Wednesday 22 October 2014

Big Data: Utilities Are Truly Dumb

One fine day, Aunt & Uncle Drew received a ludicrous water bill.  They challenged it immediately.  The first functionary they spoke to said, well that can't be right: pay 'x' (a more reasonable amount he nominated) for now, and we'll look into it.  So they paid 'x'.

Six months later, another bill arrived - seeking an even more astronomical amount, plus the 'arrears' from the previous bill, all in menacing red ink.  Another 'phonecall: but this time the water company people sucked audibly on their pencils and said the 'arrears' had better be cleared or there'd be trouble - have you been taking lots of baths?  So A & U demanded to speak to a supervisor, who passed them on to 'debt management', who took a more emollient line.  Since A & U are on the 'senior' side of life, they could agree a 'payment plan' which, provided they adhered to it, would cause the amount to be re-classified from 'arrears' to something less penal.  Then the matter would be looked into.

To be fair, the payment plan was set at a pretty modest monthly amount, and it defused the red-ink crisis.  But after a few weeks, with no progress towards sorting the matter, further pointed 'phonecalls were made until some genius at the other end said: maybe there's a leak !  Could you turn off everything, go and peer at the down-hole meter, and tell us what you see.  This task fell to yours truly (being slightly better able to crawl around on the pavement etc) and lo ! - with everything turned off the little dial was perceptibly turning.  Ahah said the voice on the 'phone, that sounds like a leak !

There then followed some dialogue about whose responsibility this might be etc etc which need not detain us: suffice to say they turned up, discovered the meter itself was leaking, fixed it; and negotiations are ongoing as to what should be the deemed usage during the period of the leak.

Ah yes, the period of the leak.  Can we retrospectively identify with reasonable accuracy when it started ?  Oh yes we can ! - take a butchers at this graph of the average monthly usage, drawn up on the basis of several years' worth of half-yearly bills carefully archived by A & U, plus ongoing personal readings of the meter to ensure justice is served.

Yes friends, we can indeed spot the leak.  A nasty one, I'd say, getting progressively worse until they fixed it.  All that lost water !  And not too difficult to estimate the amounts, either.

Among several points one could make about this kind of nonsense, let's think about simple, nay, trivial data mining.  A usage pattern like the one above (produced by myself using nothing more complicated than Mr Microsoft's excellent spreadsheet) could not plausibly be accounted for by extra bath-nights chez Aunt & Uncle Drew.  Given that the water companies are supposed to be on notice to improve their statistics on wastage etc, not to mention customer service, what could be simpler than an automated check for egregious outliers like this ?  Even if they can't stretch to pre-emptive data mining, couldn't the response to distressed 'phonecalls be based on simple after-the-fact analysis of no greater sophistication than the one wot I did ?  At the click of a mouse ?

Mr Tesco has been doing vastly more advanced - and proactive - stuff than this for yonks.  Ditto the banks, ditto the telecomms companies.  Why are utilities such rubbish ?



dearieme said...

Our local shower (not quite a joke) even supplied the leak, brought about by their uninvited changing of our meter.

Anonymous said...

ND, if your readings 17 to 20 are accurate and there consumption pattern hasn't changed then it looks like the leak could have started before reading 14.

Steven_L said...

Maybe a lot of leaks are smaller and/or folk just stump up for them? The real question is:

Sending someone an erroneous bill and demanding payments not actually due is a breach of EU consumer protection law. The statutory defence in the UK to such trading offences is usually due diligence. As you have point out, there are reasonable precautions a company can take.

So why is OFWAT so useless? I'd advise A&U to write to them quoting directive 2005/29/EC and ask them what they are doing about it.

Anonymous said...

"Mr Tesco has been doing vastly more advanced - and proactive - stuff than this for yonks."

Oh dear. Given today's announcement do you want to update this comment?

Anonymous said...

Hedid say "proactive stuff"!

Sebastian Weetabix said...

The utilities are shit because they are rapacious private monopolies with ineffectual regulators answerable only to their foreign owners.

Water should have remained nationalised.

hovis said...

Having worked to finance my studenet days in a water company I wouldnt worry about anything writen in red, its merely psychological bluff to scare the unknowing. the process was always: Bill, reminder, pink reminder, red reminder, red reminder threatening court which time it would go to "debt recovery" and a "payment plan" , CCJ's if they were ever got took between 1.5 to 2 years from the initial bill and if the person was pensioner / on benefits etc ther miht be bluff and bluser but in reality they couldnt touch them.

So your aunt and uncle would be safe - even if they took them to cour it wiould be a PR disaster - only the most monomanical process driven employee (or someone who is just dumb) would try and enforce this. Not sure but as Steven L suggested there are likely legal routes that could be taken against them.

Jan said...

I too have worked in utility call centre(s) and would advise putting anything like this in writing so as to bypass the call centres completely. You might strike lucky and get someone with a few brain cells then and also it's harder to ignore. Blind them with your scientific evidence too, why not?

The people in the call centres are not authorised to do much and their managers are more concerned with targets eg number of calls answered; never mind if there isn't a satisfactory outcome for the customer.

Nick Drew said...

Thanks for the supportive comments! In principle, of course, we always knew there wouldn't ultimately be a problem. But that doesn't negate

(a) the distress caused to older folk by these episodes, rightly or wrongly

(b) the waste of water (!)

(c) the utter stupidity and avoidability of it all

Timbo614 said...

Call centres - O/T: When I owed Halifax money (that I was struggling with), knowing about these targets and having time, I would keep them on the phone arguing my case for as long a I could string it out. This went on and on for months. A "supervisor" actually asked me what the heck I thought I was achieving... My answer was that I wanted my name on a post-it note on each monitor with "Arrggh" written beside it :)