Big Data can Create too Much of a Good Thing

Big data is a big topic. Technology advances allow businesses to collect a lot of data that until recently wasn’t accessible. In addition, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media channels allow people to push out personal information. Data collection is, therefore, easier than ever before. Determining what data is and isn’t useful, however, is more difficult. Electric utilities are learning this as they collect and analyze data to determine how they can use it to improve operations, increase revenue and provide customer value. Two articles in this issue: “Beyond the Bill” on page 26 and “Translating Data Analytics Opportunities into Utility Abilities” on page 36, cover opportunities and challenges of big data.

I discovered through a personal experience that some industries are far ahead of electric utilities when it comes to turning big data into information. Walmart, Green Dot Corp. and GE Capital Retail Bank have implemented a database that I believe rivals any in the world.

I learned this when I accidentally bought a prepaid, reloadable Visa debit card at Walmart instead of a Vias gift card. The debit card required me to set up an account at a Walmart-branded website. During setup, I provided my birthday and Social Security number and was directed to a page to set up my secure user name and password. The next step was created to verify that I was who I claimed to be. I was stunned by the multiple choice security questions. The first question asked what street I’d lived on. One of the choices was indeed a street I lived on 1984. The next question asked me what month and year I bought one of my homes. The question included the street address of a house I lived in the 90s and the month and year I bought it was one of the answers. This was alarming, but the last question alarmed me even more. It was: “How old is Natalie Hansen?” Natalie is my adult daughter who hasn’t lived at home for several years. This software has information not only about me, but my family too; and it has the intelligence to compile it as quickly as I could hit the “continue” button.

Although my experience was alarming and unnerving, it opened my eyes to the power of data analytics. With the right tools and technology, data can be collected, sorted and analyzed to create powerful information.

Utilities ready to forge ahead into the big data collction and analytics jungle might want to consult Walmart for guidance on how to make it work for them. They also might want to look at the retail giant, or better yet, its customers, for what not to do. There is a clear line between what is required to improve operations and better serve customers and what is an invasion of privacy. I expect electric utilities to be more sensitive to this than Walmart and these other companies.

alt   Editor in chief
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