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Using ‘Open Standards for Data’ in the energy sector

Mon Jul 1, 2019
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Increased access to data is a key tool in helping deliver change to the UK energy sector

Authors: Olivier Thereaux and Ben Snaith

The UK energy sector is beginning to address some of its major challenges — to reduce emissions, ensure the security of supply and improve the affordability of prices — with increased access to data being an important part of many of the proposed solutions

In terms of affordability for consumers, Ofgem, the energy regulator, has suggested that consumers could save an average of £320 per year by switching to the cheapest tariff in the market, yet in 2017 only 18% of customers switched.

Data portability and ‘midata in energy’

In July 2018, Ofgem launched a project with the idea that greater data portability for the consumer would result in easier tariff comparison – with a possible end result of switching to a more suitable energy deal. The ‘midata in energy’ project stems from an earlier midata project which had the broader objectives of using data to enable consumers to make better decisions; and to inspire a raft of new data-enabled services across a range of sectors.

At the heart of this project is data portability: the ability to share data between a current energy supplier and either a different supplier or a price comparison website. That data can then be used to help consumers find, for example, the most suitable tariff; or a company that supplies the most environmentally-friendly energy.

Tariff comparison can be considerably enhanced by this actual-usage data which can provide a more accurate estimate and granular illustration of potential usage and cost, when compared with the current estimation approaches based on manual input.

Data should work for everyone

At the ODI we want data to work for everyone. We believe that individuals, companies and governments should be able to access, use and unlock the value of data, and work together to build a more trustworthy data ecosystem.

We envision a future where people, organisations and communities use data to make better decisions, more quickly, and be protected from any harmful impacts. To bring about this future, we must make data as open as possible while protecting people’s privacy, commercial confidentiality and national security.

Standards for data portability

Data portability can only be truly enabled through the implementation of open data standards.

Without standards, the right to data portability – as enshrined in legislation such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation –  is hollow: it is like insisting that two people have a discussion when they do not speak the same language.

Open data standards also enable interoperability which creates a more level playing field – where, for example, smaller companies do not need to negotiate a technical agreement before they can enable data portability with other, possibly larger, companies. This was the basic idea behind the Open Banking initiative, which aims to make data portability easier to enable innovation in the banking sector.

Consensus and agreement

An open standards approach – with its broad stakeholder and industry engagement  and its focus on consensus building as a basis for better and faster adoption – can be key to the success of a standard development project.

The ethos of collaboration and consensus is still crucial when –as in the case of the ‘midata in energy’ project – it is likely that the adoption of resulting standards would be mandated as part of service-licence condition.

This is why the ODI has been encouraging the ‘midata in energy’ project, and the energy sector in general, to adopt an open standards approach.

A new standard

We developed the Open Standards for Data guidebook (as part of our data innovation R&D programme) and were keen to use it in practice to collect feedback and further evidence.

And so, for the past nine months, we have been helping the ‘midata in energy’ project team, as they worked through the design and some of the development phase for a new standard.

As a critical friend, we were able to observe the process of open standards development in practice; point to the collated wisdom of past standards projects; advise pragmatically on timescales; and apply some of the tools and techniques described in the guidebook, such as the Open Standards for Data Canvas.

Open Standards for Data guidebook

The ‘midata in energy’ project is still ongoing, with the team currently reviewing its approach for the next steps. As our team shifts its focus to new projects, we took the opportunity to translate some of this experience into improvements to the Open Standards for Data guidebook.

Notably, we noticed that while the guidebook offered a clear step-by-step view of how to initiate, develop, launch and review a data standard, it did not offer a typical timeline for such a project, nor did it offer specific guidance on how to lead and contribute to such a development.

There is a good reason for that – like the unhappy families in Tolstoy’s foreword (‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’), every complicated standards-development project is complicated in its own way.

But we recognised that it is still valuable to provide guidance on leading and contributing to standards projects, and to provide ballpark time estimates for project teams to work with – which can at least help explain why such projects pretty much always take longer than you might initially think.