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Enabling Rapid Analytics Evolution at Tacoma Public Utilities

By July 24, 2018August 23rd, 2018No Comments

While many utilities understand that the analytics discipline offers heaps of benefits, crafting an actionable analytics strategy has proven much more difficult. In less than two years, Tacoma Public Utilities (TPU) has engaged in a rapid transformation effort by adopting a cloud-based analytics infrastructure. I sat down with Andrew Braeger, solutions architect, to discuss TPU’s strategic initiatives around digital transformation and analytics.

LC: What provoked TPU to pursue a rapid analytics strategy?

AB: When TPU joined the Utility Analytics Institute (UAI) several years ago, our staff was blown away by the benefits utilities were receiving through analytics. We were sitting on a goldmine of data from our water and hydroelectric power utilities, but we were not fully utilizing it to make better decisions or enhance our operations.

Eighteen months ago, I was hired with the charge to define what types of tools and strategies we needed to adopt. I came to the role with a background in data analytics, data warehousing, and business intelligence in both the non-profit and public sectors. With my knowledge and past experience, I recommended TPU’s initial step be two-fold: First, broaden the discussion around analytics and potential opportunities across the organization at a grassroots level, and second, raise awareness at the executive level of the data and the various ways it can be used to inform decision making.

LC: What did that initial effort look like, and why did you choose a cloud-based analytics infrastructure?

AB: Technology in this area is evolving at a rapid pace. We wanted to look outside of the utility sector to see how other industries, including start-ups and technology companies, were implementing analytics technology and strategy. We chose to move forward with two use cases, one in fish biology at our hydro sites and the other in water quality at our water distribution utility.

When we started to move forward with these use cases, we intentionally decided to take a “scrappy” approach. This meant we wanted to minimize cost, risk, and time to implementation, as well as demonstrate value quickly. I had some experience with agile delivery and we decided to apply this approach to our projects moving forward. More importantly, we decided for it to be a guiding philosophy in our larger analytics strategy.

Because of all that, we landed on the decision to be cloud-based. Standard practice for most utility IT projects is to pursue a high-cost, one-time investment and depreciate that investment over a number of years—sometimes 20 years or more! We wanted to avoid a big upfront investment, and we also wanted to be risk-averse in terms of the technology becoming obsolete or by getting locked in by proprietary technology. We looked at several cloud options and ultimately decided to go with Amazon Web Services (AWS).

LC: What types of cultural shifts needed to occur in order to implement these new mindsets around project management and technology investment?

AB: Our efforts have been very counter-cultural from a traditional utility perspective. Because of this, there have been some challenges attaining buy-in along the way, both from the top-down and bottom-up.

Agile project management is new and sometimes uncomfortable for people because of its emphasis on change. There is often less up-front work on defining requirements or adhering to a project plan. Cloud and operations and maintenance (O&M) investments are also new to utilities, so we had to think creatively about budgeting and accounting.

Similarly, there is a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt associated with the cloud. There are a lot of myths about security of the cloud, and we had to spend a lot of time and effort to dispel those myths. Despite the perpetual (and incorrect) myths, many public organizations are moving to the cloud, including the United States government, and many state and local agencies.

Our Agile delivery model, when put into place, has allowed us to show the organization that we can demonstrate value quickly. Our Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Joe Tellez, has also been a big supporter of the effort. He has been influential in communicating with leadership to help them better understand the benefits of our strategy. This has helped encourage leadership that we are pursuing the right approach.

The biggest cultural shift has been recognizing that we are at one point in what will be a continuous journey. We have made large advances in the past four years, and it has laid a foundation for us to being to expand into exciting new areas of opportunity. I think that mindset – the acknowledgement that this is a journey – is really important.

LC: What advice do you have for other utilities?

AB: First, I want to emphasize the importance of how you first approach the process. If you look at the process as a big organizational overhaul, it will overwhelm you (and most likely everyone else in the organization). Try accomplishing something more bite-size and leverage an experimental approach, like Kanban or Scrum. This doesn’t have to be an expensive life. You only need a small budget to stand up an AWS or Azure account to enable a few people to start working on projects.

Finally, make sure you communicate and celebrate your accomplishments. Show the value from moving from prior state to current state. Share the hard and soft benefits with your team and with leadership. When you can show that these efforts are adding value, the excitement to move ahead in the journey becomes contagious.

Andrew Braeger will be presenting more details about TPU’s analytics journey at Utility Analytics Week this October 24-26 in Orlando, Florida. Register with code UAIPOST before September 12th to receive an additional 15% off of our Early Bird 20% discount! 

note: This discount code is valid for 15% off the registration package fee and cannot be combined with any other discount code.