by Divina Paredes

CIO50 2019 #8: Sarah Ellisdon, Counties Power

Mar 28, 2019
Artificial IntelligenceBig DataBusiness Continuity

Sarah Ellisdon says when she joined Counties Power over two years ago, IT was considered a backoffice function, with many applications on old versions and no longer eligible for mainstream support.

Thus, her challenge over the past 24 months has been to upgrade core applications, specifically ERP and GIS, while introducing a culture of innovation that delivers for both internal and external customers.

In addition, IT has been driving an agile approach to working and encouraging collaboration across all business functions.

Today her team has delivered a raft of successful innovation projects, ranging from artificial intelligence, IoT, big data, mobile and blockchain.

One of these is ‘Lenny the liney’ chatbot. While chatbots are not unique, the implementation was a first for a NZ electricity distribution company and a first for the vendor Theta, Ellisdon says.

The bot is pre-programmed with an array of data and possible answers to frequently asked questions from visitors to the Counties Power website. It can answer questions in over 60 languages directly or refer customers to the page on Counties Power’s website with the information, she says.

The project achieved two goals: To increase the number of customer communication channels, and reduce the number of calls to the contact centre, especially during significant weather events.

The impact across the organisation was minimal with implementation happening over a short timeframe, says Ellisdon.

Training for the contact centre team was completed within a half day. “The team fully embraced Lenny from the outset.”

The team also worked on developing an infrastructure and network data interface (INDI) which brings together the benefits of Counties Power’s smart meter network and the mobile tablets its field crews use to better detect faults, allocate staff and resources when network faults occur.

She explains the system was developed in-house to create a platform that integrates numerous data sources so customers are automatically kept informed 24×7.

INDI works as a platform for communicating real-time messaging to customers along with systematic logging and dispatching of crews for faults. This is where the time sensitive analysis of data its aggregation, storage and presentation is all handled within the Counties Power’s multi-cloud service.

Counties Power created a scalable core business service able to connect multiple cloud and self-hosted services using IT developer Humming, allowing it to meet demand created by extreme events such as storms. This approach means analytics of very large datasets can be run very quickly; what normally took days and weeks can now take minutes.

The solution also brings together siloed and distributed data from historical operating structures into one platform and make it easily accessible.

Ellisdon explains a challenge for them was deciding how best to use the data to benefit its customers and the company. Over the past year, Counties Power has focused on reducing its cost-to-serve and improving customer service communications by providing relevant information during power supply outages.

Using Google Maps, the system provides the company a geographical view of power faults, where teams are located and estimated restoration times. This allows for more efficient and accurate information to go out to customers regarding fault resolution times.

The platform can also be used to check the performance of network infrastructure – such as ripple relays – which reduces future Transpower costs, dangerous neutral wiring faults, power quality issues and detect unauthorised distributed generation being connected and exported to their network.

INDI has had a huge impact on storm response, says Ellisdon. It helps the firm redirect its resources to the most urgent faults – such as lines down where the safety of staff and the public needs to be actively managed, such as isolating power to a downed line. Visibility allows the company to run high-voltage and low-voltage crews simultaneously – allowing crews with specialised skill sets to be sent straight to the right job.

As well as receiving information from meters that power is failing, Counties Power is also able to “ping” a meter to confirm that power has been restored.

That became invaluable during the April storm in 2018, with Counties Power able to close jobs once restoration had been proved and resources redirected to check and make installations safe at sites where the power remained out.

The ease of use of the system meant in a storm situation all staff at the company could be quickly trained on it and became “front-line storm responders”, allowing other staff to rest, while also boosting camaraderie and internal culture.

She says at the Mercury 2018 Annual Shareholders’ Meeting, their chair Joan Withers was quoted as saying “Counties Power, despite having huge interruptions to its networkhellip; knew what was going on at a household level through its investment in technology.”

Withers also went on to say, “Counties Power did tremendously well in managing the recovery from that April storm, though you probably didn’t hear about it. They had invested in technology, processes and partnerships in a customer-centric way.”

The team also deployed an app based on INDI data that offers customers a quick and easy way to report and be informed of power outages that affect their home or business.

