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ICT and Big Data
How To Use Well-Managed Data to Realise Your Sustainability Goals

Data, Data, DataSustainable business these days requires data, and lots of it. Companies are using sustainability data for a multiplicity of reasons: to inform corporate strategy, comply with regulations, evaluate investments, improve transparency, develop products and processes, manage risk, benchmark themselves against competitors, change organisational culture, and engage with supply chains.

Data, Data, Data

Sustainable business these days requires data, and lots of it. Companies are using sustainability data for a multiplicity of reasons: to inform corporate strategy, comply with regulations, evaluate investments, improve transparency, develop products and processes, manage risk, benchmark themselves against competitors, change organisational culture, and engage with supply chains.

Increasingly, companies that take a well-organised and data-driven approach are more likely to see investments in their sustainability programme pay off. This means using analysis to better inform decision making, leading to methodically prioritised initiatives that get off the ground far more quickly.

Once the data management programme begins to mature and data inputs are integrated that reach across a company’s financial planning databases and other operational information resources, opportunities for cost savings and revenue generation can be routinely identified and acted upon.

Driving Value From Data

My favourite example of an organisation using data to drive sustainable development is the United States Postal Service (USPS). Across 32,000 facilities, their Office of Sustainability designed an employee-led programme to address goals in waste reduction, energy conservation, fleet fuel reduction, consumables spending, recycling, and water use.

To aggregate and display relevant data, USPS developed a Green Initiatives Tracking Tool (GITT). This features dashboards that allow cost efficiencies and performance enhancements to be monitored across the organisation. The GITT system achieves this by providing status updates for core projects, as well as financial information, through direct connection with the accounting system for each facility.

GITT is also designed to be interactive. It includes a start-up list of 41 suggested projects for facilities as well as guidelines and training modules for their completion. Managers can also understand clearly what projects are in place and where via sustainability performance metrics that are triggered upon project implementation. Ready access to GITT information and comparative tables enable comparison between facilities and geographies. Most importantly, USPS can now track progress in real time at a national level and support those facilities that need additional help.

By using data aggregation and analytics, USPS was able to gain visibility into its progress on sustainability and isolate over $52m in savings in 2012 largely due to employee-led initiatives.

Linking Data and Mandatory Emissions Reporting

USPS was the first federal agency to both publicly report on its greenhouse gas emissions and receive third-party verification. For many organisations both in the UK and abroad, the first encounter with measuring organisational sustainability performance is typically via voluntary or compliance reporting of greenhouse gas emissions. From 2013, mandatory emissions reporting legislation will require all UK quoted companies to report their climate change impacts.

This means that those affected will need to collect, monitor, analyse and manage a vast amount of data from different sources. This may even involve collating information that has never been considered worthwhile before. Such large volumes of data will therefore require efficient collection and management systems, particularly for multinational firms with wide-reaching operations.

To date, many companies have remained reliant on Excel spreadsheets for on-going management of GHG emissions and other sustainability data (click here to read a blog on the limitations of spreadsheets by our Director of Data Management). Given the size and global reach of many organisations that will be required to report emissions within their directors’ report, Excel spreadsheets could carry too great a risk to both compliance efforts and successful realisation of value from sustainability.

Indeed, the most effective enterprise-wide sustainability programs use decision-making tools that go beyond disjointed spreadsheets to help guide strategy. Coupled with growing compliance commitments, organisations are increasingly moving out of the vacuum of spreadsheets and towards speciality software. Such systems provide a resource efficient, accurate and auditable way of managing emissions and other sustainability data.

Approaching Your Data Management Programme

Technological limitations and high storage costs have meant that the growth of sustainability data and analytics software has been slow up until recently. Today, however, online cloud-based systems can manage data across the organisation on emissions, water consumption, waste management and packaging, among other things.

However, purchasing the software itself is just a start. Even if your current focus is only on emissions data – there are five things you need to consider as part of your strategy for data management:

  1. Software — Look for scale and flexibility when selecting software to automate data collection. Do you need it to integrate with existing systems? Can you scale over time to collect additional data? Does it offer analytical capabilities? Selecting a user-friendly interface with different access privileges is also an important consideration.
  2. Processes — Ensure that you clearly define all processes for measuring, collating, transferring, processing, analysing, adjusting, aggregating or disaggregating, storing and final reporting of information. Have you incorporated suitable internal controls throughout? Do you have a comprehensive understanding of the sources of your data? It is particularly important that you recognise the impact on any current procedures you might have in place to ensure a smooth transition.
  3. People — Remember that the processes you establish and manage will be largely achieved through people. Are roles and responsibilities within the data programme clearly defined? Do you hold a register of key contacts which is regularly reviewed and kept up to date? Does everyone have access to appropriate training? Remember the importance of establishing good working relationships across all your contacts — from suppliers to building managers.
  4. Communication — Communication is important both internally within the system and for external reporting. Are all those responsible for data both inside and outside of the organisation aware of each other’s roles and duties? Are there processes in place for regularly sharing the results of analyses internally? Is this communicated so that different divisions can benefit from the mistakes and successes of other units?For external communications, it is important that the data can be easily manipulated and arranged in order to satisfy varied reporting outputs. How can you analyse and present information so that it will appeal to different audiences?
  5. Action — Software helps to provide better structure around varied outputs: quarterly management reporting, annual reporting, baseline reporting, metrics analyses and scenario analyses et cetera. It can also be used to explicitly document corporate targets and track specific projects.Even at an asset level, data can be used to understand the risks and impacts of poor building performance. These data sources include kWh consumption, control system data, sensors, degree days, occupancy, and so on. Once you can conceive of possible methods of analysing the data that impacts your portfolio’s energy consumption and expenditure, this can contextualised in order to determine where improvement opportunities lie and, from a statistical perspective, where outliers exist. Initiatives that should receive investment can then be selected, bolstered by a compelling business case based on hard data.

Visualising your data in a compelling way is another important consideration. How do you plan to target communications towards the needs of the facilities manager, energy manager, sustainability team, the CFO, investors and external stakeholders? Access to reliable, interesting, coherent information makes decision making easier — adding ways to make all that information understandable to the rest of us is essential.

Be clear about the outputs that you want from your sustainability data. These will evolve over time, so it is important to revisit this topic frequently.

Recap

So, data makes the world go round. It’s up to companies to take advantage of new developments and technologies in order to realise their sustainability ambitions. At a recent company briefing, IBM Smarter Cities General Manager Michael Dixon said of the current advances in data that are available to us: “The obstacles to progress are cultural and organisational, not financial or technological” Dixon said. “Individual leaders are asking what to do with data and finding areas of resonance for their communities.”

Companies affected by the new emissions reporting legislation will find themselves at the beginning of a journey, one in which quick access to relevant, quality data, will be business-critical. Could your company leverage mandatory GHG reporting and data to become a success story like USPS.

This post first appeared on the Carbon Credentials blog on September 19, 2013.

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