::: nBlog :::

My utility encountered a severe winter storm a few months ago, causing power outages for thousands of homes. Most mobile networks, though, were still up and running as many base stations have battery and generator backups. Many people have smartphones, so they directed their browsers to the utility’s website and tried to seek information about the outage and possible repair time estimates. The utility, like most others, has a graphical outage map which was paraded in the media just a couple months earlier. So everything was supposed to be in order. 

However, their outage visualization system collapsed after a few hundred simultaneous requests, which subsequently rendered their whole website unavailable. 

My first thought was that this is just a sizing and configuration problem. However, when I’m now looking at similar, e.g. energy consumption portals of utilities, a different thought arises. I think these portals have been badly designed on purpose. Giving customers real time information could generate inconvenient questions about the goals, preparedness and real technological level of the utility, so an ‘unfortunate’ website overload is a good firewall for criticism, at least for now. 

This is one of the few places where regulation would help. With these energy prices, customers should get accurate and real time information about their service level and consumption, through systems that can cope with the ways people are now accustomed to. Unsurprisingly, one of the best performing public services is the tax authority, which now sports totally electronic interfaces towards most companies and people. Scalability and user friendliness is there. Yes, when money is collected. 

It is now time to get other essential services to the same level. If the tax authority can process 5M records in real time without a glitch, utilities can provide visibility to their services in seconds, without 24h or even one hour delays. Information blackout is not the solution. 


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