At the end of January, I attended the DistribuTECH conference in San Antonio with about 10,000 other members of the utility industry. I wanted to see how the industry is evolving in terms of the four major trends driving business today, as outlined by Microsoft GM Joel Cherkis in his recent post: Big Data and analytics, mobility, social media, and cloud computing. Before I left the keynote addresses on day one, these four trends were front and center.
Big Data and analytics
Phil Mezey, Itron CEO, set the stage for the conference in his opening keynote, calling on the industry to be more aggressive in making data available to customers and businesses to drive efficiencies and new market opportunities. Itron’s global survey, The 2013 Resourcefulness Index, is blunt in stating the case for sharing data: The data gap has “created an information disconnect between consumers and their service providers.”
Later, in the Big Data breakout track, it was standing room only. The discussions revealed that everyone believes in data’s value—and also that more work remains in how to expose it and unlock its value for utilities, city governments, and commercial and residential customers. Participants discussed how to:
Deal with hundreds to thousands of databases scattered across large, siloed utilities.
Take advantage of Big Data being generated at an unprecedented rate by smart meters.
Clean the data and make it useful.
A number of data breakout sessions showed the latest business intelligence (BI) solutions, including Microsoft Excel and OSIsoft’s new PI System @cityscale, which uses newly released Microsoft Power BI for Office 365 tools. Another example is Esri’s ArcGIS Online solution, which provides infrastructure for processing and storing geospatial information. People are using these new solutions in interesting ways to visualize data and drive analysis.
In an increasingly BYOD world—called the “golden age of devices” by Microsoft’s global utility lead, Jon Arnold—there’s a huge opportunity to address utility customers more efficiently. I loved his comment about how some of the inherent advantages of Windows 8 lend themselves to field-ready applications for phones and tablets like Surface. Check out Mobile HMI by ICONICS and Orbit by Schneider Electric as two great examples.
Data and social networking are at the heart of the CRM and demand-management solutions discussed at the conference. Social media platforms give utilities powerful tools to make an impression and create customer interest in initiatives like energy-efficiency programs. They also have changed how we communicate progress on outages and other customer issues. Social media interactions were at the forefront in several examples that captured the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy through the lens of a smartphone.
The barriers to cloud solution deployments in utilities are coming down. In Microsoft’s CRM and Office 365 implementations, we see large utilities and cities deploying customer and business productivity tools in the cloud. People also are starting to recognize that consumer outreach and demand response are online services. A good example is the popular “gamification of energy efficiency program” run by NV Energy last year. Many utility professionals knew about it—or heard about it from their kids, which is a good thing to remember when reaching present and future customers, all of whom are smartphone savvy.
The utility industry agrees that it’s in transition. Many I met at the conference would call this a tipping point in how utilities use Big Data and analytics, social media, mobility, and cloud computing to improve operational and information management efficiencies. How utilities reach their customers with new services that create new relationships and generate new profits will be key to crossing the divide between the typical utility today and the data-enabled one of the future.
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