Big Data

For organizations in industries from healthcare to marketing, big data has become both a powerful tool and a management challenge. This trend is no different in the infrastructure sector, where developers and utilities must get their arms around scattered environmental sustainability data to support reporting and compliance efforts.

From simply defining what data is meaningful for your company to navigating the tools available to manage it, bringing big data under control is rarely simple. Your various stakeholders may require different data and reports. Managing data in diverse formats and from diverse sources – e.g., energy systems, water meters, maintenance reports or field surveys – can be a challenge. And it’s likely that different departments across your enterprise own different pieces of your data, which can make timely access a struggle.

But there are some basic steps and technology tools that can help you bring big data problems down to size.

Define and Prioritize

What information is important, and where is it? One way to identify your critical data sets is to look at what others in your industry are doing. For example, review your competitors’ most recent sustainability reports and see what issues they are addressing, what components or processes they tout as being important and why. 

It pays to look at what major reporting standards require or suggest. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), for example, provides a checklist for reporting purposes. It also has criteria lists for specific industries. Other reporting standards that may be helpful include UN Global Compact (UNGC) and CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) carbon and water standards. 

Many companies are reporting to these standards as a strategic tool and/or communications piece for stakeholders. Even for those companies not reporting, the data specified by these standards can help prioritize sustainability efforts.

An obvious example in the energy industry is operating risks from extreme weather events and, for some, the risk of sea-level rise. Companies such as Entergy, consistently recognized by the CDP for its actions to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the business risks of climate change, prioritize adaptive and resilient communities in addition to production and sourcing objectives.

Prioritization starts with assessing your organization’s biggest environmental impacts. When and where do those impacts arise? Are they upstream in your supply chain or downstream in the hands of utility customers? Consider building an environmental issues map that tracks your key sources and possible solutions in areas such as greenhouse gases (GHG), water (pollution and use), air pollution, waste management and toxics.

Analyze for Materiality

Similar to the concept of environmental issues mapping is materiality analysis, which can help you prioritize sustainability risks and opportunities and weigh the needs of various stakeholders. Knowing what data you need (and for what purposes) will help you determine where to collect the data. It can help to begin with the end in mind, looking at the requirements of relevant regulations and organizations such as the CDP, GRI, ISO 14000/ISO 14001 and FTSE4Good.

Once you have a sense of what environmental sustainability data to gather and where to find it, the question is how? Many energy and infrastructure organizations struggle to identify, collect and reconcile fragmented and distributed environmental and sustainability data. For all but the smallest organizations, spreadsheets and file folders are simply not enough. 

Consider a dedicated software solution or cloud-based system that will do the integration for you and help you manage, analyze and report the results in an efficient way. Software tools will also make the standardization process much simpler. Data standardization and normalization is vital because it establishes consistency in what is measured, consistency year-over-year, and consistency and context with specific metrics used. For example, some companies measure such things as reduction in energy or water use per unit of production, while others measure absolute energy or water reductions companywide or supply chain-wide.

Specialized sustainability software will almost certainly reduce your big data headaches, but the process of choosing the right technology presents its own challenges. You’ll need to decide which modules and features to include or exclude based on your operating model and budget. And you’ll need to assess what hardware is required for collecting or inputting data into the system. Keep in mind that the goal of your software is to save time and money, not add complexity.

The big data challenges you may face in developing sound environmental sustainability reporting or compliance programs don’t have to be overwhelming. The keys are determining the critical issues and relevant data for you and your stakeholders, prioritizing that data to narrow your universe, collecting that data into standard formats and finding and using the best tools and partners.  

GREG SCANDRETT is the director of product development for FirstCarbon Solutions. 

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