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Research institute’s project merges, manages customer truth

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  • Aug 12, 2015

By Dr. John Simmins


Utility customers want timely, accurate information about outages, especially during large weather events.  That came through loud and clear in an Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) project on using social media to support outage management in 2013.  With a plethora of twenty four-hour news sources on television, radio, internet news and social media, utility customers expect to know the status of outages at their utility with a few mouse clicks.  If utilities cannot provide this information, they face the wrath of tech-savvy and expectant ratepayers.  However the most egregious shortcoming a utility could have -- one that drew the most wrath (as borne out by the Hurricane Sandy experience) from customers --  was if the outage information on the various information channels didn’t match.  When the outage story changed depending on the news channel, the customers became incredulous and enraged.

The purpose of what would become the One Source of Truth project was to engage the corporate communications, operations and information technology experts from utilities across the United States in a dialog about the challenges and opportunities with the public’s growing fascination with social media.  Workshops were held in New York, Dallas and San Francisco; each sponsored by the local utility.  A combination of vendor, EPRI and utility presenters -- along with lively discussion sessions -- filled the two-day events.  Often, one of those events was the first time that these individuals had met to discuss social media.  A picture emerged of an industry with a wide-ranging variety of ways to address social media and outages.  Some trends did emerge.  The need to integrate social media in the outage management process became a major finding of the project.  From the perspective of EPRI, this looked like an integration project, one in need of standard messages with standard content -- one that needed to include more stakeholders, emergency responders, more utilities and a single, consistent message.

Taking social media to the next level

Thus, in 2014, One Source of Truth was born. EPRI began the project to identify the data elements for two use cases: informing the public through multiple channels of the number and location of outages and a more granular message to inform emergency services personnel of the status of outages.  EPRI employed a process that they have used repeatedly to engage the industry and build consensus around a concept, commonly having to do with standards. It was decided to do the work in two phases, tackling the publicly facing message first.

Simultaneously, and unbeknownst to EPRI, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in response to the same public outcry, began their own efforts to develop a standard set of messages.  They too, began having public webcasts with their own set of stakeholders.  The effort, called the Outage Data Initiative was led by Zac Cander of DataCapable. This effort was leveraging the success on the Blue Button and Green Button initiatives that developed a framework to allow anyone to access their health and energy information.  Late in the spring, the two groups discovered each other and, after comparing notes on their progress, began having a single set of meetings and a unified approach to the problem. The combined core team consisted of people from EPRI, DataCapable, Sisco and Boreas Group.  Eventually, the effort became known as the Red Button project.

Phase I: Developing a standard outage message

The standard message was designed so that utilities with a variety of different information system capabilities can offer comparable data and support progressive enhancements in data as may be required during the response to major disasters. Using this standard, data can be transferred in a common format, to a secure location, where information is consistently defining outages for a specific region. This could include areas covering multiple utility territories or even the entire nation. Per the demonstration title, the data displayed represents One Source of Truth for outage information.

The Red Button team demonstrated the first phase of its work on this standard at a utility conference early in 2015. The first phase of the Red Button project, which was the focus of the demonstration, was display of consistent, public-facing outage data.  This message is meant to be “broadcast” to various stakeholders including state and local government, radio and TV, and the utility’s web and social media channels.  It is meant to ensure that no matter where the data is obtained, it is accurate and timely.  Data from different utilities can be sent to the same stakeholder and displayed any way the stakeholders may need.  

The messages were constructed using standards including the Common Information Model (CIM) (IEC 61968) and Multispeak.

During the demo, data was sent from Baltimore Gas and Electric, Central Maine Power, Commonwealth Edison, Duke Energy, Florida Power and Light, National Grid, New York State Electric and Gas, Pacific Gas and Electric, Rochester Gas and Electric, San Diego Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison.  The data was in the proposed standard format and was received and displayed by several vendors including AGSI, DataCapable, Esri, Google and iFactor. 

Government support came from many sources including the White House OSTP, Energy Transformation Consulting, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Open Geospatial Consortium, the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Phase II: Taking it to the streets

During phase two of the initiative, the team will work to provide standardized, secured and detailed outage data to be shared securely by electric utilities with crucial first-response agencies such as police, fire, emergency medical services, and the Red Cross. The intent of work in the second phase is to foster collaboration and improve response and recovery efforts when disasters and storms impact grid reliability.  The weekly meetings for phase two have started and are already producing results.  

Having a standard, consistent message to communicate to all parties during a time of partial outage, storm restoration or other event helps stakeholders across the board. From utilities to first responders to the public, all audiences can benefit from receiving critical information in a timely manner. 

The One Source of Truth project will continue into 2016 and may possibly be coming to a utility near you --  so stay tuned. To view an example of the tool, visit

Dr. John J. Simmins is a technical executive at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) where he manages the Information and Communication Technology for Distribution project set.  


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