of application and the kinds of functionality they expect when they go into their new employer and they will feel extremely restricted if they don?t have access to these kinds of tools which they?re already well familiar with and they?ll get frustrated if you don?t ? if you are hobbling their functionality, they?ll get frustrated and then move on and that?s not what you want.

This for example is a Google spreadsheet. Google provide spreadsheet functionality. In this particular screenshot it?s two people working on the spreadsheet at the same time. This spreadsheet is delivered via browser. There is two people working on it, the blue one and the red one. And over the right hand side, you can see a chat screen that is going on as they are talking to each other about the edits they are making to the spreadsheet and they can be anywhere in the world.

So those are some scenarios. They are customer service scenarios which are phenomenal that can be addressed using a social media as well. A great case study here is KLM. Last year when we had the volcano and the ash cloud over Europe, KLM hired a 120 people and put them full time in shifts, full time monitoring specifically Facebook and Twitter, the two key ones. And they had, they were monitoring them, they were looking for mentions of KLM and they were looking for KLM customers where stranded somewhere and they did their best and they went to all out until the ash cloud cleared up, they kept the volume of calls done at the call centre to a minimum.

It was so successful for KLM that they continued the program; they scaled it down because they didn?t need 120 anymore but they now have 23 people full time on social media, in their social media department, constantly monitoring mentions of KLM, reaching out to people, helping anyone who is in trouble.

There was a hurricane here, couple of weeks back up the East coast and a great example of response to a hurricane using social media was Baltimore Gas & Electric, it was one of the ones I found, there was a number of them, Baltimore Gas & Electric really went to town. You can see this is their homepage. And the yellow bit at the top is informational and you can click on links there and go in and get more information about Irene. But down on the bottom right there you see their links to their different social media channels and their Twitter one is highlighted and these are all links.

So on their YouTube page, they had 25 videos about Irene. The first nine videos, they put up about Irene where about preparation, getting ready for Irene is coming, this is what you need to do. The next 16 videos that they put up about Irene were about the restoration works that were going on the different parts of their constituency. So people who are frustrated because they are out of power, they — at least they knew that BGE which is going all out and they had people in different areas and they could actually watch them working and see interviews with the guys who were doing the work.

Not alone that, but they had a — they were monitoring Twitter as well. There were 4000 Twitter followers in their Twitter account. They were doing things like they were saying to people you can see the bottom on one there, they are saying to people, DM me your address and I?ll send you an ETR. DM is Twitter speak for send it to me privately so that no one else sees your address, send it to me privately, I?ll take a look and I?ll send you back an ETR, an Estimated Time of Restoration. They?re answering people?s questions and they are also telling people in the top one what percentage of restoration they?re out at this point.

On their Facebook page, they have something like what is it 5800 followers and again they are doing the same thing. They are looking at people going to their Facebook page, people were asking questions about the restoration and they are answering them in real time. They had a Flickr stream. Flickr is a photographic site, photo sharing site. They had a 158 photos related to Irene. So again people could go in there and they could see what was going on. And it?s not just Irene related stuff.

This is the playlists page on their YouTube?s channel. They have videos there related to community programs they are involved with, related to safety with electricity, related to news coverage they received, Related to smart energy and these are all groups of videos put together, you can go to any of those and check out any of the videos they have on them.

Dominion was another one that did real well. Dominion have — you can see the videos they have put up there, some of those videos have had 6000 views. People are really interested in finding out what was going on obviously under Irene. And Dominion?s Twitter account, they have over 7000 followers or 3000 tweets and again they were doing stellar job about keeping people informed.

This is PSNH?s video page. They weren?t as — PSNH doesn?t seem to be as out there on the social media front but the little circle I have there shows that this particular video that they put out there was picked up by a local news organization. And that?s interesting because if you are putting this content out there, the news organizations are hungry for content around this stuff because it?s a big story. And if you are controlling the content, if you are putting the content out there, then it?s your content that gets shown in the news. You are helping to write the story and it?s your story that?s been told in your voice with your people.

Now here is a thought for you. What if every truckload for an outage has a smartphone as a matter of course so that when they get to site there is an outage maybe a truck hit a pole or tree came down, the first thing one of the guys in the truck does is get there with the smartphone, take a quick video of what?s after happening, does a bit of a voice over it says we arrived here at this time on this date, this is what?s after happening, we reckon it will take us about an hour to fix, we should be back about this time and then he clicks a button to post it to YouTube. Entirely possible today. All it does, all it takes is process change.