This is especially handy in storm events when there could be multiple outages across the district, says Ellisdon. Users can simply check the app, giving them peace of mind that the fault has been recorded and crews are working to get their power flowing as soon as possible.

Customers who register their ICP (installation control point) number will be notified immediately if their saved location is affected by a network outage. This assurance is extremely beneficial for both homes and businesses. Multiple locations can be added so users can register homes, community facilities such as halls and clubrooms and businesses.

The Counties Power App uses banking grade security, giving customers assurance that their personal information is safe, says Ellisdon.

Users can choose to be informed by text or email and can specify what time of the day to be notified or if they wish to receive messages 24×7. “This is something that business owners and farmers say is very important,” she says.

Pioneering work

Ellisdon says the team at Counties Power recently completed a proof of concept (PoC) to demonstrate the use of machine learning in health and safety and physical security.

“Safety is Counties Power’s number one priority and utilising leading technology to complement Health and Safety training is explored at every opportunity,” she says.

The concept was to only allow access to employees and contractors to substations who were wearing the correct PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). She says the PoC proved popular with another electricity distribution business taking on the concept to use at their substations.

Another PoC taps IoT to connect their assets into the existing outage management service.

This will allow them to get a range of information from the simple loss of power detection scenario through to detailed power quality data. Each of these requires close to real-time data feeds to allow decisions to be made by network controllers and field services when network events occur, explains Ellisdon.

“We already have well established end-point assets that can do the detection and measurement tasks,” she says. “However, we are working with our telco to supply the IoT infrastructure to improve options to connect them into our real-time data driven services.”

She says the PoC will provide more detailed data to allow improved decision-making when issues occur on the network. They aim to rectify these issues before the customer is impacted.

Trusted advisor

Ellisdon says working on these projects is in line with the fundamental responsibilities of the CIO at Counties Power.

The CIO has to educate and communicate to the wider business, where technology can be used as an enabler to meet the strategic needs of the organisation.

To be this trusted advisor requires an understanding of the industry plus the ability to build relationships at all levels of the organisation, she says.

“This is achieved through collaboration and I have achieved this through working with all areas of the business from office functions through to field operations. The ability to be seen and willing to assist in any aspects of the day to day operation builds credibility and this in turns allows for easier access to the leadership teams,” she says.

“Collaboration and influencing are achieved through a number of communication channels, be it face to face, leadership meetings and company meetings.”

Her biggest lesson learnt as a CIO relates to diversity in the workplace.

While diversity provides all the opportunities of staff being more creative and more productive resulting in greater innovation, she says she encountered one major challenge with this: She had underestimated the complexities of change management in a diverse team.

Her example related to stereotyping millennials as early adopters who crave change. She found that this was not the case with some of her young staff when she announced that the organisation was moving to an open plan office and that IT would no longer have its own office space.

“My learning here is not to categorise or make assumptions about staff,” she says.

“This can be dangerous. At the end of the day we are all individuals and therefore should be treated as such. While it’s important to embrace and acknowledge diversity, we need to ensure that this does not expose any preconceived perceptions when managing organisational change in the workplace.”

Ellisdon says her team members come from diverse backgrounds.

“This allows for a rich cultural environment of ideas and inclusion which we celebrate at every opportunity,” she says.

This also complements her leadership style which promotes innovation and removing barriers that prevent the ability to progress ideas.

“By shifting from a reactive to proactive mentality, the team has been able to work both collaboratively and individually on leading edge technology,” she says.

“We are fortunate to have formed strategic partnerships with several of our vendors which allows us to tap into their latest developments plus providing us introductions with other companies that are considering or implementing technologies we are investigating.”

She adheres to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s famous dictum of, “Don’t be a know-it-all; be a learn-it-all.”

This provides for a growth mindset which in turn, based on my team, leads to a happy and fun working environment. It is well recognised throughout the organisation that IT are the team who work together and play together with a lot of laughter along the way.

“By promoting a culture of innovation, I am confident that our customers will be the ultimate benefactors, therefore meeting our strategic vision of engaging with and delighting our customers. This is achieved through being customer-centric, ambitious, agile, commercial and ever willing to learn and adapt.”