Smart metering and data institutions - Josh D'Addario

Guest blog by Josh D’Addario, Principal Consultant at the Open Data Institute (ODI)

The right kind of access to data is vital in tackling the big challenges we face in society – from the earlier detection and treatment of disease to reducing pollution in urban spaces. In their report Data for Good, Smart Meter Data Access, our friends at Energy Systems Catapult  argue, as we have in the past, that access to data would allow existing and new organisations alike to innovate, engage consumers, and deliver system benefits. Specifically, we both see improved access to smart meter system data as a critical resource in accelerating Net Zero and combating fuel poverty and the cost of living crisis.

But this data must be stewarded responsibly. At the ODI we describe responsible data stewardship as the foundational activity in the lifecycle or value chain of data – collecting, maintaining and sharing it. Organisations that steward data make important decisions about who has access to it, for what purposes and to whose benefit. How data is stewarded ultimately affects what types of products, services, and insights it can be used to create, what decisions it can inform and which activities it can support.

In recent years, we’ve expanded our thinking around data stewardship by suggesting that organisations stewarding data on behalf of others towards public, educational or charitable aims are ‘data institutions’.

In practice, data institutions steward data in different ways, including:

  • Protecting sensitive data and granting access under restricted conditions.
  • Combining or linking data from multiple sources, and providing insights and other services back to those that have contributed data.
  • Creating open datasets that anyone can access, use and share to further a particular mission or cause.
  • Acting as a gatekeeper for data held by other organisations.
  • Developing and maintaining identifiers, standards and other infrastructure for a sector or field, such as by registering identifiers or publishing open standards.
  • Enabling people to take a more active role in stewarding data about themselves and their communities.
Figure one: Data stewardship

Figure one: Data stewardship

The Catapult has argued for the establishment of a data institution for smart meter data to oversee the governance of access to, and utilisation of smart meter data for public good. We couldn’t agree more, in fact we think that the Data Communications Company (DCC) already acts as a data institution and that strengthening that role could provide a lot of this public good. The DCC is a licensed monopoly and non-profit organisation in charge of rolling out the smart meter network in Britain – there are currently over 29.5 million smart meters on the network.

The DCC’s unique position could deliver value across a number of the roles played by data institutions, including combining or linking data from multiple sources – namely the various energy providers, transmitters and users connected to the system – publishing open aggregated data about the smart meter rollout and the energy activity flowing through the system, but probably most impactfully, by facilitating safe access to sensitive data.

The big question facing us now is how exactly this would work, taking into consideration four key elements of data stewardship:

  • the legal foundation and ethical considerations
  • the technical infrastructure
  • the commercial terms and value framework
  • the governance and decision-making processes
Figure two: Data flows

Figure two: Data flows

Legally, smart meter data is personal data and so access to it is covered under GDPR and we must look to the lawful bases for processing – consent, contract, legal obligation, vital interests, public task and legitimate interests. Consent has been a big focus in the smart meter world, with previous calls for a customer consent dashboard and an Ofgem consultation on consumer consent. This has the simplest legal basis but is difficult to scale from a technical standpoint. Legitimate interests may apply but there is a significant grey area, and although the climate crisis is a threat to us all, vital interests are unlikely to be the strongest approach. With an update to the DCC business licence supporting data stewardship for Net Zero and consumer welfare, Ofgem and the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero could more easily facilitate the legal element through public task; a legal basis for data processing.

From a technical standpoint, there are several ways the data can be made available to potential users. For example, publishing aggregate open data through a simple portal, anonymising data, and using privacy-enhancing technologies (PETs) to preserve the privacy of data subjects are other technical activities that could be undertaken to improve data access.

Financial sustainability is critical for maintaining data access but often in tension with a desire to make data more open. Data institutions apply a variety of revenue models to sustain themselves, most prominent of which tend to be usage fees, subscriptions, membership fees and grant funding. There are pros and cons to all of these, but we like the approach that membership offers, which can not only include access to data (like subscription fees), but also to services and other direct benefits provided by the institution, such as a peer network or community, encouraging a more active involvement in governance and stewardship.

Finally, drawing on the previous components, we can use the current DCC licence review to design a governance model to maximise equitable access to data, reduce the potential for harm, and maintain a financially viable smart meter data institution. For example, a membership structure can allow for tiered data access, so that organisations with more money or greater access needs can pay a premium to cover lower fees to others with smaller budgets that have valuable work to do. In this way, large corporates can effectively subsidise smaller charities and environmental nonprofits working to combat the climate and cost of living crises.

A call to action

To plug into the value of smart meter data and enable the benefits that the ODI, the Catapult, the DCC and others have long been pushing for, support is required from Ofgem, industry and the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero. That means:

  • Policymakers need to enable the DCC to make the data flowing through the smart meter network available for public benefit.
  • Industry actors need to support initiatives like the DCC’s Data for Good, Icebreaker One’s Open Net Zero and others to allow for more of the data they hold to flow through trusted intermediaries.

Only with committed and energised collaboration can we ensure the data from the smart meter network is delivering value to a country and planet in crisis.

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