Few IT leaders would relish the challenges facing Transport for London (TfL) CIO Steve Townsend over the coming months. His organisation must provide and support the technology to enable an ageing transport infrastructure to cope with what looks likely to be its toughest and most sustained test to date.
Of course, the biggest test of all will be the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer, but there is also a busy schedule of major cultural events in the capital, including the Greenwich and Docklands Festival this month, World Pride in July, and the Notting Hill Carnival over the August Bank Holiday.
Townsend acknowledges the scale of the challenge, but says recent advances in information and data analysis should help to keep transport disruption to a minimum.
“There are different ways we use technology to help travellers,” he says. “As you approach an Underground station you should see an ‘ESUB’ [Electronic Service Update Board], which shows line status and disruption.
“We also look at what’s happening overground, even with other service providers. So if people are leaving London via Waterloo, for example, they can see other transport providers’ information, because we inject that info into [our ESUBs].”
Another key tool for helping travellers get from A to B is TfL’s Journey Planner website, which provides live transport information, including service levels and news of any disruptions. There is also the Countdown service launched in November last year, which shows the location of buses, and can be accessed from smartphones as well as desktops.
TfL also enables third parties to use its data. “We’ve put data feeds on various sites around the internet, like the London Data Store. This provides an opportunity for developers to create mobile sites and apps, or widgets that work on Android, Apple or any other platform. That’s a way to push information and use technology to help people plan their journeys,” he says.
The above are all examples of the firm pushing data out to its customers, but another key use of the travel information TfL collects is to enable it to assess and improve its own performance.
“We’ve got various modelling tools that our service people utilise to control the flow of traffic, including people, cars and heavy goods vehicles, around London. Some excellent modelling data comes off the back of congestion charging. It gives us an idea of what traffic is going where, how, and how often. We get similar data from ticket sales on the Underground and on buses.”
Townsend says TfL uses some of this data to predict the levels of service it needs to provide, and also to ascertain the least disruptive times for carrying out engineering work.
TfL uses a range of analytics packages to process and manage this data, with Townsend describing himself as “technology agnostic”. “We use a combination of both off-the-shelf analytics packages and a mixture of internal solutions developed specifically for us.
“I don’t want to start a conversation by saying ‘Microsoft has a certain solution’. I’d rather say what we’re trying to achieve, and then let the analysts go away and identify the most appropriate technology.
“If you say ‘We use Microsoft’, or ‘We use Oracle’, you’ll never change your technology enablers.”
Townsend’s analytics challenge is complicated by the different types of data that are generated around different areas of the transport network. He claims that this complexity necessitates a mix of tools.
“It would be any CIO’s dream to have one tool that fixes all the data analytics issues. We can’t expect to have one standard of data within our organisation, given the many means of communication and the advanced age of some of the infrastructure. Standards will always be different, and so we use different tools to create the data models that we have.”
TfL has recently gone through a process of centralising its shared services, including information management, which it has called Project Horizon.
Part of the project’s remit was to look at how technology underpins some of the efficiency measures that TfL had to deliver to the Department for Transport and to the Mayor’s Office, which funds the organisation. As part of that review, Townsend glued the two information management units together, which used to exist separately as “Corporate” and “London Underground” silos.