Ever-greater data

Sharing, protecting, using... data is becoming ever more important in the utilities universe. Janet Wood reports on the big developments discussed at a recent Utility Week/HP roundtable

At a recent Utility Week roundtable, supported by HP, Craig Belsham, head of consumer empowerment strategy at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis), updated attendees on progress with ­MiData. This initiative aims to “give customers back access to their transaction data” so they can see how they compare with others and how they can save money.

Energy is one of the leading sectors for this initiative, along with telecoms, financial services and retail. The big six energy suppliers are among 26 organisations that have agreed to join the energy scheme. They and Bis are now looking at how to release the data and manage third party access to it, Belsham said.

Delegates saw that MiData could be a powerful tool, especially if it was linked to initiatives such as the Green Deal. However, it was hard to predict at this early stage how it could be used to put consumers in control – and it was hard to see that there was “customer pull” for the initiative. That said, there were precedents: all could think of ways in which internet sites or phone apps were now drawing on data in unexpected ways – such as predicting bus arrival times or collating traffic reports.

Like the internet, and mobile phones, early adopters would start finding new options, the group thought. But they were not sure where it would leave customers, who can’t or don’t have access to those tools.

Alastair Barter, senior policy officer at the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), updated the group on the directive on data protection now being developed by the European Commission. The draft directive was published in January, and Barter said the Commission hoped to complete a final draft by the end of the year so the directive could become law in three years – although he suggested that was optimistic.

Barter said the ICO was happy the European Union was updating legislation that had been passed in a very different world of data use. But some work had still to be done on ensuring its measures were practicable. Giving some examples, he said plans for a “right to be forgotten” could not be extended to debtors, and a “right to prevent profiling” could not be extended to legitimate uses such as managing energy and water supplies.

The key to the new directive, he said, was making sure there was openness and accountability for the use of data – and that was extended to third parties – and that customers had given “meaningful consent”.

Delegates at the roundtable were not at all sure that they viewed data in the same way as their customers. Tim Sheer, contact centre manager at Yorkshire Water, told the group that as part of the company’s groundbreaking use of credit data sharing – the first in the water industry – Yorkshire had warned all customers that non-payment of bills could affect their rating. They had hardly any complaints – customers perhaps thinking that their data was already shared – but had seen some faster bill payment. He said the company expected to see more comeback when the action began to have a real effect on credit scores.

Ian Mitton, worldwide director of utilities at HP, highlighted customers’ dual view of data. He said in recent surveys about smart meters, 40 per cent of people had raised data protection concerns. But in many cases they were the same people who shared much more data in social networking sites than would be released via smart meters.

Mitton said utilities were behind some other industries in using and sharing customer data, but that meant they could leverage other industries’ experience and learn from both their successes and mistakes.

This article first appeared in Utility Week’s print edition of 3 August 2012.

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