This is the first of a series of three posts on utility data management. The Environmental Finance Center collects all sorts of data for projects. The EFC uses data from regulatory agencies, financial reports, and data on area residents from the US Census Bureau.
The project design questions the EFC asks are:
- Know the users! Are they:
- The public?
- What should be shown?
- Decisionmakers need reliable data on cost and benefits
- Staff may need to drill down on details
- Overall, tell a story
- What data exists to support and analyze how can different data sources be connected?
For water and wastewater rates dashboards, the EFC’s primary audience is staff of utilities and the secondary audience are utility board members and decisionmakers. The EFC shows utility rates and, importantly, the context for those rates. Multiple dials show the user the balance between factors such as operating ratio and affordability. Comparison groups let the user look at their rates in comparison with other utilities in their watershed or with utilities serving similar numbers of customers. This year, the EFC has added dials for non-revenue water and for wastewater inefficiency to the North Carolina dashboard.
Data availability and connecting different sources of data are technical challenges. For dashboards, the EFC gets data from state and federal sources and can only use data if it is available electronically. Different state agencies identify utilities differently – drinking water and wastewater systems have different id numbers, which may be different from the financial entities reporting to the state treasurer. Once EFC staff starts to analyze data from state sources, they may need to adjust the design. The EFC always wants to 1) support the users and 2) show something meaningful.
Many people come to the water and wastewater rates dashboard platform. Experience and research show the EFC that utility staff use dials to communicate with decisionmakers and the public. When making the case to raise rates, a finance director can explain that raising rates will increase the operating ratio, showing that the utility will have more sustainable finances. Decisionmakers will see how raising rates would reduce affordability for the average customer and can consider that when making decisions. (If affordability were not shown on the dials, decisionmakers would be sure to ask about it!)
What does this mean for utilities?
Much of the data the EFC uses came from utilities in the first place. The analysis is broad and based on data that can be accessed. Utilities have much more data and can use it effectively themselves. Utility staff already rely on data details and use it to answer decisionmakers’ questions, and the EFC’s rates dashboard can provide a helpful supplement to their work.
To really communicate effectively with decisionmakers and customers, utility staff should think through the design questions—Can they identify simple visuals that decisionmakers would like to see? What is the context? Try to include only the data that is needed. Use time and space to tell a story. If a utility builds a data platform and uses it regularly, they can see how their customers respond.