Taming the Data Octopus: How Avista Transforms Data into Value with Alation
By Nolan Steiner
Published on March 7, 2023
Nolan Steiner is a scuba diver, octopus lover, and data science team lead at Avista, an energy company involved in the production, transmission, and distribution of energy in eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and parts of Oregon. Below, Nolan shares how Avista uses Alation to transform data into value.
We take our role as an energy provider very seriously at Avista, especially considering how we partner with the communities we serve. As is common in today’s tech-driven world, we frequently look at data as a renewable asset to inform decisions and find value. It’s a resource we can use and reuse to create better outcomes for our communities, customers, and employees. That’s where I come in. As a data science manager at Avista, my team and I work to turn data into insights that produce value.
Of course, data is a beast. A recent survey by IDG MarketPulse found that large companies have, on average, 400 data sources. Furthermore, data volumes at those companies are growing by 63%… per month! Organizations truly have a sea of data to navigate, and it’s teeming with mythical monsters.
That’s scary for people like me who are charged with helping our colleagues quickly find and use the data they need. We could stick to calm, familiar waters, limiting our value to what we already know yet realizing there is much more out there. Or, we could take a different tack and face down the giant beast that lurks beneath the surface.
But that sounds scary, too. So, at Avista, we set out to tame our data Kraken by considering it in a more rational way: data is not a monster to be defeated. Data is an intelligent, adaptable being, that, with patience and the right training, can be transformed to help you on your journey.
Our Data Octopus
The octopus is a fascinating creature. They have three hearts pumping blue blood, can change color, have been around for nearly 300 million years, and boast a built-in smokescreen. As an avid scuba diver, I’ve always been in awe of the capacity of the octopus. Watching the Oscar-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher only increased my admiration for their agility and intelligence. What I find most intriguing is that octopuses (another fun fact: octopi is falling out of favor!) have nine brains, which provides a fitting analogy for data.
So how is data like an octopus? The nine brains of an octopus are spread across its eight arms and the central brain. Since an octopus can taste and smell with its tentacles, it offloads that work to those brains while the central brain can focus on predators and such. If data is the octopus, each tentacle then serves as a way to put that data to work. Some are dedicated to the management of the data: architecture, access, analytics, visualization, and automation. The remaining arms are focused more on finding value: governance, lineage, and curation.
Each tentacle of an octopus has the autonomy to focus on its own role, but the “center of excellence” remains in the main brain. Our data journey at Avista took a similar approach: empowering each of these eight areas to do their work while synchronizing everyone through a centralized data catalog “brain” to ensure we produce value from the overall data.
A Ship Named Alation
We knew we needed to get a handle, er, tentacle, on each of these eight areas to achieve our goal of improving analyst productivity. Curation became our main focus. We have found that individual workers need to use the data, but each has their own level of productivity and data knowledge. To help them better understand the data and use it to drive outcomes, they need access to subject matter experts (SMEs). And, as we are all being driven to work more cross-functionally, sharing SME knowledge becomes critical.
So off we went to tame our data beast aboard the SS Alation! We worked with about 150 Avista data analysts to speed data exploration and transition from a tribal-knowledge, siloed process to an Alation-driven process where SME knowledge could be transferred, shared, and viewable across Avista. Using Alation has helped us create a much more efficient data discovery process because our analysts can understand the data, see how it is defined, who is using it, and the types of queries being written against it.
Best of all, Alation makes our data searchable. As Harrison Fine, a data science analyst at Avista, mentioned during a recent webinar: “Everything is just right there at your fingertips. You can perform a keyword search on a term that you heard in passing… and learn more about that data. It’s just like performing a Google search on the data within your company. It makes finding things very, very simple.”
Decentralizing key data management arms while maintaining a centralized CoE with Alation has enabled a new process where our data can be more easily used, reused, and shared with no friction. And, where it used to take analysts days or weeks to find the necessary data, it now takes just minutes. Eliminating the stress and drudgery of constant searching improves our analysts’ work experience and satisfaction, who now have more time to do what they enjoy: analyzing, gleaning insights, and uncovering competitive differentiators. This isn’t just great for worker satisfaction – it also contributes to a higher quality of work. At the end of the day, it all goes toward better service for our customers.
Octopus In Action
Alation is already helping capture the knowledge in our people’s brains. Like other traditional industries, the energy industry is feeling the strain of an aging workforce. Alation helps us capture the valuable knowledge of our experienced subject matter experts which in turn supports the more tech-centric, data-driven workplace that younger workers crave.
But, while finding data faster is great, organizations need outcomes. Luckily for us, we have the hardest working mollusk in the utility industry with our data octopus! Here are just a few areas where Alation plays a critical role in guiding us to the data that drives better outcomes for our customers and communities.
How Avista Leverages Alation: 5 Key Uses Cases
As weather changes, so does the need for energy to cool or heat customer homes and businesses. When we can better predict the weather, it helps us prepare for energy needs across our system, from the customer to the substations and across the entire grid. We also use that data to forecast bills for customers so they can better budget and make decisions.
Preparing for electric vehicles
Each new EV that hits the road also hits our system. Determining where EVs are becoming more popular, and where those early adopters live, helps us segment customers and develop better insights into customer behaviors. We can then invest in building up our electric distribution network to prepare for this new demand.
Avista generates power mostly from hydroelectric dams. Data is critical to helping us optimize those facilities and the available water while also considering changing energy trading markets and our ability to optimize rates in near real-time.
Avista operates in an area prone to wildfires. We collect data on vegetation overgrowth, moisture content, wind, and weather conditions to highlight areas of wildfire risk.
Avista puts much effort into promoting and incentivizing efficiency for buildings and homeowners. Data lets us see how and where insulation is used, the efficiency of windows, if homeowners qualify for energy efficiency programs, and how we can use incentives to lower the cost of energy for those who can’t afford it.
Utilities are generally considered to be slow-moving beasts. Not Avista. We are becoming smart, cunning, and creative like the octopus because we’re using data in more and more ways. We owe a lot of that progress to Alation, too.
But an octopus splits its time between hiding in its cave and venturing out to explore. We are treating Alation in the same way. First, we tackled data curation to capture the knowledge from our SMEs and share it across Avista. Now, we are out exploring data governance, bringing in our legal teams to monitor customer data and personally identifiable information (PII), and looking at data lineage to better understand how outcomes were generated from data. It is all an accumulative exploration because, the more we discover, the smarter we get at using our data, and Alation is helping us along the way.
Curious to learn more about Avista’s quest to tame its data octopus? Check out the webinar Avista’s Data Culture Journey to hear the entire tale.
- Our Data Octopus
- A Ship Named Alation
- Octopus In Action
- How Avista Leverages Alation: 5 Key Uses Cases