Big Data. Commodities trading. Energy markets. These are terms you frequently hear associated with Louisville-based Genscape, the nation’s first supplier of real-time data for global commodity and energy markets. Today, they operate the world’s largest network of land, sea, and satellite data networks tracking power, oil, natural gas, agriculture, solar and maritime transport.
To better understand what they do and how they do it, we decided to follow the data – from the moment a client expresses a need, until Genscape provides them with actionable information that enables smarter business decisions.
“Every industry has its north star. In the sports world you turn to ESPN; for the weather, the Weather Channel. If you want to know what’s going on in energy markets, customers turn to Genscape,” says Ryan Saxton, Manager, Oil Storage.
Let the tour begin!
Deciding where to look
According to Saxton, who holds a graduate degree in international relations and national security and was formerly a D.C.-based intelligence analyst focused on the geopolitics of energy markets, Genscape starts by identifying what the customer needs to monitor and understanding their pain points,
“A customer may say, go monitor the Dakota Access Pipeline, for instance,” says Saxton. “Tell me what’s flowing through it volume-wise. I want to know everything there is to know about it.”
Genscape starts by collecting metadata about the source – typically data that doesn’t change – like the length of the pipeline, who owns or operates it, what its capacity is, and what’s possible to monitor, like pump stations and storage tanks.
“There’s a lot of noise that impacts these markets – political change in Saudi Arabia, for example – but energy markets always come back to fundamentals. And that’s what our data provides the customer. Analysts and traders can take this kind of information and monetize it.”
Deploying the “James Bond” of energy data
Genscape’s data comes from a variety of sources, some of it publicly available online, some through third-party suppliers, and some through their private monitoring network.
In those instances, a member of the field operations team is deployed. Jonathan Sullivan, Global Director of Field Operations, began as an intern while pursuing an engineering degree at Purdue. He joined the company full time when no other employers’ culture measured up to what he had experienced at Genscape.
According to Sullivan, the data comes from a network of about 8,000 devices worldwide measuring all types of facilities from power plants, oil and petrochemical infrastructure to global shipping.
“Field engineers and agents are our boots on the ground determining how we can install monitors and get this data,” says Sullivan.
“It starts with detailed site and sensor surveys and eventually moves to site acquisition and ‘easement’ negotiations.” Genscape offers payment to private landowners (that sit adjacent to monitoring sites) in exchange for permission to install monitors, cameras or an array of other sensors.
“They will fly all over the US, from Kentucky to California, let’s say, with installation equipment and engage directly with homeowners, often just knocking on someone’s door. Our teams are expert negotiators as well as being experts on sensor systems. Often, they are so good, they will secure a site and get an easement that day,” says Sullivan. “They call our central operations support center and let us know what they need. We have a very nimble and quick equipment dispatch system. We have resident teams in the US and Europe and deploy teams as far away as Japan.” (Genscape has a central operations support center in Louisville and in the Czech Republic).
“You can’t be just an engineer, or just a sales guy,” said Sullivan. “You have to be very personable, sales-minded and assertive, but you also have to be technical.”
In addition to knowing how to wire electronic circuits, checking voltages, installing solar panels and terminating wires, agents also have to book their own travel, coordinate drive times, estimate time for maintenance – and anticipate things going wrong.
Then there’s the need for ongoing maintenance – equipment failure, batteries that die, people or animals that tamper with monitors, and weather events – not to mention deployment of new sensor technology. The team has to anticipate these changes and then visit their devices to make software and hardware updates.
Decoding the data
As data from the field starts rolling in, teams collaborate to make sense of it.
“We start calibrating the sensors and determine whether we can optimize the way the data is coming in,” says Saxton. “What is it telling us? Does it make sense? Is it what we would expect?”
It’s also the stage where database administrators come in.
“We handle system administration – writing applications, design and architecture, messaging to automated systems – that ensures the data is collected properly and stored securely, as well as enabling access for internal users,” says Mike Frohme, an enterprise architect who leads the data services team.
From there, the company’s R&D team fetches the data and creates the systems and methodologies for analyzing it.
“We take all that data, do cleaning and take an exploratory look at it,” says Chaoyun Bao, a data scientist with R&D whose childhood fascination with images from the Hubble telescope led her to pursue a degree in astrophysics.
“One thing that attracted me to the role was the real sensor data – not marketing data like ad clicks,” says Bao. “The real-world, dirty data is more fun to play with because you don’t get this clean signal. You have to battle all these challenges, which makes it more fun.”
“We slice and dice it using analytics methods to bring out the info we’re after. We look for correlations, market signals, any specific movement of the product we’re tracking. There’s a lot of trying and failing, plotting one variable against another and seeing if there is any trend there.”
R&D pitches their ideas to the product teams to get their feedback. Once all the kinks are worked out – they work with IT and the database team to get the product in a stable state that they can push into a customer-facing interface.
After some further beta testing, the interface is ready for the customer to access whenever they want – and is usually accompanied by daily reports from Genscape.
“We sometimes have fringe cases where it’s tough to measure things the conventional way,” says Saxton. “Not only does R&D help us interpret the data, they bring a lot of out-of-the-box thinking that helps us stay ahead of others trying to do this.”
“We’re constantly looking for new ways to measure things – electromagnetics, light, sound – new signals we can get after,” says Bao. “If a moving object creates and sends a signal out into the world, we’re trying to capture it.”
“There’s no one else in the world doing this,” added Saxton. “I think Louisvillians would be surprised to know that people from their hometown are doing some pretty groundbreaking things.”
From the customer’s POV
Genscape’s roster of national and international clients includes local companies as well. Brian Zoeller, a partner at Frost Brown Todd, is a transactional attorney focused on renewable energy projects. He turns to Genscape for reporting, information, and market trends.
“Genscape provides us with data on where they see petroleum prices going, because that’s a key driver of renewable energy credits,” says Zoeller. “They are a national player, one of two leaders, in this space, and have been a very valuable resource.”
Follow the data further – opportunities at Genscape
“When people think about tech jobs and smart, capable people, they look to Silicon Valley or the finance industry in New York,” says Saxton. “Everyone and their brother in D.C. has an Ivy League degree, but people from Genscape are far and away some of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with.”
Want to follow the data in your own career? Genscape has opportunities available. Check them all out here.
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