A picture can be worth a thousand words … or tens of thousands of lines on a spreadsheet.

That’s the new take on an old saying when it comes to making sense of system data.

As electric co-ops’ systems build mountains of data, experts say the challenge of “seeing the forest for the trees” is becoming geometrically more complex. But one concept, advanced visual data analytics, holds promise for helping present overwhelming amounts of information in manageable ways.

Troy Schake, chief business development officer for Atlanta-based SEDC, says such advanced visual design relies on data pulled from multiple sources to build a pictographic or graphical representation of what’s happening on a co-op’s system. Done properly, it can make it easier to get an overview of complex operations and to grasp the connections between various elements that might otherwise be lost or overlooked.

“You’re able to look at things at a much more granular level and also get a better perspective on areas where problems might be occurring,” Schake says.

Data visualization is not a new concept. Many utilities have been using it as part of outage management, for example. But the push now is to integrate these visual tools with a variety of co-op applications.

In one project, SEDC worked with Jackson, Ga.-based Central Georgia EMC to develop an analytics display that allows the co-op to track line loss on a section-by-section basis.

In another case, SEDC built a dashboard that displays bill-paying behavior and identifies patterns that helped the co-op target marketing to increase mobile payments and to more efficiently assign personnel for walk-in payments.

Castle Hayne, N.C.-based Applied Technology Solutions (ATS) is working with Choctawhatchee Electric Cooperative (CHELCO) in Defuniak Springs, Fla., to build a visual data presentation that will help the co-op better track payments across its system.

“Information in tabular format can be great,” says Scott Tolbert, ATS chief technology officer. “But if they could get a map and see all of their prepaid customers that are pending cut off and pending reconnect all color coded, it gives them a quick view of what’s going on out in the field without having to study line after line of detail.”

'Not Old-School Analysis'

The need for better ways of visualizing and analyzing data is growing as the spread of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and other smart grid technologies exponentially multiplies the amount of information that utilities can collect.

Herschel Arant, senior vice president of engineering and operations for Central Georgia EMC, says the co-op confronted this “sea of data” challenge when it tried to set up a system on its own to handle the influx of information it had coming in from 55,000 smart meters in 15-minute intervals, along with data from 260 reclosers and a variety of other sources on their system.

“Until you’ve attempted to take something like this on, it’s easy to underestimate the difficulty of manipulating and analyzing the massive volume of data,” he says. “It’s not old-school analysis that you can just drop into a spreadsheet and spend a few minutes working on it. There’s a completely different infrastructure required.”

The more sophisticated analytics also come with the potential for significant rewards, Arant notes. He hopes to cut line loss from around 3.5 percent to as low as 2.5 percent using the new tool.

“The opportunity to reduce line loss can give a very quick and almost immediate payback,” he says. “And once you identify the issues, the reduction is perpetual.”

'Everything That's Happening'

As much as enhanced visual analytics can make system management easier, getting there can be a struggle. It requires the ability to import data from many different sources and often getting databases created by different software systems to interact with one another. That in turn requires analytics tools that have “the ability to consume data from the billing system, from the accounting system, from the GIS [geographic information system] or the SCADA system and blend it together,” Schake says.

Tommie Gipson, CHELCO IT manager, says the co-op’s new dynamic map that visually presents information on prepaid accounts is only the first step in what he hopes will be a system that allows a variety of enhanced visual analytics. He envisions being able to take almost any query from the co-op’s databases and quickly populate a map with the resulting data.

“I can say, ‘What about service orders or street light repairs?’ The moment I put those on a dynamic map, first of all, I can see trends. Second, if I’ve got crews in the area, I make their work much more efficient,” he says.

SEDC is working with another co-op to create an advanced visual display of transformer load, providing a dynamic presentation of transformer status in an easy-to-comprehend format.

“They can interact with the analytics, so once the view is built, they can say, ‘Give me all the transformers that are attached to that sub,” Schake says. “Or, ‘I want to see everything that’s happening out in the field right now.’”

ATS is also testing an enhanced visualization tool that allows co-ops to import data into Google Maps and other mapping software.

“The importance of this visualization tool is that it’s flexible enough not only to suit large co-ops who have robust GIS and map-viewing tools, but also the smaller co-ops who may not have these tools at their disposal,” Tolbert says. “We’re trying to give them options where they can do similar things on a smaller budget.”

Many of the dynamic mapping tools that do exist are database-specific or expensive. But by developing a tool that allows data to be imported to various geographic platforms, ATS hopes to make enhanced visual analytics available to a broader range of co-ops.

Ultimately, Schake says, these systems are about “providing value for the co-op.”

“Advanced visual data analytics helps co-ops take full advantage of the wealth of data they have available and makes their lives easier by bringing it to life.”