The Energy Research Centre is a multi-disciplinary research centre which pursues excellence in energy-related technology, policy and sustainable development research, education and capacity-building programmes at a local and international level.
The ERC does this by undertaking independent and objective research of both national and global interest in order to deepen knowledge and understanding of energy and development needs, problems, challenges and innovative solutions. This includes research on linkages between energy and other themes, including economic and social development and impact, environment and climate change.
Wiebke Toussaint faced a daunting task. How to make twenty years' worth of power consumption data accessible to the researchers and professionals helping to electrify South Africa's homes?
As a researcher and data scientist at University of Cape Town's Energy Research Centre (ERC), Toussaint knew that the South African public power grid had expanded dramatically in the past twenty years: In 1990, around one in three South African homes had power. Today, nearly 85 percent of the country's households are electrified.
Progress of this magnitude had created a massive amount of energy consumption data — the only collection of its kind on the African continent. But old data systems made it difficult to access and manipulate this Domestic Load Research (DLR) data, causing usage to stagnate during the last five years.
Toussaint wanted to create a user-friendly way for people to gain an instant understanding of this wealth of information currently sitting untapped.
Researchers and practitioners trying to understand energy behaviour and plan for sustainable development needed to know how and where energy is consumed, and by whom.
Likewise, utilities providers like Eskom, the state-owned utility, needed to see the existing portrait of the country's energy use so they could maintain and expand the grid's reach to more communities.
As the researcher responsible for the ERC team's data visualization, Toussaint needed a way to quickly prototype a dashboard that could be deployed online. The tool needed to be visually beautiful, user-friendly and interactive, and it needed to provide real-time feedback to users’ queries. Dash met all of these criteria and, importantly, integrated with the existing Python data pipeline.
“It took less than a month to go from idea to prototype. Dash definitely helped to make the development process fast and efficient,” said Toussaint, who built the Data Explorer app herself.
Most of the effort went toward considering the user journey and narrative. "Dash provided the perfect environment to connect multiple visualizations into a story," said Toussaint.
"The DLR Data Explorer has been created as a 'user service window' onto the Domestic Load Research data set. This has allowed users to identify, extract, transform, and deliver data to a specification they can use. This work has solved a data access barrier and will greatly enable academic research in future."
To make the Data Explorer app a reality, several stakeholders were involved, including: the South African National Energy Development Institute; Eskom, the state-owned utility provider; and the ERC. The needs and expertise of these institutions, combined with Dash’s versatile framework, produced an impactful resource that will continue to power progress for more decades to come.
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