Winter is coming. This means it's time to start cranking up the boiler to bask in the heat and warmth it offers – while forgetting about the fact that in a few months' time a hefty energy bill will arrive in the post.
But what if you could take more control of your energy use, to better understand not just how much energy you've used, but how much you'll use in future, how much you're using compared to similar homes and which devices are using the most energy.
This is exactly what energy supplier First Utility looks to provide as it turns to technology to try to compete with more established rivals like British Gas and EDF.
“If I had to distill what First Utility is then it’s a mix of a technology company and an online retailer operating in a complex regulated market,” says First Utility CIO Bill Wilkins, talking to V3.
Wilkins elaborates by noting that, like Spotify or Netflix, the firm simply provides a service and that its role is to offer users insight into their use of this service based on the data it gathers.
First Utility does this with its My Energy platform. This analyses customer data to offer insights on energy use, including usage predictions for the months ahead, and comparisons with other customers to see if you're using more or less than others.
To do this sort of number crunching First Utility hosts its customer data on the DataStax platform, based on Cassandra, and then uses Apache Spark for queries, which is also carried out on DataStax as well, having first used Hadoop.
This makes it easier for the firm to carry out all the necessary processing within one environment and then present this at the front end on the My Energy platform, which is hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS).
Wilkins believes the company is ideally placed in the market as people are becoming increasingly adept at understanding data, and want to be given more information on the services they are using.
"Many of the large suppliers have benefited from the fact their customers are disengaged because they’ve inherited a national base so it's in their interests not to engage because if they do they may find out they have over-paid," he says.
"But we’re used to fighting for customers so engagement is important for us, because we want to be as transparent as we can be and hope this will lead them [customers] staying with us for a long time."
The firm has expanded My Energy to mobile devices, with a dedicated app that Wilkins says has proved a huge success.
"We launched our mobile app early last year and we’ve now got 28 percent of customers using it regularly," he says.
Another area where the firm has brought technology to the fore to try and improve the customer experience is natural language processing for customer questions.
For instance, Wilkins explains that if a customer is logged in and wants to find out their latest bill, they can type in ‘latest bill’ and it will return their specific bill, rather than a link to an information page about how they can find their bill in the system.
“It’s a much better way of getting answers than browsing an FAQ as it’s personalised content, not generic,” adds Wilkins, noting that the tool was developed in-house by the company, rather than being a third-party add-on.
With technology so key to the firm's success to date it's no wonder its internal IT use has also embraced many of the modern tech trends, such as cloud and mobile services.
Most notably, since taking the helm in 2010, Wilkins has overseen a major shift to the use of cloud services for each area of the business.
“Nowadays opening a data centre is a pretty bad choice for a CIO, that’s my belief. When you’re trying to grow, do you really want to be focused on hardware, installing hardware and so forth, when there are viable resources in the cloud? For me the answer is no.
“So we use a lot of Google, Salesforce and Amazon infrastructure. Salesforce for CRM, Google for our own internal infrastructure and applications and AWS for anything we build around our digital platform [such as MyEnergy].”
Deploying Google Apps was one of his first decisions as CIO, Wilkins reveals.
“We put that [Google Apps] in as one of the first things I did. The company was running on an Microsoft Exchange framework and they wanted to know how they could scale the business and my answer was to get rid of it and embrace cloud.
“You see people using it across the business now, for everything from presentations to conference calls and hangouts.”
Despite this Wilkins admits that sometimes people get stuck in a "Windows mindset".
“Sometimes you get people in Google Slides trying to find a particular transition they like from PowerPoint but you have to say to them to forget using that transition it’s the content that counts,” he says.
While Wilkins says he does encourage staff to embrace the Google suite of tools, one area where Microsoft still dominates is Excel. “I need to find a silver bullet for Excel,” he says, although he admits that if a tool works, it’s best to leave it alone.
“Excel is the big thing that the corporate and finance teams use and I as CIO have to accept that even though we’ve chosen Google, there will be exceptions and you can’t dictate to your users.”
This flexible ethos also extends to devices, with Wilkins explaining he is happy for staff to use their own phones for work purposes.
“Whether you have Android or iOS is down to you as an individual,” he says, adding that people are always allowed to use whatever apps they wish, as long as they follow company guidelines.
“We have data rules, so you can’t use third-party data storage apps for customer data, so it’s about guiding and setting a framework in which people can operate.
“You can’t lock down app stores, as people can always circumvent them…you can either chase that curve or educate, and it’s better to educate.”
Seeking skilled staff
Because First Utility’s position in the market is based on the idea it can use technology to provide a better customer experience, it’s not surprising that a quarter of the company’s entire headcount is IT-related.
“We have around 250 people in the tech function, of about 1,000 people in the company, so that’s a pretty healthy ratio compared to other energy companies,” notes Wilkins.
However, the company still suffers from the same skills shortages that other IT leaders have told V3 about in the past.
“I’ve got 250 people and my headcount plan is 270 so we’re 20 people short and that’s entirely down to the fact we can’t find the right caliber people.”
Wilkins notes that the company has had to open its new London office to entice more skilled IT workers and is now considering doing the same overseas.
“We’re seeking as much brain power as we can get and, while it’s not impossible to hire, it does slow you down.”
IoT energy monitoring?
Wilkins is adamant there is plenty more that technology can do to improve the way we use energy, with the Internet of Things (IoT) likely to play a central role in this.
However, at present Wilkins notes that the cost of measuring the energy usage of every device in a home, from the kettle to the cooker, could be too expensive to really make it worthwhile.
“We’re looking at technologies that offer a true predictive, per-appliance, understanding of your household energy use," he says.
“The challenge is the cost to do this. To instrument every device might be as much as £25 a device and the question is how much benefit will that give to the customer."
However, as devices increasingly become internet-enabled from the off, it may become more viable to start measuring the energy use of each device, helping customers understand which device is being overused and driving up their bills.
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