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The Truckee Donner Public Utility District in California faces stiff regulatory requirements that force it to inspect facilities, overhead electrical wires and telephone poles on an ongoing basis. But coordinating work crews to get someone out to far-flung areas, and then documenting inspections and reporting on the results, proved to be a challenge. Two years ago, utility executives found that they were falling behind on inspections.
They responded by turning to a suite of business intelligence (BI) and location intelligence software tools that enabled them to combine administrative data with information on the locations of crews in order to more efficiently assign inspections. Using the software, administrators can see a visual map with information on what sites have been inspected, what kind of work was done at each location, who did the work and what results were found. From there, they can generate reports on the inspection work. Additionally, the administrators can track how inspections affect the quality of electrical service by looking for correlations between inspection findings and incidents of power outages.
Our philosophy is to put as much technology in the hands of nontechnical people as possible and let them collect the data without having to spend too much time [handling that] on the IT side.
IT operations manager, Truckee Donner Public Utility District
Ian Fitzgerald, IT operations manager for the utility, said the BI and location intelligence system has helped eliminate about 90% of the inspection-related paperwork that previously had to be done by hand. But getting the pieces in place presented some challenges, he said, adding that there are things other organizations can do to help location intelligence implementations go smoothly.
Keeping it simple
Truckee Donner deployed a combination of BI tools and dashboards from Logi Analytics and Esri geographic information system (GIS) software. Fitzgerald said there are lots of ways that users can integrate the two kinds of systems, including writing their own GIS and XML code to customize the products.
But the utility has a limited number of technical staffers, so a heavy amount of custom coding wasn't an option. Instead, Fitzgerald used sample code that he obtained through a Logi user forum to streamline the Logi-Esri integration process. Users can also look for integration support from their vendors, he said.
In addition, the system's user interfaces were designed with business users in mind, which means they needed to be simple and easy to navigate, Fitzgerald said. The goal was to enable workers in all departments to use the software to collect, manage and analyze data and put together reports.
"Our philosophy is to put as much technology in the hands of nontechnical people as possible and let them collect the data without having to spend too much time [handling that] on the IT side," Fitzgerald said.
Changing landscape for location data
Seattle-based Venuelabs uses analytics and location intelligence software to track comments, likes, check-ins and other online actions by social media users in order to monitor brand sentiment for its clients, most of which are big-box retailers or restaurant chains. The information is correlated with location data to see how specific retail or restaurant locations are performing. Venuelabs CEO Neil Crist said most of the software used by the company is homegrown, and the primary users are a group of data scientists -- so a lack of technical resources and a need to simplify the applications weren't major concerns when the system was being set up. But keeping abreast of the changing dynamics of social networking and ensuring that the system continues to provide the required data are critical to the company's success.
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Crist said Venuelabs constantly has to tune in to new social media channels to see what users are saying about corporate brands. For example, the photo-sharing site Instagram generates a lot of relevant data about the company's clients, but just 24 months ago that site had virtually no users. The evolving social media landscape means the data science team at Venuelabs regularly has to adjust its algorithms for analyzing location-tagged information collected from sites, partly because of the differences in how users interact with them. For example, he said a like on Facebook could have a different meaning than a photo of a restaurant meal uploaded to Instagram without any comment, and the system has to take such variations into account.
Other businesses looking to implement location intelligence software might not be adding new content streams with the same kind of frequency as Venuelabs is, but the type of information they're interested in tracking can change. For example, Fitzgerald said the Truckee Donner utility district might become satisfied that it's doing enough site inspections in the future and want to place more of an emphasis on understanding how the results of inspections vary by location. A flexible mindset is called for in such cases as well to help ensure that the location technology continues to meet changing business needs.
Know where location intelligence fits in your business
Howard Dresner, chief research officer at Dresner Advisory Services in Nashua, N.H., said there's a great deal of knowledge stored in location data. But businesses starting out on projects need to determine whether location intelligence software is applicable throughout their operations or only within certain departments. Retail and sales operations are likely to be able to gain significant knowledge from location intelligence applications, Dresner said. For example, meteorological data can influence a retail store manager's staffing decisions. Finance departments, on the other hand, typically would benefit less from the technology.
In addition, with a growing number of organizations looking to reap the potential benefits of big data analytics applications, there's a tendency nowadays to over-accumulate data, Dresner said. That can increase the "noise-to-signal ratio" business users have to contend with, he warned. "We can collect untold volumes of data these days, but then you need to analyze it. There's signal within the noise, but it can be hard to find."
Instead of collecting every piece of data that has a location element attached to it, businesses may be better off starting with more targeted projects that capture specific information, Dresner said. As location intelligence software continues to mature, it may become feasible to crunch more data. But in the meantime, he advised, a pragmatic approach is to focus on analyzing data that can provide answers to a limited set of location-related questions.