Superstorm Sandy knocked out electricity and gas service for more than eight million people at its height, creating a massive restoration effort that lasted weeks. Affected consumers didn’t just want their heat and lights back on—they wanted information, specifically when their service would be restored.
Data visualizations with real-time maps played a key role in connecting utilities with customers, particularly on mobile devices which were able to operate, even if temporarily, during prolonged outages.
During high-profile natural disasters, such as Sandy, the effectiveness of companies’ customer relations applications becomes immediately apparent to customers as well as public officials, the media, and anyone else following the news. But utility industry experts say that more sophisticated use of analytics and visualizations can improve a number of business processes beyond customer service.
In the aftermath of Sandy, consumers quickly sought information online. In the New York City area, one of the areas hit hardest, electricity and gas utility Consolidated Edison directed customers to an online map to show the status of outages and restoration. With it, people could see, for example, that the lower third of Manhattan had been hit severely while other portions of the service area, such as Upper Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, were relatively untouched.
The data for that map is generated by algorithms that estimate the number of affected customers in an area based on customer calls and reports from the field, says Con Edison spokesman Allan Drury. The information, which is updated every 30 minutes and displayed using Bing Maps, gives people the ability to check data at all times, rather than rely on company notifications. Most utilities’ power outage systems also let people type in account numbers or ZIP codes on the Web to get an estimate of when service will be restored.
In August 2012, Con Edison upgraded the mapping application, which was first done in 2008, to support mobile devices. This feature turned out to be very important during the multi-day outages Superstorm Sandy caused. Many people ended up charging smart phones at stores, restaurants, or at neighbors’ homes with power, allowing them to stay informed despite their lack of electricity service.
Adding support for mobile benefited performance on the Web, too. The upgrade streamlined the amount of content used to populate maps to accommodate mobile devices, which resulted in cutting the application’s data requirements by 70 percent and sped up page rendering times, according to iFactor, a consulting company specializing in customer service for the utility industry. The new application also added improved labeling with different sized icons and colors to cluster outages.
These types of GIS-based power outage management applications can be further improved by tapping the data from smart meters.
Maryland-based utility Pepco has activated about 425,000 two-way smart meters, which can report when power is out on individual homes and buildings. With the hardware in place, Pepco can automatically create an outage map without having to rely on customers calling in or logging onto the company Web site.
During restoration, advanced metering infrastructure like this is more efficient, too. Pepco can ping meters from the central office to check whether service is back on, rather than have to send a work crew back out to verify, according to a Pepco representative.
More advanced utility users of GIS systems have leaned on data visualizations to speed up repairs after natural disasters, says Bill Meehan, the head of the utility practice at GIS software company Esri. For example, when tornados ripped through Alabama last year, utility Alabama Power created maps detailing structural damage to power lines, power status, and other data, which was all available via laptops and iPhones.
GIS systems can also be used in other areas of the business, such as marketing and planning ahead of a disaster to identify areas more vulnerable to storms. “You take multiple pieces of information on where flooding might occur and you layer it together to do a spatial analysis–a mashup that combines layers–to help discover a pattern,” Meehan says.
As an industry, many utilities are now awash in data from millions of smart meters and sensors on power lines that report on the health of the transmission network. These new data sources can be analyzed to route power along the grid more efficiently and target customers in certain demographics, Meehan says.
A GIS system populated with smart meter data could shed light on energy consumption patterns during peak periods and help utilities market services to specific demographics, Meehan says. Rather than replace an expensive transformer to accommodate the high demand that happens in the late afternoon and early evening, a utility could offer environmentally oriented consumers a rebate for running power-hungry appliances at night when the load is lower.
Historically, very little data has been made available to consumers but the new smart-grid technologies are prompting utilities to offer more information and analysis to consumers. A survey of over 70 utilities by GTM Research done with SAS Institute found that most of the interest in using analytics is in customer management and improving grid operations.
Utilities, of course, aren’t the only businesses under pressure to rebound quickly after a natural disaster. One of the lessons from Sandy was the importance of communicating with customers during a crisis and how consumer-friendly data visualizations can play a role.
For Con Edison, its map-based outage management complemented another self-service communications channel used heavily during Sandy—social media. “As the technology evolves, we are constantly seeking new ways to communicate with customers,” says Drury.
Martin LaMonica is a technology journalist in the Boston area. Follow him on Twitter @mlamonica.