From Data Woes to Data Bliss: 7 Steps to Improve the Quality of Your ESG Data

Data as Kryptonite

The words “data quality” can strike fear in the heart of even the most astute sustainability manager. Lurking below the surface of most data conversations is a murky mix of questions about data reliability and coverage issues, accounting and normalization methods, exceptional circumstances, and the nuances of different asset types.

Data may be kryptonite to many, but it’s essential for all. Good data—data that is accurate, comparable and easy to understand—allows sustainability managers to evaluate performance and provides incisive insights to help asset managers make informed investment decisions.

Our team supports asset owners and managers—collectively responsible for assets well in excess of $200 billion—tackle their data woes head on and report with confidence. While the road to data bliss is never easy, we guarantee that these seven steps will make the journey smoother.  

Step 1: Develop a data management plan.

The data blunder we see most often is not having a data management plan. A data management plan sets out the rules and procedures to quantify performance and address change in the portfolio over time. Without a plan, performance analyses quickly become inconsistent.

Typically, the plan outlines the scope of the analysis and how to handle a variety of assumptions and circumstances, like exceptional uses and data coverage gaps. For example, the plan will stipulate which emission factors to use each year, how to decide which properties are included or excluded in the analysis (e.g. acquisitions, dispositions and development activities) and what procedures to use when estimating data. A plan is therefore an indispensable resource when you seek verification.

Step 2: Invest in a data collection and management system.

There is no one-size-fits-all tool. Whether you use a commercially available product or an in-house solution will depend on your portfolio’s size and heterogeneity, as well as your analytical needs.

While off-the-shelf solutions can be customized to improve usability and handle more advanced automation and complex analytics, this requires a significant time investment up front. Be aware that implementation can easily take double the predicted time, and make sure the contract includes clear parameters for data completeness and quality control.

Once in place, get to know your system – understand what it can and can’t do. Involve all users in the learning process, and provide training, especially to those who will be responsible for checking and following up on data issues.

Whatever solution you choose, know that your requirements will evolve over time. Plan to retool the system every three years to tailor it to your developing needs.

While we wholeheartedly recommend using a data management system, remember that it is not a panacea for all your data woes. There is no substitute for strong, informed sustainability management.

Step 3: Validate your data with some simple checks.

In our experience, two simple checks reveal the majority of data issues: intensities and year-over-year changes.

For example, if your property displays an energy intensity of 0.2 or 200 ekWh/sf, the data probably contains errors. In most cases, either energy use data is wrong, or the area associated with the data is misaligned. Similarly, if you compare two years of data and the year-over-year consumption patterns have changed by +10%, we recommend investigating further.

Step 4: Follow-up on issues and outliers.

Make sure you have a process and enough time to follow up on data issues, anomalies and outliers. Depending on the issue, property management teams or data management system providers can offer the answers you’re looking for.

Don’t move on until you have a satisfactory explanation and have addressed the issue at the source. Untangling data knots requires effort, but take heart —over time, you will definitely face fewer surprises.

Step 5: Analyze your data to gain insight.

To gain deeper insights into your data, you need to analyze it. Use graphs to visually plot trends, distribution patterns, averages and variances and glean quick insights.

Look out for regional differences and seasonal fluctuations. Is the data acting as you expected? If not, why? Digging deeper will help uncover remaining issues and isolate the story that the data tells.

Step 6: Be transparent.

Clearly describe what the data represents and your calculation methodologies. This should include the scope and boundary of what data is included or excluded, the proportion of actual versus estimated data, and if the data is normalized.  

Without stating what figures represent, there is no peer comparability.

Step 7: Verify!

Once you are comfortable with the quality of your data, assess whether or not you are ready to have it verified. While investors see verification as a signal of quality, there is benefit too for sustainability managers. Subjecting your data and processes to the rigours of professional verification is an excellent way to validate your methods and focus your improvement efforts.

Rome wasn’t built in a day

Improving the quality of your data won’t happen overnight. Achieving investment-grade data can easily take two to three years of hard work. The key is to confidently move through the process knowing that you are following best practice.

Don’t strive for perfection; instead aim for continuous improvement. Develop an action plan to address performance, data gaps, and data collection issues. Also, don’t be afraid to estimate, at least at first. You will reach a point of diminishing returns if you insist on absolute accuracy.

Finally, remember that good data takes a village. Data bliss often hinges on your partners so make sure you thank everyone for their collaboration.

The road may be long, but the reward will be worth it.  

Quinn & Partners supports leading institutional investors, real estate and infrastructure companies with ESG integration and GRESB assessment services. In 2018, the value of all Real Estate and Infrastructure Assessments that the team submitted on behalf of its clients was CAD 210 billion, which is equivalent to 10% of all North American responses. Please reach out to Francisca Quinn, Managing Partner, Quinn & Partners, at +1 416 300 8068 for more