Adopting a continual, pro-active approach to information governance is essential if utilities are to meet the challenges presented by big data. Martin Bonney, director international consulting services, Epiq Systems, suggests the sector has room for improvement.

Big data presents big challenges for companies in the utilities sector. The energy industry already stores above-average ­levels of data per firm and this is set to ramp up further with the introduction of smart meters throughout the UK. According to the Energy and Utilities Alliance over 350,000m have been installed up to March 2014, and the industry is on-track to meet the Government timescale of smart meter roll out by 2020. Suppliers and network operators must now demonstrate to consumers and regulators that they can and will process smart meter data – and that generated elsewhere – securely and lawfully.

The capture, storage and retrieval of data is a constantly evolving challenge, complicated by the sheer variety of connected and mobile devices that now generate information. Knowing precisely where data is stored, and being able to easily access it, is critical, not least to meet ever more stringent compliance regulations.  The sector is no stranger to regulatory investigation and litigation and, with the UK Government promising to give OfGem “the teeth it needs” to enforce action, utilities companies are under pressure to tighten compliance procedures.

We recently conducted a survey into the impact of growing data volumes on major corporations, including utility companies. More than three-quarters of the corporations surveyed feel confident in their ability to locate key data in the face of litigation or investigation. However, further research suggests such confidence may be misplaced. The survey went on to reveal that only around half of these companies continually monitor and update their data map.

Regulatory deadlines for document production can be as short as 14 days. If data is not continually assessed, the ability to respond to requests quickly, accurately and defensibly is severely tested.

So where to begin? How best to navigate this data maze? Taking a pro-active approach begins with gaining a clear understanding of the data universe, the records retention policies and the legal and regulatory needs of the business. This has obvious benefits in terms of reducing the cost of storage (many estimates suggest by more than 40%) and the concomitant cost of processing and reviewing documents. Less quantifiable, but possibly more significant is that by not doing this, organisations could retain data that could come back to bite them in the future, but could justifiably have been deleted if retention policies had been practically applied.

Planning and communication is the essence of a successful information governance strategy. Getting the key players (typically at least IT, legal/compliance and third-party eDiscovery provider) talking to each other, and investing the time to build a data map – essentially a description of the organisation’s data types, technical infrastructure and storage solutions – is an essential first-step. Assessing the actions needed to preserve and collect data can bring an early understanding as to the scale and nature of the challenge.

Another benefit of building a data map is that it enables organisations to quickly highlight data sets that can be removed from a disclosure requirement, for example back-up duplicate emails. This “low-hanging fruit” can be useful whether relating to a regulatory investigation, an internal investigation or to litigation.  Showing practical responsiveness to disclosure requests is a way to gain essential goodwill from regulators or the courts.

Our experience within the sector suggests that the challenge for utilities extends beyond that of typical discovery for litigation purposes to encompass questions of economics and to provide transparency around fair-pricing. Business leaders recognise the importance of this transparent approach to pricing in winning-back and maintaining consumer trust and the industry is pressing for guidance around the provision and communication of cost and profitability data, both historic and future.

Only by bringing all relevant parties together and working closely as a team to define what is most important to the organisation in terms of time, cost and scope, can the appropriate solution be built and, crucially, maintained. The data landscape is continually shifting, therefore mapping this landscape cannot be a one-off exercise. It is not enough to adopt an irregular pattern of data monitoring, and leading businesses are recognising the benefit of partnering with experts to adopt a pro-active, continual approach to information governance. 

By Martin Bonney, legal consultant, Epiq Systems