The Benefits, Challenges of Integrating Consumer-driven Technology Into Utilities

Consumer-driven technologies are influencing the development of enterprise hardware and software, enterprise information technology (IT) operations and how enterprises conduct business internally and externally.

May 1st, 2016
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by Jay Cadman, Ubisense

Consumer-driven technologies are influencing the development of enterprise hardware and software, enterprise information technology (IT) operations and how enterprises conduct business internally and externally.

Historically, government research and large enterprises drove technology innovation, which then trickled into the consumer market. During the past decade, a profound shift in this phenomenon has occurred largely because of the proliferation of smart devices and omnipresence of Internet access. This trend is weaving its way into the utility sector as we see some utilities begin to adopt consumer-driven innovations. They see the benefits: significantly enhanced asset management, proven compliance, improved safety and more reliable service to their customers.

Utilities typically have lagged behind in rolling out new technology solutions compared with other industries because they provide services critical to daily life. Service disruption must be minimized. In addition to pure criticality, utilities face several operational challenges depending on the areas they serve. For instance, large amounts of geographically dispersed infrastructure typically require manual labor to inspect and maintain. Combine this with constantly changing demand, increasing environmental volatility and aging infrastructure, and the challenge to maintain safe, reliable service becomes more difficult. These challenges mean a more careful, measured approach to rolling out new technology and an intense reliance on proven methods.

Consumer Tech and Utilities

This reliance on proven methods might fuel the adoption of consumer-driven technologies. Take, for example, a recent consumer technology disruption in the geospatial industry: Google Maps and the subsequent release of associated products such as Google Street View and Google Traffic. The ease of use and availability of this data has created many time-saving advantages for utilities. For example, gaining the ability to see satellite imagery of a site and investigate assets using Google Street View prior to an on-site visit can reduce the number of site visits for repair. Efficiency gains multiply exponentially when these types of consumer-based technologies can be integrated into daily operations and with enterprise data such as the geographic information system (GIS), outage management system (OMS) and work management system (WMS).

Then there are the advances in mobile hardware and software, which are driving the use of smart devices in the field. For many years, field-based technology meant mounting a laptop inside a truck and transporting an office environment around in the field. That was game-changing at the time, but it did not replace most traditional paper-based processes because functionality was limited and data in the field was, for the most part, read-only. Now utility field crews can employ smart phones and tablets with integrated GPS and cameras and log specific location-based data that is tied directly to back-office systems, all in near real time, thanks to the wide availability of network connectivity. This sophistication means a huge shift in how utilities can manage their operations.

Usability: Simple Beats Functionality

Utility employees have become tech-savvy users, thanks to the simple, easy-to-use technology available to them everywhere, and they are bringing their expectations to work. They expect applications and solutions to be simple and efficient. IT is working to comply with this expectation to foster companywide adoption.

Leading utilities are looking at new “Web mash-up” tools to fulfill application requirements in a rapidly changing technology environment with a new user base. These tools use lightweight integrations, combining different types of data into actionable information for users to make rapid decisions (think current outages overlaid on GIS data with a Google Maps base map showing crew locations and live radar). The enterprise systems still do all the heavy lifting of managing complex business rules and data integrity, but casual users neither know nor care what happens on the back end; all they get is exactly what they need: the information, in a simple, familiar interface. They don’t have to learn myriad disparate, complex enterprise system interfaces; they only need and use the Web mash-up.

These Web mash-ups have an added benefit of presenting as different apps to answer a specific question rather than a single, powerful interface that can answer any question posed. In this way, the apps evolve to meet the needs of the types of users, but it’s all the same tool. This focused way of developing interfaces creates greater user acceptance and follows the same model as modern consumer applications that people use every day.

With access to enterprise data in a simple mashup tool on a smart device, field personnel can quickly communicate what they see with those who need to know.

Example: an Accident and a Mash-up

A utility receives a call from a police department that a pole has been knocked down in an auto accident. Using a smartphone, the police can send a georeferenced photo of the situation to the utility so it can view and assess the damage quickly. The utility restoration team responds; they see a pin appear on their Google Maps base map, which is linked to that photo. Because they have integrated GIS data with Google Maps, they can select the pole and see it is recorded as a 45-foot class 4 pole that was installed in 1997.

When they check Google Street View to confirm this is the same pole, they notice there are cable and telephone attachments on the pole, so they send a link to the field supervisor. She is in the field but receives the link on her smartphone. She can click that link and see what they see: the map, pole data, location information and photo from the field. She calls the appropriate telephone and cable companies, streamlining an efficient restoration effort.

The restoration team also notices that the pole is located on a busy street. They use this information and other images they have received to record an estimated time for restoration (ETR), which is higher than their average restoration time. That ETR is entered into a Web mash-up form, which goes to the OMS because that, too, has been integrated.

The customer service center automatically receives the list of customers from the OMS with the ETR and begins to call, text or email customers based on their communication preferences. Customers are kept informed proactively.

In the meantime, the dispatch center locates on the map the crew in the field closest to the site and that has the necessary equipment to make the repairs. (All crews have GPS-enabled devices so their locations can be determined easily.) The assigned field crew receives all of the available information including the photos of the scene and the links to the asset location, all accessed on their smart devices. And because the accident has caused significant traffic congestion, the crew uses the real-time traffic feed in Google Maps within the mash-up to determine the optimum driving route to the scene.

Example: Efficient Damage Assessment

A storm has passed through and the power is out in hard-hit areas. Damage assessors are deployed to gauge the scope of the damage so crews can be dispatched and power can be restored. Their marching orders are delivered by the storm center directly to their smart devices, assigned based on proximity and with the route already determined based on current traffic conditions.

As assessment points are completed, the details are transmitted back to the storm center where information is displayed as soon as it is received. All the while, the assessors are watching real-time weather patterns to make informed judgments in the field about how to manage their progress safely.

Decision-makers in the storm center see data aggregating, the number of customers affected and the pattern of the damage. Crews are dispatched accordingly, and this one appears manageable; they won’t need mutual assistance this time.

Summary

With the increasing ubiquity of real-time data communications, smart devices and cloud-based data (such as Google Maps, live traffic and real-time weather) and the power of simple Web mash-up tools, it is easier than ever to integrate disparate, complex enterprise systems and drive efficiencies in day-to-day operations. More utilities should consider how their existing systems must evolve to leverage proven, consumer-based innovations as a way to optimize their service performance, improve safety measures, meet compliance and provide better customer service.


Jay Cadman is vice president of industry marketing for utilities and telecommunications for Ubisense, a global location intelligence systems company. He has more than 20 years of sales and marketing experience in the location intelligence sector, having worked at Smallworld and GE Network Solutions before joining Ubisense in 2003. Reach him at jay.cadman@ubisense.net.

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