03/10/2014 12:59 BST | Updated 03/12/2014 05:59 GMT

Smart Meters Need Big Data or Risk Being Dumb Boxes

As tends to be the case, utility companies will be all over the news agenda this winter, and this year will be no exception with EDF's nuclear reactors offline until the end of the year. However on top of this, a subject that is likely to rumble on is the introduction of so-called smart meters.

Smart meters are utility meters which automatically monitor energy consumption in real-time and send electronic meter readings to providers. They allow both households and businesses to make informed decisions based on accurate and instantaneous information. The plan by the Government is to ensure smart meters are installed in every household by 2020 . At the same time, it's expected the rest of Europe will have installed smart meters measuring electricity in 72% of homes , with 800 million smart meters, estimated to be worldwide by that year .

There has, however, been dissenting voices about the value of these devices. The Public Accounts Committee has published a report which concluded that installing smart meters in every house in the UK will save consumers "only 2%" on their annual bills, on average saving of £26 a year . There are also concerns the technology could be out of date by the time the roll-out is complete, as well as the cost to buy and install them. In response, the Department of Energy and Climate Change said smart meters will lower bills and make switching easier .

However, one crucial aspect which has not been a part of the debate so far is big data. With huge amounts of data being created and collected, utility companies will need to have big data solutions in place that are capable of processing the tidal wave of data headed their way, which if analysed correctly can bring benefits both to the suppliers and consumers.

Based on real-time data, suppliers will be given a greater level of insight into anticipated levels of demand, enabling them to accurately forecast if more workers are needed and where ahead of time, allowing them to optimise planning and task scheduling. This could be particularly important when staff are spending time away from the field to train for these new devices, leaving staff levels low in other areas. On the other side, some utility companies will look to use sub-contractors to deliver the smart meter programme. Currently utility companies are not choosing to schedule the work for the sub-contractors which is sometimes resulting in a disjointed customer experience. By utilising this kind of technology, the sub-contractor process can be better managed, leading to a better overall customer experience.

Another bonus for customers is the fact they can make financial savings from a more accurate reading. Yet there are also other intangible benefits too. Not all energy providers send out a technician to gather an accurate reading, but rely on customers to take their own reading. This isn't always an easy process and can cause a problem for those that have trouble reading their meter, whether it's because they are physically unable to or simply forget. A smart meter takes this issue away, updating measurements in real-time so not only saving consumers a job but also ensuring the charges are correct so there are no surprise bills.

Furthermore, suppliers should be able to identify immediately when customers experience outages and proactively send a technician before the customer requests one. A next step to this could be actually notifying the consumer that they have an outage and that someone is on the way. Suppliers have a real opportunity here to use this technology to improve their customer service, something utility companies have been clearly neglecting at the moment. A survey we did recently, found that a third of customers have either cancelled a service or stopped using a brand altogether due to poor customer service, with utilities companies coming out on top as the most frustrating sector.

Additionally, suppliers could use the insight generated from consumer usage to instigate real change. Better visibility of times of the day and days of week when consumption is higher, can then be cross-referenced with weather information, which could all help design trends that would make forecasting more precise.

It's a big if to get that big data function right, and if energy companies are to maximise the opportunity smart meters present then they must start working on that big data aspect now before the smart meters begin emitting that crucial data that can't be properly collected and used.

With the 2020 deadline getting closer, the Government is in a race to ensure smart meters are installed in every house in the UK. The key for suppliers in the beginning will be ensuring they have the right staffing levels to deal with the demand to roll out this new service. Then once installed, both consumers and suppliers should start seeing the benefits this new technology can bring.