I’ve seen Faye Chatman in action, so when she recommends finishing lunch at BB’s in Jacksonville with the coconut cake, who am I to say no? I recently caught up with Chatman, director of enterprise business intelligence (BI) for JEA, the eighth-largest municipal electric utility company in the U.S., and her boss, Wanyonyi Kendrick, CIO of JEA, to congratulate them on winning TDWI’s best practice award in the “BI on a Limited Budget” category and to ask them to share how they did it.

Jill Dyché: As with many best practice BI environments, JEA’s has actually solved a high-profile business problem. What were the initial drivers of the data warehouse at JEA?

Wanyonyi Kendrick: We knew that if we didn’t prepare to have a business intelligence system while we didn’t have a specific problem, we wouldn’t have the time. So Faye and her team were given 18 months to really set up a data warehouse ... from hardware to software to resource needs, and that’s how we started. The first major business initiative was AMR [automated meter reading], which began in 1995. Our vision was to take our meter readers off of the classic manual meter reading and to do all that remotely.

JD: So how did you know that you’d need your data warehouse to be part of the AMR solution?

Faye Chatman: We had a lot of data, and we were getting more. With over 400,000 electric meters and 300,000 water meters [JEA has approximately a half million customers], we were gathering that information all the time, and we knew we could do a lot with it.

JD: So with the data warehouse foundation in place, you were able to hit the ground running when AMR came along.

FC: Right.

JD: Describe a little about why AMR is so critical to your business.

FC: This is our first opportunity to look at our usage patterns at a lower level of granularity than just monthly, which is all we’ve had in the electric utility industry for years. So we had monthly consumption [data] on a customer, but you had no idea what the patterns were, in terms of when customers were using energy. So this is helping us help our customers.

WK: Particularly now with all the talk around the energy crisis, wouldn’t it be great to know on a daily basis if you were having spikes in your service, and what you could do to potentially lower your electric and your water bill? That’s the intent of AMR - to put the tools in the customers’ hands so they can better manage their service.

JD: This sounds a lot like CRM [customer relationship management].

WK: When you think about it, this is similar to what other industries are doing with their data - segmenting their customers and using the results to serve them better. Many of our customers are newly interested in how they can help the environment and decrease the cost of their service. And we have others who are low-income and fixed-income customers. We can identify the best customers for various programs - for example, helping them weatherize their homes or changing out their lightbulbs to CFLs [compact fluorescent lamps], which use less energy.

JD: One of the things I like so much about what JEA is doing with BI is that you’re using it for not only high-touch, customer-focused business issues, but also for operational reporting. Talk a little bit about how you’re leveraging operational BI.

FC: Since we’re on the topic of usage data, with the data warehouse we were finally able to aggregate customer usage at 15-minute intervals up to the transformer level. So we can look at transformer loads at a given point in time and see which ones might be over-loaded and thus likely to fail, and we can identify those that are under-loaded that might be able to help additional customers. Our field crews can access all this information remotely from their laptops and provide guidance to residential and commercial customers as needed.

WK: Our AMR system lets us interrogate a specific meter and see if it’s on or off. And the data warehouse can provide that information at a much higher level ... to our executives.

JD: So what other data besides meter data is on your data warehouse?

FC: We have 12 data subject areas currently loaded, including customer data, geographic and regional data and third-party data ... The data warehouse currently has over 3.4 terabytes.

JD: You won the TDWI award in the BI on a Limited Budget category. What challenges did your funding and resource limitations present?

FC: We started with just a small group of people - I think it was three or four. We did our training, and our skill sets were developed internally. We delivered a project, but it was a proof-of-concept project, and we learned on these projects first ... so we weren’t looking for a specific return on investment on those early projects.

JD: But you got it anyway. [JEA’s payback period was 10 months.] What made the difference?

FC: You’ve got to have people that can look at things in a different light ... who like and enjoy a challenge and want to learn something new.

WK: Both our present and prior CEOs, as well as the IT organization that preceded me, have always been committed to technology and have always been willing to go ahead and put their best resources into an area that appears promising ... Our current CEO really saw the benefits of business intelligence and what value it could add to the business if the business was willing to participate. He’s really emphasized that this is a partnership between technology and business, and technology cannot do it alone.

JD: You retained a consulting firm at one point on your journey to give you an assessment of your BI maturity. Why?

FC: Wanyonyi had asked for a plan. She wanted a five-year strategy on what we were going to do with BI and how we needed to get there, rather than just continuing to build new subject areas as new projects came along. She wanted us to clearly identify what the gaps were and put together a plan for closing those gaps. That was going to take us to the next level in terms of servicing our customers.

JD: What did you change as a result?

FC: There were a number of recommendations - and some of them I felt like I knew intuitively, but I needed validation and guidance - but I’ll tell you some of the key ones that made a difference for us. Number one was having a full-time DBA [database administrator] as a member of the data warehouse team. BI is a specialty and requires specialized skills. So we’ve done that. And we’ve started to elevate data management, to lift it up higher than just being a data warehouse responsibility. We’ve also done some restructuring of our requirements documentation, and we’re developing integrated metadata.

JD: In the energy industry, these types of activities are pretty forward-thinking. Why do you think JEA has excelled here? And what’s preventing other energy companies - and let’s be honest, some of them have more headcount and more funding that JEA does - from succeeding with BI?

WK: I do believe that in the future they will succeed. What makes JEA different is that we are a small- to medium-sized company; therefore, business commitment is much easier to secure.

JD: What advice would you give companies outside of the energy industry who may have similar resource constraints but nevertheless have a significant need for BI?

FC: One thing I’ll say is that once the AMR system was operational our CEO decided that it was important enough to make sure that we were leveraging the data from a business perspective. So he set up a separate area of the company headed by a VP just for that purpose. I think it’s made a big difference that my main counterpart on this initiative has been a vice president and that we work hand-in-hand. There’s a business awareness of how important the data warehouse is in delivering value.

WK: We have always ‘thought big’ as a utility company ... but we have still started small, so we’re always willing to plant the seeds for change. And lastly, make sure your find an interested business executive with a business problem. Hopefully a hard one that business intelligence can really solve.

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