Do we really need big data?

As featured on TM Forum's the Insider blog

Does this sound familiar? One industry sector is accumulating an increasingly enormous amount of data but doesn’t necessarily know what to do with it. It’s not telecom or finance, (or the NSA’s PRISM project) – it’s utilities, particularly those that have been rolling out smart meters.

A recent FierceSmartGrid article referring to new research from Oracle Utilities, compared to last year, found that utilities are more prepared for data from the smart grid, but still struggle to fully leverage the data collected. It pointed out that “significant potential still exists to use this information to drive customer service and operational improvements for business value but the issue remains how to handle the data.”

That shouldn’t be surprising as we all seem to fall into the trap of collecting data on the presumption that it will come in handy some day. But without a well thought-out plan, the cost of processing and storing that data may outweigh the returns.

Many will remember the heady days of data warehouses designed to normalize, store and optimize masses of database records for processing later without affecting the performance of the live systems and the network. Great in theory, but expensive to establish and maintain, with marketing departments seeming to get the most benefit.

Today’s big data requirements are more real-time with much of raw data being collected having a limited shelf life once utilized. That presumption will, no doubt, be shot down in flames by many but the point is – do we really need all of it, and for what purpose and for how long?

Any self-respecting C-level would be asking those these questions before signing off on a big purchase order. Having to have one because everyone else has got one doesn’t necessarily hold water these days.

But getting back to the utilities and their smart grid data. FierceSmartGrid points out that “Oracle surveyed 151 North American senior-level utilities executives with smart meter programs to gauge preparedness to handle the big data influx, how data is being used to improve operations and customer service, future short- and long-term plans to use smart grid data, the potential of cloud-based solutions for data management and analysis, and where utilities will derive the greatest value from predictive analytics.”

The interesting stuff is that less than 20% admitted to being completely prepared with their big data program and 62% of survey respondents saying they have a big data skills gap – including those who say they are prepared for the smart grid data influx.

Surprisingly, less than 50% use smart grid data to provide alerts or make other direct customer service improvements. Two thirds are simply considering cloud-based solutions but only 26% are actually “planning, implementing or maintaining a cloud solution today.”

When you consider that smart meter information, possibly tied with billing data, would form the basis of any real customer management program, these figures are concerning. However, effectively managing a smart grid would probably yield more substantial financial benefits in the short term. It’s a bit like telcos investing in SDN and NFV to optimize their networks.

It would be interesting to compare the two industries with a similar survey of telco executives to check if the priorities differ dramatically. Are we really any more advanced than our utility counterparts? Is the drive to big data in CSPs primarily aimed at improving the customer experience or something else? And if utilities are already suffering a skills shortage in this area, what does that mean for CSPs?
 

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