Smart Energy International had the opportunity to speak with Peter Jackson, Chief Data Officer for Southern Water, about his role and the fact that he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.
This article was originally published in Smart Energy International 4-2018
The role of chief data officer (CDO) is a newly created role within Southern Water, and Jackson has recently celebrated his first 16 months in the job. Of the position, he says: “In the general term I think many companies now realise they need a CDO. Gartner predicts that there’s going to be a huge rise, and there already is, in the appointment and recruitment of CDOs. Some of the motivating factors in the regulatory environment are that regulators require better and more assured data, but it also helps improve customer satisfaction, customer retention and delight.”
Along with increasing operational efficiency and effectiveness, the general reasons for appointing a CDO are reasonably obvious. Jackson believes that in a utility they are especially important.
“We have a huge amount of data – we always have had – and water companies always will have. There’s a lot of regulatory reporting we need to do from that data. We have 4.5 million customers to whom we aim to provide a first class service, and we need to be more operationally efficient and effective. The role of the CDO at Southern Water is an enabler to make us more effective, more resilient and a platform for innovation based on the data.”
Jackson is responsible and accountable for managing and exploiting the data. This includes the recently enforced General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), although this is only a small part of his remit. He says of the GDPR: “The GDPR, in my opinion, is all about good data management which is what we want to do anyway, whether it’s for customers’ data, human resource data or asset data.”
Identifying priorities are always a challenge and especially if, as with Jackson, you are not from a utility background.
“The first priority I had when I arrived was to understand how a water company runs and what it does because I don’t have a utility background,” Jackson reveals. “I needed to understand the legacy environment regarding what they were doing with data, how they were doing it, how that relates to applications and systems. From there I needed to develop a data strategy.”
This gave Jackson an opportunity not only to determine his priorities but also to identify what he could address quickly. This included establishing where data was being used; and how it was governed, extracted and utilised by various departments.
“It was important to create a common source of data and get a good data management strategy in place that wasn’t just about building a data reporting store so that we had a common source of data but also improved processes.”
Jackson says further: “The problem with focusing on those two priorities is that they’re not very visible, and it’s tough for people to see the immediate business value of these strategies. My other aim was to target some priorities that would have a significant impact on delivering business value. We identified a few of those areas, many of which are internally focused. They were able to drive actionable insights – both in our back-office processes around procurement and finance and in our customer service and operations departments.”
The team has delivered a great deal in a relatively short amount of time. “We’ve delivered a data team transformation by lifting and shifting people around the business into a centralised data team. This allows us to manage our data centrally. We’ve built a reporting data store in a cloud environment; we brought in new data reporting and analytics tools, up-skilled the team – some in data science, some in agile methodology. It’s going well.”
By creating a reporting data store, which pulls both IT and OT data, and can blend external data sources with the existing data, the team has created an opportunity for the business to be very agile with their reporting and analytics. As a result, Southern Water has been able to gain insight into their debt management, allowing them to further engage with customers around bill payments. The result is that the company has managed to significantly reduce the debt the utility is carrying.
SIM scores have also improved through better customer segmentation and understanding. Operationally, data is being used for predictive analytics across maintenance and service disruption segments. This is specifically focused on data from pumps and identifying leakage and blockages.
Jackson believes that while they have started to impact the business and customers positively, he is quick to point out:
“At the same time, our customer services team have undergone a transformation, so this is a success that has been driven by both teams and by working together. I believe there’s been an improvement for our customers – as mentioned, our SIM scores have improved quite significantly which would tend to demonstrate that customers are happier.
“If you take into context that our customers also include our regulators, it’s worth noting that the regulators are very happy to see that, by the appointment of a CDO and by the building of a data team, we are taking the quality and governance of our data far more seriously.”
Jackson acknowledges that one of his biggest challenges and possibly his most important role is to ensure that people within the organisation have trust in the data. Because of the way that data is managed, and the way data is being used, it is possible to have a situation where somebody is putting good data into the system, extracting good data but somehow, in the analysis and manipulation of that data, passing on questionable data.
“Thus, it’s essential, as the CDO, that you manage not only the reality of the data quality but the perception of that data quality as well.”
It is vital to drive a data-driven culture and help people understand the role of data within the organisation. Too often when asked about data, people within an organisation will respond that they don’t trust the company data. “It may be that you then need to prove to people that the data that’s available isn’t incorrect, it’s just not telling them what they think they want to know. At the same time, some of the data may genuinely be questionable.”
On a practical level there are tools that data specialists use to manage data and data quality – such as data lineage tools, which map the flow of the data through an organisation; through its applications and its uses. This allows people to see where a piece of data has come from, where it’s been touched, and where it’s been transformed, thus enabling them to understand that data better.
“If the organisation adopts a data lineage model, this enables you to grow trust because everybody accepts that that number came from there,” Jackson explains. “Everybody accepts that it went in and that’s where it’s been. Data lineage is, therefore, really important and is something that – with my background in financial services which is a heavily regulated industry – I’ve been doing for years.”
