by Leah Shapiro
WAPA has massive repositories of data about its assets and operations. Most of it is housed in secure systems. Much of it lives in spreadsheets on employees' computers. Some departments may not know what data other departments have. Not all of WAPA's systems talk to one another.
You might be asking yourself, “Why does any of that matter?" It matters because all the data in the world is useless if you don't have a means to put context around it or analyze it. Additionally, any analysis you conduct is only as good as the quality, accuracy and reliability of the data you are using.
Knowing how to leverage data is important, but it doesn't happen in your head, on a piece of paper or in a spreadsheet. You need a tool. A “business intelligence" tool, specifically. On March 1, Information Technology made Microsoft Power BI available.
The right tool for the job
Over the past few years, employees across WAPA have asked for such tools. In many cases, they requested them by name and Information Technology obtained licenses to use them.
However, the Microsoft Office 365 suite – the engine behind WAPA's Modern Workplace efforts – includes the Power BI platform, which is more accessible, cost effective and efficient to use WAPA-wide. The “BI" even stands for business intelligence. What might business intelligence really look like at WAPA, though?
“The more data an organization has, the more complicated it becomes to perform analytics, meaningful or otherwise," said Information Technology Specialist Dawn Spear. “When data is siloed, it's exponentially more difficult."
Power BI's interactive visualizations, combined with its immense reporting capabilities, provide endless analytical opportunities.
“These visualizations allow us to see trends and relationships we likely wouldn't have seen in a table or spreadsheet," said Systems Program Analyst Rebecca Afsar. “BI tools allow us to overlay different types of information to see patterns, correlations and anomalies."
“Power BI can combine multiple data sets, ones that don't organically talk to one another," said Enterprise Architect David Tucker. “For example, we could overlay temperature and wind-speed data and transmission system asset work orders to understand possible repeated failures of assets. Analyzing that scenario could lead to a decision to use more durable assets to prevent repeated failures. Power BI offers real-time interactive dashboarding capabilities, which WAPA has never had before."
Not only can you drill down into the data, but Power BI allows you to change or isolate variables to see what could happen if certain factors were different.
Without business intelligence capabilities, getting data like this would require someone to run a report – a static document – and if the report prompted a question, another would have to be run to get to the answer, which would create yet another static document.
“Across WAPA, this way of operating has led to enormous amounts of data and documents being stored electronically with no way to discern the differences from report to report," said Vice President of IT - Enterprise Applications Joe Fast. “This leads to inefficiency by way of duplicative work and errors due to not having the full story accompanying a specific report."
“Not having to support and troubleshoot thousands of reports saves significant time and money," said IT Specialist Tom Howard.
“With Power BI, data is synced with source data and refreshed as needed or determined by program offices," Spear explained. “There will no longer be a need to run new reports because we know data has changed. Users can be confident that the data they're using is reliable and accurate."
Bringing power to employees
Since WAPA launched its Asset Management program nearly a decade ago, there has been interest in increasing the organization's ability to make data-driven decisions.
“Power BI is not just another shiny tool; its rollout is the next logical step in a strategic effort and culture change that has been in motion for years," said Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer Mike Montoya. “There has been a significant effort to get us where we are today, to move in this direction and keep pace with where business is heading."
When correctly implemented, Power BI will increase productivity through self-service opportunities. In many cases, historically at WAPA, there have been “keepers" of the data.
“If you needed something, you had to work through them to get what you needed," said Tucker. “You'd find yourself at the mercy of their schedule, availability, workload and priorities. Also, the data might not have been set up exactly as you needed it."
Eventually with Power BI, employees will have direct access to data, it will be in a usable format and they will be able to filter it, streamlining the time it takes to get answers.
“Part of our vision for Power BI at WAPA is that users will begin to feel more engaged and empowered to ask questions and to seek answers using data," said Spear.
Technology, processes, people
To maximize WAPA's success with the rollout of new capabilities and a new tool while undergoing an organizational culture shift, the Power BI team has developed a strategic launch.
“WAPA's data strategy team understood the importance of and advocated for a strategic business intelligence rollout," added Tucker. “Planning focused on three areas that had to be addressed before implementation: technology, processes and people. Each of these areas will advance BI capabilities over the coming years and this advancement will lead to automated BI tasks via machine learning and artificial intelligence."
The Power BI team initiated pilot projects to work through the WAPA-wide implementation. They partnered with Asset Management to highlight transmission line structures with poor health and with Finance to track budget execution.
“Both pilots were successful in determining how to structure data, identifying potential hiccups, addressing how to make reports available to users and overcoming challenges along the way," said Tucker.
The pilot projects underscored the importance of data governance as well as the need to have defined roles and responsibilities for BI projects. Specifically, it will become increasingly important to understand the roles of data modelers, data scientists, data analysts and report developers as well as what work is performed or supported by business units as opposed to IT.
“WAPA programs hold the expertise about their data," said Afsar. “IT can advise on how to make data more useful and user friendly, and we can support reporting and visualization capabilities. We'll be relying on each other to move this effort forward successfully."
To ensure consistent use of data and technologies, which will ultimately lead to increased accessibility, reliability and security of data, governance will be established for WAPA's business intelligence initiative.
Though reporting and analysis of data will be accomplished via Microsoft Power BI, several technologies will be used to support business intelligence.
“Behind the scenes is TIBCO Data Virtualization, which brings together all data sources into a single 'data platform,' enabling data accessibility across the organization," explained Tucker.
“TDV really simplifies and streamlines data access and forces people to use the right data," added Howard.
“This new tool along with these enhanced capabilities will not only exponentially mature our ability to make data-driven decisions, but will increase our confidence in those decisions," said Montoya. “This is one of those scenarios in which all the right variables are coming together at the right time to give us an advantage as we operate amid the industry's changing circumstances."
On March 1, Information Technology began accepting requests to create Power BI datasets. As they are developed, they will be made available to everyone in the organization, allowing employees to perform cross-functional analysis.
“WAPA employees are about to shine a light on their desire and ability to be curious, learn more and do better through use of Power BI," concluded Montoya. “I can't wait to see what insights they discover and the stories they'll be able to tell with our data."
Note: The author is a management and program analyst.
This Power BI chart provides a snapshot of WAPA-wide transmission line component data, summarizing the overall health of transmission line structures and the rating of each component. Users can select a specifc transmission line system or structure and see the health index scores for each component, color coded by its maintenance rating.