And what happens? Your people on Twitter, your people on Facebook are monitoring the YouTube channel as soon as any queries come in, they direct all queries to the YouTube page. See this video on a YouTube page, this is what?s after happening, this is when you?ll be back up, we have people on the ground, this is them working on it. So now people know what?s after happening, know when the power will be back on and they are far less frustrated with the lack of power.

You can also do things like crowd source ideas from your customers. Dell had this IdeaStorm page, fantastic page they?ve had something like 16000 suggestions coming to them on this page. And the suggestions, I mean anyone can put in a ridiculous suggestion there, but what they do is they get everyone who visits the page, they give them the ability to vote up or vote down ideas and to comment on ideas. So far they have implemented nearly 500 of the ideas. So these are ideas that people are coming in and giving up Dell, please, please do this with the next laptop, whatever it is, add this functionality to it, and you know if people have come in and recommended this and commented on us and it?s an active idea. You have got an audience that is dying for this laptop or desktop or monitor or whatever it is. So, as soon as you bring that to market and tell people, we took your idea on board and here is the product. You?ve got a ready audience of people that just flock into it to buy it.

Starbucks did the same thing actually, and there are number of organizations doing that they are not alone. The platform that allows people to do that is one called Get Satisfaction, they?re a start-up out of California. There are platforms for companies to do this kind of thing, to crowd source ideas, to talk of brand evangelists. No SAP would be or no SAP talk would be complete without some reference analytics. So social media is an area that?s ripe for analytics and there is a lot going on that space as well and another video for you this time it?s from a source you wouldn?t expect it?s from Gatorade, the drinks people. And Gatorade have built a social media analytics application for themselves, but it gives you an idea of the kinds of things you can do with social media and analytics.

[Video Presentation - 00:30:26 - 00:31:41]

Powerful stuff. They say they?re tracking their own brand and I?m sure they are, but you know as well that they?re, they are tracking all their competitors as well. The application Mission Control that they are using there was built with the aid of a company called Radian6. Radian6 were bought by SalesForce a couple of weeks for a $340 million. Radian6 aren?t the only player in the game, IBM have a social media analytics application that they released earlier this year. Adobe have one, which they got by their purchase of Omniture, last year, for $1.8 billion, and SAS has one as well and there are a number of other players out there, there is a Advantech or something and there are few others and start up in various stages. So it?s a hot happening area.

So I mentioned energy management and the increasing demands that utilities are facing around energy and, you know, how can we affect that with social media. Well, firstly you got to be aware that according to this article study released not so long ago at least 95% of your customers are interested in energy management information or energy consumption information. And then you get these kinds of applications being released, this is one out of SAP research and it?s a kind of a prototype energy management application, it?s not that interesting really.

There is a metric called the mean time to kitchen drawer. It?s also known as the mean time to junk drawer. I think you know what it is, it?s, you get something, this energy management application and it?s all shiny and you flip on the light switch and the graph goes up and you flip off the light switch and the graph goes down and oh, that?s cool? for about ten minutes. And then a week or two later you might look at it again and a month or two later and eventually it?s consigned to proverbial kitchen drawer and you never see it again. So how do you fix that? Well this is the new smart meter analytics application that SAP are releasing. And they have gone some way towards fixing it.

They have got a little buttons there for sharing that information with your social graph, you can push it out to your Twitter account or your Facebook account and you know just push a button and you get this thing up and you click submit and it?s sent out to your site and that?s cool.

Digressing for a second, this is a site called Foursquare, nothing to do with energy. Foursquare is a location application, when you go somewhere you can check into that location on Foursquare which tells people where you are at this point in time. So I go to this hotel, I can check into this hotel on Foursquare and say I am here. And if anyone in my network is around I get notified that people I know are in the area and if I didn?t know that?s cool, it?s great I get to meet them, excellent I didn?t know they are in the area fantastic, so that?s nice, but as well as that it gives you tips and tricks on the things in the area.

So oh, there is a nice restaurant a couple of miles down the road, you might want to try out, it has all this kind of stuff as well, it?s a phenomenal resource. That?s nice again nothing to do with energy so far. What it also has though because you usually check in on a phone, right because it?s got your GPS and it?s something that?s always with you.

So when you check in on the phone and say where you are, if you?ve checked in there a few times there a possibility that you?ll be the person who?s checked in there most in the last X number of days and then you become the mayor of that location. So, on this one I became the mayor of this hotel in Milan. And you get points, so I got an extra five points for that check in, because I got, I stole the mayor ship from some Japanese guy and there is a leader board there.

