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The Data Difference: How NW Natural is Using Technology to Drive Innovation

By Ngoni Murandu, CIO, NW Natural

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Ngoni Murandu, CIO, NW Natural

It has been said that information is power. But the reverse is fast becoming true, as well. With the proliferation of smart, connected devices, the world is seeing a staggering rise in data volumes. This is significant because inside that data resides untold intelligence that, if cultivated, can be leveraged to transform not only companies but entire industries.

Tapping Data’s Hidden Value

Oil and gas, and utilities more broadly, are experiencing this change first hand. Though historically cautious, our industry is embracing the data revolution with a speed that rivals adoption of Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) some years ago. At NW Natural, a local natural gas distribution company, we know that by harnessing technology trends from mobility to cloud to the Internet of Things (IoT), we can dramatically re-think how we operate and enhance how we serve our customers. The truth is, big data can impact and influence virtually every facet of our business. The benefits are pervasive, and they start at your home. As devices grow increasingly intelligent, the usage information they can capture and share becomes a powerful agent for improved service and operation. By establishing when and where consumers use our product, we can build more accurate profiles. Those profiles can drive new efficiencies, perhaps even lead to new and improved services that improve quality of life.

Building a More Complete Picture

If we take NW Natural consumer data and the data collected from telemetry devices at various points throughout our network, and correlate them with other available data, the impacts can be profound. Weather mapping data can help explain and anticipate spikes or drops in usage. City and municipal data, especially around construction, traffic, and real estate trends, give us a more comprehensive picture of changing demand. That intelligence can be used to improve and refine our development and marketing strategies. In each case, the results can benefit ratepayers with lower costs and improved services.

At the same time, other sources – such as geospatial information from Bing maps, as well as local news feeds and other technologies – can connect our field personnel to valuable information about road work, congested traffic, right-of-way changes and other salient details. That real-time data can, for example, help those field workers determine the fastest route to a service call, improving response time and potentially forestalling bigger, more costly problems down the road.

The more real-time information we can provide our teams in the field, the more efficient and effective we can be. Toward that end, we have worked with visual fusion to implement a new data visualization technology platform. The aim is to correlate NW Natural’s various real-time data points and then serve them up to the field on one screen to accelerate insight and streamline operations.

We are using real-time data to improve customer service in other ways. Thanks to the cloud, NW Natural now offers prospective customers a convenient feature called “Can I get gas?” on our website. In the past, it often required a site visit and several days to determine if an address was eligible for gas service. Now, using our Customer Connect Portal, people simply log on, enter their details and learn in a matter of minutes whether they can receive natural gas service at their home or business.

Turning Data into Greater Predictability

Big data, the cloud and NW Natural’s own internal design converge to do more than just help capture the current picture of operations. They also give us a powerful tool for enhancing predictability. With access to the right data at the right time, we are better able to anticipate and plan for demand, adjusting supply and pressure on our infrastructure accordingly.

At the same time, access to real-time system and trend data can tell us a lot about equipment and system operation. It can reveal patterns that could lead to equipment failure, allowing us to consider advanced condition based maintenance schemes that help us focus on tasks that yield the greatest return. Such predictive maintenance ultimately saves truck rolls, extends the life of equipment, improves uptime and sharpens our long-range capital forecasting. And all of those advantages translate into benefits for ratepayers.

Valuable Data is Secure Data

Change is never easy. When that change involves questions, surrounding system and cloud security, it can be doubly challenging, especially for a traditionally conservative industry like ours. A simple scan of the newspaper headlines provides ample cause for concern. So, how do we capitalize on the promise of the cloud, mobility and IoT, while ensuring we do not become another front-page story? Answering that question is a top priority at NW Natural.

Cyber security has become an aggressive landscape. Maintaining a strong security posture requires an ever-growing investment in capital, resources and manpower. In what might seem like a contradiction, I foresee a day when that trend will reach critical mass, with our need for best-in-class security proving simply too expensive to manage on our own, driving us even more into the cloud for solutions.

"Maintaining a strong security posture requires an ever-growing investment in capital, resources and manpower"

That’s why NW Natural is partnering with companies whose cyber security products are designed to combat advanced persistent threats. Their state of the art network security offerings protect against cyber-attacks that by-pass traditional signature-based tool such as antivirus software, next-generation firewalls and sandbox tools.

There is no question that technology is a game-changer for business. At NW Natural, we are working hard to make the most of these new and emerging tools to turn information into power. The aim is to focus the benefits of these technologies on our goals to distribute natural gas in a safe, reliable and affordable manner, and provide exceptional service to our customers.