‘Smart’ Efforts Help Restore Power

Some East Coast communities have been able to rebound from Superstorm Sandy faster than others. Part of the reason can be attributed to smart grids and smart power meters. Stephen Goldsmith writes about their impact now and in the future in Governing:

Sandy’s claiming of the title as the second most costly hurricane in U.S. history shows us the advantages and limitations of rigorous planning. The slow and arduous recovery faced by some East Coast communities has been coupled with the impressive speed with which many other communities have been able to return to business as usual. New emergency procedures put in place at the local and state levels deserve a lot of the credit. These included shutting down infrastructure and battening the hatches to protect vital resources and prepare for recovery.

Yet the storm teaches us that the best way to plan for the truly unexpected will be by being prepared to to improvise and by understanding that resilience in times of disaster isn’t determined only by a static disaster plan but to a greater degree by being dynamic and responsive to change. Being dynamic requires real-time data. Recent technologies are beginning to provide more access to more data, allowing analytics to find the patterns fast enough to make it useful during a disaster.

Smart grids, and particularly smart electric meters, played a promising role in improving disaster response and the speed with which power could be restored after Sandy passed. That role was small-scale and local, since electric utilities’ conversion to smart-grid technology has been slower and spottier than desired, but the potential is there for the technology to have a much larger impact as these systems are rolled out more widely.

At best, phone calls and spotty service-outage reports can slowly piece together a hazy picture of the conditions of a power network. But smart meters, programmed to send out a "last call of distress" when power is lost, can automatically report service cuts. This gives a utility company instant access to regional maps of outages, allowing it to prioritize repair-crew mobilization and begin getting service back to customers without them even having to report an outage.

Smart meters also can help identify the locations of particularly tricky "nested" outages, when more than one break is affecting an area. Additionally, smart meters can automatically report getting back on line when power is restored, eliminating unnecessary calls between the utility company and customers or follow-up service-crew visits. Repair crews can move on to the next repair rather than spending time checking on their last one, increasing efficiency and reducing system repair time considerably.

Pepco, the electric utility serving Washington, D.C., and nearby parts of Maryland, is crediting its partially implemented smart-meter system with helping get the power back on for its 100,000 customers affected by outages in the wake of Sandy. The store of information generated by the smart meters not only is available to the company’s repair crews to inform their response but also is aggregated into a regional map available online to give customers a better idea of system conditions.

PPL Electric Utilities’ smart meters allowed the company’s Pennsylvania customers to check on the status of their power’s return online and from the safety and comfort of remote locations, without having to trek out to potentially powerless homes or using the precious resource of repair-crew hours to do so. And while Baltimore Gas and Electric’s smart-meter system is only 10 percent complete, the utility credits the program with facilitating much faster troubleshooting and with replacing phone calls to customers to check on service–calls that often go unanswered–with a quick and reliable stream of information.

The next time a major storm hits, there will be more examples of service-restoration improvements enabled by this technology. In the face of consumer suspicions and resistance to smart meters, utilities need to publicize these success stories to build support for continued smart-grid development. The more data government and utilities can tap, the faster they can act and the more resilient a community can become.

The Power of Stories

Russ Linden scribed an interesting column for Governing on the power of story telling. He articulates how he was ultimately persuaded to contribute to NPR because of a fellow listener’s story, and how it’s relevant for politicians and businesses:

I wasn’t going to contribute to National Public Radio this year. Yes, I love its jazz and classical music, and I appreciate the news stories I can’t get anywhere else, but it was just one check too many. Our daughter will be married soon, we’re committed to several other wonderful causes (all of which are hurting because of the recession), and NPR would have to wait until next year.

Then I heard this story during NPR’s annual fall fund drive. A woman talked about her own decision not to contribute to NPR one year, but every time she heard the appeal for money during the fund drive, she felt guilty. So she’d turn off the radio and play her favorite song, which happens to be "You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog," sung by Big Mama Thornton. After a while, she’d turn NPR back on to hear the news or music.

She tried to remember when she first heard that recording of "Hound Dog," and suddenly it occurred to her: on NPR! As you can guess, she took out her checkbook that evening and sent a contribution. And after hearing her story, I did the same thing.

I didn’t write my check this year out of guilt; rather, a story was told by someone like me, and it reminded me how much I value the news and music on NPR. There’s something about a well-told story that grabs us. We can relate to a story. We remember stories far longer than we retain figures and facts (example: I can’t remember the percentage of income my NPR station receives from the feds, state government or corporate underwriters, even though it’s often mentioned during the fund drive, but I will long remember the story about Big Mama Thornton).

Stories are a powerful form of communication. Think about your favorite president. Most Republicans cite Reagan, most Democrats point to JFK or Obama. All three were/are great communicators, and all made excellent use of stories. When Kennedy faced the press a few days after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, he began by recalling an old saying: "Success has a hundred fathers, and failure is an orphan." He went on to take responsibility for the "orphan" (the military failure), something most presidents have difficulty doing. And his poll numbers went up!

When Ronald Reagan wanted to make a point during a talk to the nation early in his first term about the size of the federal budget, he held the entire budget document in his hands, dropped it on the desk, and talked about his concern over the size of government. It was very effective, a "visual" story if you will.

Stories also connect to people with a wide variety of learning styles. Big-picture thinkers and those who love to get into the weeds can all relate to a story. And, as Annette Simmons points out in her wonderful book The Story Factor, the more detailed the story, the more generalizable. That is, the story’s specifics help us relate it to our own lives. As the woman who felt guilty about not giving to NPR described her favorite song (and then that song was played briefly), it reminded me of some wonderful music I have only heard on NPR.