So I went up the leader board, by those extra points and I am suddenly tied with John, John Peavoy, it tells me there, nice you caught up with John. So suddenly you are starting to get a bit of competition in there and that gets interesting. And then you start to get merit badges and achievement badges and all kinds of cooler things like that.

Now what if we take this energy management application and on top of that we layer in not just the ability to share it to Facebook and Twitter and Google+ and whatever social network is floats your boat, what if you have leader boards in these energy management applications.

What if you have achievement badges, what if you start adding in targets and scores, then it becomes fun, then you build engagement and you are empowering people and people are telling each other, see how we did last week on this energy management application, I pulled ahead an extra five points, awesome. And what if you start feeding that into schools programs so you get kids involved and you get the old pester power on the parents to turn off the lights and stuff like that. Then it becomes really cool and then it gets spread out there, then people start to become really involved. So, back to the challenges I mentioned at the start. Some of the things social media can help with making utility companies a little less boring, help with customer service and the better the customer service the more trusted the organization becomes. You start making the utility company become more sexy.

How many kids do you hear in school who say, oh I?d love to work for that utility company they?re so cool. I haven?t heard any but if you start making them more social media savvy and that company puts out ads like that after, Old Spice guy thank you, mind freeze, Old Spice guy, so start getting some handsome actors out there with, I don?t know, crimping tools, you know, what I mean, start making utilities sexy, start getting them social media savvy, start communicating with your customers in ways they want to hear about and then you start to resolve a lot of the kind of problems that are and the challenges that they?re facing at the moment.

Thanks very much.

By the way, I have a mind map of this talk at the end there. So, if you want to see the, kind of, wild things that went through my head as I was trying to build this talk, it?s there too.

Okay.

Thanks.

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Implications of the data explosion for utilities

At the recent SAP for Utilities event in San Antonio, I caught up with Martin Mysyk, Senior Architect for TransAlta and we discussed the implications for utilities of the massive data explosion that is occurring in their industry right now.

Here is a transcription of our conversation:

Tom Raftery: Hi everyone! Welcome to GreenMonk TV. I?m at the SAP for Utilities event in San Antonio, Texas, and with me I have Martin Mysyk, who is the Enterprise Architect for TransAlta.

Martin, we?ve been talking about the amount of data utility companies you?re going to be dealing with and the mountain? I heard a talk earlier this year in Orlando, where one of the utility companies was talking about the change in meter reads from 75 million a year to 120 billion.

Now, there is also the other side away from smart meters and into just the devices on the grid itself and the amount of information they will be sending back to utility companies, what are they going to do with all this information and how are they going to handle it?

Martin Mysyk: Well, I think we do have to look at new ways of handling that amount of data, how we?re going to store it, how we?re going to back it up. And we?re monitoring so many more data points as we move from an analog world to a digital world. There?s an acceleration of the amount of data points where some of our assets may have had a couple of thousand data points we?re monitoring, taking in.

Some of our newer instrumentation generates 20,000 data points that we can monitor. So, that?s a large amount of — big influx of data that we have to — you want to keep it real time and that takes new techniques, new technology that we have to look at to be able to keep that on track and to be able to extract the information out that we need.

Tom Raftery: Okay, but 20,000 data points, is that too much? I mean, how can utility companies make any sense of that amount of data?

Martin Mysyk: That?s where you need another level of intelligence to layer on top of what you?re retrieving out of there, because you really — you can?t read that from a human perspective, you need software that looks for exceptions or things that are out of range to deal with those because whenever things are operating properly you don?t care about it. It?s just when there are exceptions or something?s going to impact your production capability that you want to know about that.

Tom Raftery: At the backend you?re going to need bigger servers, you?re going to need bigger failover facilities and all that?

Martin Mysyk: Yes, and the network ties it all together. So, wherever that is stored only high-speed networks have a lot of band with to carry the data, whether its onsite or everyone talks about being in the cloud. If you put it in the cloud, you are going to need lots of pipes to get it there.

Tom Raftery: This sounds like a lot of investment for utility companies, is it worth it?

Martin Mysyk: I think so, because we have to be aggressive on how we manage our data and our decision making capability needs to accelerate, because when we move into a more comparative global marketplace you have to have that decision making power and to do that you need the — to make information out of your data and that is only going to accelerate as time goes on.

Tom Raftery: Cool. Great. Martin, thanks a million.