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Big Data

The buzzword of the day is ‘analytics.’ But what does it mean?

Fortnightly Magazine - March 2012

Each year a big trend dominates the DistribuTECH trade show, becoming a word or phrase on the lips of exhibitors trying to attract interest on the show floor. Last year exhibitors wanted to talk about advanced distribution management systems, or ADMS. The year before, every product involved customer energy management systems. And the year before that, in-home displays were all the rage.

This year the deafening buzzword at DTECH was “analytics.” Virtually every company at the show was talking about how their gadgets perform analytics for various purposes, and some companies were launching entire business products and practices focused on analytics.

At the same time, however, many conversations at DTECH indicated that the industry isn’t exactly sure what analytics is supposed to accomplish—or even whether it involves anything fundamentally new.

For decades now, utilities have used logical data analysis methods to glean insights from historical data. That analysis depended on small samples of data, or was drawn from information entered by hand into basic relational databases. Now, as new smart grid systems come online, utilities are dealing with vastly larger amounts of data—which could potentially be used for much more sophisticated and detailed analysis than utilities ever performed before.

“Over the past few years, the struggle has been just to implement AMI and MDM. Utilities now have all this infrastructure and they’re generating all this data,” says John Wambaugh, senior vice president at UISOL—Utility Integration Solutions. “Internally they’re saying, ‘I’ve got to do something with it.’”

That “something” presents a remarkable challenge for many utilities. Will analytics allow companies to bring it all together—the advanced software platforms, enterprise architectures, interdepartmental portals, sophisticated algorithms, and the big data pouring out of high-tech equipment—to make major improvements across the enterprise? Is analytics the key to realizing the smart grid’s promise?

After DTECH, Fortnightly followed up with executives at several companies that are leading the charge into analytics for utilities. As their comments suggest, the possibilities are enticing, but a future shaped by big data remains a somewhat blurry vision.


Fortnightly: What’s your definition of analytics in the utilities context?

John Wambaugh, senior vice president, UISOL: Analytics is taking raw data to answer more complex questions. It can be very deep data just on a specific meter, analyzing that to discern useful information such as consumption patterns and trends, or it can be very broad data.

Michael Valocchi, vice president and partner, IBM Global Business Services: Analytics is optimizing operational, financial, and customer data to move the utility into being more of an insight-driven company, and being able to make decisions on a much more informed basis. We see it as much more than data.

Nick Hunn, CTO, Onzo: We look at analytics probably in the broadest sense. While everybody else is talking about big data and what they’re doing, we’ve already got more than 1 trillion energy readings from customers [in Europe].

Jeff Meyers, smart