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Navigating the ethical implications of opening up energy data

Tue Nov 16, 2021
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We outline how we’re helping UK Power Networks to embed data ethics into its processes to support its open data strategy

We’re working with UK Power Networks to support its open data strategy as part of its Digitalisation Strategy and Action Plan. In this blogpost Josh D’Addario (Senior Consultant, ODI) and Matt Webb (Head of Enterprise Data, UK Power Networks) outline how and why the ODI will be helping UK Power Networks to embed data ethics into its processes.

The energy sector is undergoing a lot of change these days. With the pressures of decarbonisation and the need for greater energy efficiency, growing digitalisation (for example through the smart meter rollout), and the demand for greater network resilience, the energy data ecosystem is clearly in the midst of a significant transition. Energy companies of all types are making changes to take a lead in this new age – or working hard just to keep up.

One organisation doing the former, is UK Power Networks, the UK’s largest distribution network and system operator – an organisation that delivers electricity from the transmission network to 8.3m homes and businesses across London, the east and south east of England. The ODI has recently started working with UK Power Networks to support delivery of its open data strategy as part of its Digitalisation Strategy and Action Plan.

UK Power Networks and the Data Ethics Canvas

UK Power Networks’ action plan responds to recommendations established by the Energy Data Taskforce that sought to move the UK towards a ‘Modern, Digitalised Energy System’, moving away from a system that is ‘…hindered by often poor quality, inaccurate, or missing data, while valuable data is often restricted or hard to find.’

One of the key recommendations for energy companies was for asset and network data to be openly published. The principle of ‘presumed open’ was established, encouraging energy companies to start from a position of openness and then, through a process of ‘data triage’, consider whether there were limiting factors which may require data to only be shared under certain restrictions or closed. This is a significant shift for a sector where the traditional default was to only share data when and where necessary.

The baseline ‘data triage’ process is explained well by our friend Jake Verma from the Energy Systems Catapult in this short video, and UK Power Networks have been working with our ‘open colleagues-in-arms’ at Open Innovations to go beyond the standard playbook in developing an enhanced triage process. A key consideration in this enhancement has been the explicit and robust consideration of data ethics. To this end, we at the ODI are helping UK Power Networks embed our Data Ethics Canvas into its data triage process to hopefully set a new standard for the energy sector.

The Data Ethics Canvas is a tool for anyone who collects, shares or uses data to help identify and manage ethical issues – at the start of a project that uses data, and throughout. As UK Power Networks have realised, it’s a good fit for data triage and we’re hoping this catches on with other organisations using the methodology. Now, if any ethical issues are flagged during triage, UK Power Networks can utilise the canvas to help it understand where openly publishing data could have ethical implications, informing the need for appropriate mitigation or limitation in the extent to which data is shared.

Supporting UK Power Networks’ vision on embedding data ethics more deeply in its overall data strategy is part of our wider work to support its open data ambitions. If you are working on ethics and governance in the energy sector, or plan on using UK Power Networks’ open data, we’d love to connect and work together to make the energy data ecosystem a more open and trustworthy place.