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Summary:

Feel free to bemoan that frustrating power outage on Twitter or your Facebook page. You could be doing your utility a favor.

GE

Your power just died — what’s the first thing you do? No, not go get candles. If you’re like many of us, you probably grab your phone and tweet, or write a Facebook message, about how supremely annoying and inconvenient losing power is (ugh, you were in the middle of Downton Abbey!). But turns out, bitching publicly on social media could actually be helpful to your local utility, if they’re using new big data software recently launched by GE.

This week at Distributech — it’s like the CES for the power grid sector — GE is formally unveiling its big data analytics and visualization software called Grid IQ Insight. It sucks in data from everywhere — grid sensors, smart meters, weather reports — including public social media data that consumers write about their electricity. The analytics can find and determine if the data is relevant (“My power’s been out for an hour, PG&E sucks!”) and can use the location data from the phone tweet to get a picture of an outage in a certain area.

The idea is to give utilities a better window into when outages occur before they start getting phone calls from angry customers. They’ll still get those, but if they see an explosion of social media messages coming from a certain neighborhood, they can potentially reach out to those customers first and let them know they’re working on the problem. It’s about better customer service and quicker fixes to power outages.

During a demo on Monday night, GE execs showed a demo of a visualization of a grid in a neighborhood and tweets that would come into the system in real time. The social media messages were coded — red for negative, blue for neutral and green for positive. ‘They’re usually red,” joked a GE exec.

The grid visualization can show all sorts of other data in real time, not just social media messages. Importantly utility workers can see when connected grid systems like substations and transformers are having problems. The big data analytics platform uses Cassandra and MySQL databases under the hood.

GE isn’t the first to do this. A startup called Space Time Insight has built a grid data visualization tool that organizations like the California Independent System Operator Corporation use to watch California’s grid in real time. For Distributech — or DTech as the industry likes to call it — Space Time Insight launched the latest version of its software and also announced Canadian utility Hydro One as a new customer.

Developing tools to help utilities manage the massive influx of big data from the power grid is a hot space. (Make sure to check out our 13 energy data startups to watch in 2013). GE’s big data software is also part of its efforts to sell technology for the “Industrial Internet,” or bringing digital technologies to the sectors like transportation, aviation, locomotives, power generation, oil and gas development, and other industrial processes.

  1. For we communicators who work outages, Facebook & Twitter have been a valuable addition to the toolbox. Twitter is normally used for one-way communications, while Facebook is more of an interactive process. Rather than being extra work, these avenues have been added to our traditional communications process (broadcast media, newspaper/web reporting, utility website, call center, etc.) with the intent of driving traffic to the utility’s website for more detailed information. We have found that the reach for our Facebook postings during outages can, in some cases, actually exceed the number of customers affected. Also, the use of mobile devices to access outage information is very high. Negative comments (as a percentage of the feedback) have been relatively low, but I think this is more of a result of an historical expectation of high quality customer service and timely responses to get electricity restored.

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