Operational improvements may not just be restricted to what’s happening out in the field when it comes to workforce management or maintenance; it may actually be more basic and about how data is managed within an organisation. It’s about creating efficiencies so that that, for instance, data isn’t analysed multiple times for the same purpose, by various people.
It’s important to understand what kind of information is needed and then to make sure that the data that’s being extracted will support that analysis. In order to do so, critical data elements need to be identified – the rest is just noise.
In the case of a tsunami of data, how do you identify what is critical amongst all these bits and bytes? The starting point is to engage with the business – in other words, the subject matter experts. They have to define what is essential and set the parameters that will identify what they are interested in. They will determine what would be considered the norm versus that which is outside of the standard and therefore of interest.
How the data is processed, particularly if it’s coming in at massive velocity and huge volumes, is best done through the application of algorithms. There needs to be logic that’s sitting around the data as it’s ingested and analysed to determine what data will be kept and what will be discarded.
“The ultimate goal is to move into machine learning so that as you’re collecting and filtering the data, you’re feeding back on the outcomes that you’re getting, enabling you to refine your model even more tightly,” Jackson says. “This may also enable you to broaden your data sets if you’re seeing interesting information coming through.”
“A good analogy here is if you’re on a dating site. You don’t want to receive information about people that are not a good match. So, an algorithm will work out a good match for your profile.”
“This means that the subject matter experts must drive the question that needs to be answered because only they’ll know what questions they require answers to. By knowing what pieces of information the business runs on, they can define the parameters for the information that needs to be extracted.”
When asked about his background in financial services, Jackson laughs and reveals: “In a way, I’m in a unique position in that I don’t come from this industry and I don’t have any preconceived notions.”
Does this make him uniquely qualified for this position, because he doesn’t have any preconceived ideas of “what he can’t do”?
It’s true that I’m not bogged down by a legacy mentality and thinking “you can’t do that.” Moreover, this, of course, goes across our HR, finance or even operational departments. It extends even to collaboration with other water utilities. I don’t see the barriers, I see the job that needs to be done and I get on with it. Of course, I get caught out every now and again, but I think that because I don’t see the problems it’s a positive thing. Equally, having come from another sector I’ve seen things work really well and I can, therefore, say to people with confidence, “let’s give this a go, it will work.”
Southern Water and Jackson have also shown their innovation focus by leading a project called The DataWell. This is a cross-sector collaboration for sharing data, which includes eight water companies all working together to share data.
“We created a platform for ingesting, modelling and storing the data and we’ve done that with the help of Google and the Google Cloud platform. The ultimate aim is for us to share data, collaborate with one another on data and deliver open datasets so that innovators, researchers, society – anybody – can use that data to improve the sector. My lack of legacy thinking means I didn’t see a problem with this drive to collaborate.”
The DataWell is encouraging data sharing amongst a traditionally very conservative and privacy orientated sector. The innovation isn’t just around the data but also around the way that it was done.
“We built this cloud platform in 90 days because we didn’t see the problem with it – it’s so easy to do – so we just got on and did it.
“We’ve attracted interest from the regulators – OFWAT, DWI and the Environmental Agency,” Jackson says. “They’re interested and watching closely to see what we’re doing.”
Access to this kind of data means that there’ll be interest from local authorities and other utilities, from transport to local planning offices.
“The beauty is that we can’t guess or predetermine what the outcomes will be. When we went into the project, we said, ‘let’s not think about the outcomes, this is just the right thing to do’. Once we have these first datasets in – and they’re going to be quite big datasets – around water quality, asset failure, bathing water quality – we’re going to be hosting a hackathon. This will happen towards the end of this calendar year, and will involve a number of water companies working with academic institutions across a number of sites in the UK.’
“We’re going to provide some challenges for the participants to work toward fixing,” Jackson confirms, “but we’re also going to be open to any innovative solution that may come from the data that we currently cannot see. We’ll post some questions that are important to the water sector, but we don’t want to restrict people who, for instance, may not be thinking about water at all but, through access to the data, will be able to come to their own conclusions.”
Every water company, every utility, has a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) to look after their most important asset – which is money.
Jackson is adamant: “Every single organisation that values its data should have a CDO for the very same reason. They’re a vital asset. Have a specialist who is responsible and accountable for that data, just like your CFO is responsible and accountable for the money.”
“If you’ve got a culture of innovation and collaboration and you don’t see the barriers to achieving your objectives, that’s just a huge bonus.” SEI
ABOUT PETER JACKSON
Peter Jackson was the first Head of Data at The Pensions Regulator and then went on to be the first Chief Data Officer at Southern Water. Peter is driven by a strategic approach to data. He believes firmly in the value of demonstrating the ‘art of possible’ and expanding colleagues’ understanding of data management, data technologies, data science and data governance.