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Interview with Jim Linn, American Gas Association

Jim Linn is the Managing Director for Information Technology at the American Gas Association, which represents more than 200 energy utility companies that deliver natural gas to more than 68 million homes and businesses. Linn speaks regularly with utility CIOs and is at the forefront of the data analytics movement. He recently took some time to discuss big data, privacy and security.

What is the overall objective of collecting all this data within the utility sector?

“It isn’t about trying to find out who is personally doing what within their homes. Collectively, utilities are trying to position themselves to know how to best serve their customers and the energy needs they have. For example, understanding usage trends can be a big help in conservation efforts. There is not a desire to collect individual data. It’s a collective data desire to help best serve the industry and the entire customer base.”

Having access to this data is still relatively new. Are some utilities overwhelmed?

“I wouldn’t say people are overwhelmed, but there is a lot of data, which means the IT group is absolutely on point as needing the means to store all this data. When you look at the customer service area, trying to figure out how you want to slice and dice all this data can take some time and effort because of the sheer volume of the data.”

What are the biggest challenges when it comes to collecting this data?

“When you talk to the utility CIO, they admit that it is a job to collect it and organize it and keep it safe and available. It is a lot of data over a period of time, so there is definitely an effort required to do that. In terms of securing it, the industry has paid a tremendous amount of attention to securing the data that is available.”

How are utilities keeping up with cyber security?

“Cyber security is not an easy area to address because there are so many places that someone can get into a system. It’s like a robber who wants to attack your house … if the door is locked, he’ll try a window. So utilities are working very hard to identify any vulnerabilities that they have, and to address them as early and quickly as possible. They are doing great work.”

What are the biggest challenges when it comes to securing data?

“When I talk with folks in the industry, my initial sense is that there is not a big dollar and cents concern, although there is always a need for more funding. The major challenge is reviewing and then re-reviewing the cyber security maturity or posture for every single company in order to identify the next layer of things they need to deal with. Cyber security protection is a process that requires repetitively looking at the layers of areas of potential vulnerability and layering on different mitigations to ensure that companies are not compromised.”

So it’s all about staying one step ahead of the bad guys?

“Exactly. Every time you review processes or operations, there is yet another layer that utilities can apply mitigation to. It’s going to be an ever-growing and ever-needing process where there is always something that can be done. It’s not that things are not protected …things like data are protected in many ways. But there is always something else that can be done. It is a never-ending pursuit.”

Are we seeing less pushback from consumers regarding smart meters and data privacy?

I think generally the answer is yes. There are pockets in certain areas of the country where people seem to be more thoughtful about this issue than others. But by and large, I think that most people realize there is not a whole lot they can do to change it. But there are still pockets of concern and we understand that. There are still some parts of the country where people are uncomfortable using an ATM. It’s understandable that some people have concerns about the data being collected.”

 

John R. Johnson is a Boston-based freelance journalist specializing in energy, wireless and technology issues.

 

 

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