Goldsmith: Electronic Records Transformative, Though Challenges Exist

Former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith touts the innovation of the push toward electronic health (and other types of) records. Although, there are challenges in building the connecting networks, he contends. Read his column on the matter in Governing:

Whether one is discussing health care, education, housing, or any of the other myriad and complex public challenges, the path to transformative breakthroughs starts with electronic records. Unfortunately even the process of creating electronic records presents enormously difficult issues. In my work as a prosecutor and mayor, I found that every entity can see how easier access to data from other organizations will facilitate better decision-making — but inevitably, each entity questions whether the other organizations can be trusted with its information.

To move toward an integrated network of digital information requires that participants agree on terms, governance, protocols and a process to mediate conflicts. Designing these data networks is complicated because you’re actually creating a network of networks, all of which have their own issues. A hospital will manage a network of providers and interested parties — including, for example, its clinics and its doctors. Yet this network will also be part of the statewide electronic network. To the governor’s health secretary, he or she is at the network’s center, but to the hospital president, or medical group administrator, or community health center, they are the center, and their efforts and interests take precedence. Harmonizing these interests requires careful mapping and understanding of the consequences.

That is the easy stuff. The electronic record is a step towards better outcomes, not an end in itself. Who, for instance, gets to define the outcomes, especially when an outcome that is central to one party is not so central to others? Huge amounts of accessible data can now be managed to provide insights that will dramatically improve public interventions, but that management requires careful consideration about how it happens, who supports it and how the data gets to the field worker. Too often these systems serve the person at the top but not the person really doing the work. We have seen this in, for instance, large federally supported child welfare systems that view the job of the caseworker as less important than supporting oversight in Washington.

Goldsmith: Thinking Differently About Government

In a column for Governing, former Indianapoils Mayor Stephen Goldsmith analyzes how we think about government, and credits public officials who have made strides toward combating homelessness and enhancing school choice in America:

Private companies think about their "value proposition" all the time. What are we doing for our customers that make them happy to pay our price?

Government services usually don’t come with a price, but government managers should examine their value proposition just the same. In fact, revisiting "why" an agency is involved in a particular activity can be a crucial step in finding better, faster, cheaper ways of delivering value to citizens and taxpayers. While mayor of Indianapolis, I witnessed well intentioned public officials outsource an activity with the result that we became more efficient at accomplishing an obsolete process.

Getting the value proposition right unlocks better and cheaper results more than any single other thing government can do. Consider New York City’s effort to address homelessness. At one time, the city saw itself primarily in the business of providing shelter. In 2002, more than 33,000 people were living in city run shelters each month–no matter how many shelters were opened, they always seemed full.

Then Mayor Michael Bloomberg put Linda Gibbs in charge of homeless services. Upon taking over, Gibbs asked herself a simple but powerful question: What is our purpose? What is the value that we are attempting to deliver to citizens?

The answer to that question prompted an insight. Gibbs realized that her job wasn’t to run homeless shelters. Her agency existed to help people who were homeless–to reduce the need for emergency shelter, in fact.

Gibbs looked around and discovered that all her agency’s efforts were directed at running shelters. As Gibbs later observed, "We were smart enough to know how to help the clients’ underlying needs, but you put them in the shelters and suddenly the shelters became the solution, which is turning the world upside down."

Gibbs soon redefined the agency’s goal from serving the homeless to reducing homelessness and redirected resources to prevention. The new approach worked. By 2008, of those receiving this more comprehensive assistance, more than 90 percent had not reentered shelters within one year of being served. (For details about how this was accomplished see the Harvard Kennedy School case study, Overhauling New York City’s Approach to Shelter.)

The Joys of Somerville: Massachusetts Mayor Lauded for Government Reform

If you’ve been following our blog over the past year, you’ll realize we haven’t been too kind to Massachusetts. For evidence of our Commonwealth-bashing, see here and here — and for good measure, you better take a look at this as well. (Sorry, perhaps it’s just our Belichick aversion coming through.) But alas, the day has come to offer praise to the Old Bay State as we feature a column from former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith in Governing, in which he touts the reforms of Somerville, Mass. Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone:

Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone has enacted transformative changes in the management of Somerville, Massachusetts, and has done so by championing the importance of cost and efficiency data for all city services to improve accountability and performance. These efforts led to the creation of the SomerStat program. His approach to reform serves as a particularly timely primer on how to establish new norms for tracking and improving service delivery, giving officials the tools to know where to cut costs, where to keep investing and where there are opportunities for innovation…

SomerStat has now taken Baltimore’s CitiStat program one step further by integrating real-time data into its arsenal. According to Hirsch, this has allowed the city "to intensify its reliance on data for decision making." The mayor’s office requires that all city data be centrally accessible by the SomerStat office. This means that data from more than 50 sources are reported to the SomerStat office, from enterprise-wide and stand-alone systems. In fact, Curtatone subsequently created a major new source of performance data by implementing a centralized 311 constituent center (the first such center in New England) that tracks and issues work orders for every resident request for city services.

The first success to come from SomerStat’s analysis of this data was when it revealed a persistent problem of excessive overtime in the police department. The biggest culprit was that overtime costs were incurred whenever an officer was needed to cover someone who was out sick. Police leadership immediately started working with the mayor’s office and the union to create a solution. By increasing the number of officers assigned to each shift, the police and the mayor were not only able to rein in overtime costs, but were able to improve their community policing efforts by maintaining higher staff levels for each shift. "We’ve reaped one of the first rewards of the SomerStat process," Curtatone said. "This is part of our overall effort to modernize city government, cut waste and improve services."