Management > CIO

Apple and big data on the Horizon: the tech transformation under way at TfL

Jo Best Published 09 March 2012

Apple and big data on the Horizon: the tech transformation under way at TfL

Transport for London's CIO Steve Townsend talks to Jo Best about the organisation's plan to stabilise, consolidate and innovate

Transport for London (TfL) may already be looking toward enabling London Underground workers to use Apple and Android devices below ground and the potential applications of big data within TfL, but on its immediate horizon is, well, Horizon.


Begun in January, Project Horizon seeks to merge TfL's support functions such as HR and IT, which have historically operated in various places within the agency, into single units that deliver across the organisation.


Among the changes Horizon will bring is a merging of London Underground's IT department and TfL's group information management (IM) function.


"Looking forward, what we need is a cohesive single team you can go to, almost like a one stop shop for IT services. I don't just mean just the IT management element of IT services, but how do you get things changed, how do you introduce new technologies, how are you going to make sure technology is enabling the organisation in efficient processes," says Steve Townsend, TfL's chief information officer (CIO).


"The role of Horizon was to look at not just how to structure our organisation charts, not just the way we deploy our technology, but predominantly the way we interface with our business. One of the areas we need to have in Transport for London going forward is a seamless business engagement function in other words, that the organisation gets IM and IM gets the organisation," he added.


Rather than having to deal with a number of different IT agencies to effect IT change, in future TfL staff will only need to talk to a single IM function who will deliver the change from start to finish. It's a change that will streamline project delivery, according to the TfL CIO, but one that will necessitate a cultural change within the organisation.


"The cultural elements will need to be addressed to make sure people aren't holding on to information, they're not doing things behind closed doors, they're sharing information it's a big cultural change, [to make sure] we are one team, and we have to act as one team with a common set of values."


The success of Project Horizon in relation to IT will be seen in how it enables the IM function to interact with TfL at large. Rather than being perceived as a provider of services, Townsend hopes to see the department become more of a peer or partner to the rest of the organisation.


Historically, the IM function within TfL has not been as reliable as it might be, according to its CIO, who took up the role in 2011. "We're sort of at the stage where those basics need to be addressed and we need to move out of that stage, to earn the right to be supplier of choice."


Tackling the basics making sure commodity services such as email, networks and printing work properly will be the backbone of the stabilisation phase, the first stage of TfL's current three-stage IT strategy, which will be followed by a period of consolidation and then innovation.


Consolidation and innovation


For its second phase, TfL can consolidate "most things, if not everything", says Townsend, including both its commercial arrangements with suppliers and the technology it uses.


"We need to look at the amount of different technologies we have within the organisation. We have over a number years employed a proliferation of asset managements systems, real time information systems, different ways that we collect and mange data from a finance perspective€Â¦ We are looking at core services consolidation, and then the obvious consolidation that sits underneath the amount of datacentre space you have, the amount of servers you have, the amount of different types software you use."


Innovation in turn will see the agency turning to the wider industry to help it improve transport within London, with mobility among Townsend's top priorities for the phase.


"Where we have static information or information available at the desktop, we need to be putting that in the hands of our employees where they need it and in the hands of the travelling public where it's right to do that."


Both the consolidation and innovation phases will need the stabilisation work to be complete before they can proceed, and TfL's IM function has given itself until after the Olympics to meet that goal.


"One thing this organisation definitely needs, no matter what discipline you look at, not just IT, is it needs to be stable and capable to get through the events of 2012," Townsend said.


In its Olympics planning, TfL is expecting the strain put on its IT infrastructure during the Games to reach a level similar to that expected over the next 12 to 18 months in the course of normal service.


TfL has been running assurance models to see how its business-critical technology will cope with this spike in demand, and making changes to its infrastructure to strengthen it where necessary.


"The major risk is around capacity how much more will be going on? Internally, will we get more questions asked of our customer service agents that stand on platforms, therefore the demand made on mobile technology internally, how much will that increase by?


"The other risk is, are our systems resilient enough? The capacity will push system harder so therefore there's greater risk of failure, so therefore how fast can we recover at a time when we might potentially have more failures than normal?"


Once the Olympics are over, that capacity will remain in place rather than being scaled back down.


"All we're doing is bringing forward our capacity and our resilience from a future year. We're scaled for the next two years, which will allow us to maybe de-focus a little bit on the capacity and risk assurance issues and move closer to information management and get into the innovation part of it because our platforms are stronger and healthier.


"It's great legacy, the fact that we're bringing forward some of infrastructure-type projects," Townsend says.


Wi-Fi and the advent of Apple


Another legacy of the Olympics will be Wi-Fi across London Underground . While it will enable the travelling public to use their mobile devices on the tube, TfL's workers will also be making use of wireless connectivity underground, a move that ties into Townend's mobility agenda, and which could also offer the opportunity to cut costs on both network equipment and terminals.


It could even, according Townsend, see Android, Windows Phone, or even Apple devices making their way into the hands of TfL workers.


"[Wi-Fi] gives us greater capabilities, it will shape our innovation path€Â¦ You can make more people efficient, and more people mobile."


He adds: "Am I thinking about an Apple deployment across the organisation? Yes, but not just Apple. Where Apple's the best we should utilise it, but it's not necessarily going to satisfy all our needs, there may be some Android devices that are very, very good for us, so therefore we should think about deploying those."


Mobility also figures on TfL's IT agenda in the form of mobile apps. As well as making its own apps, the agency makes its data such as through itslive journey planner API available for use by third party developers.


The developers have taken the data and run with it, making apps that do everything from telling commuters which carriage to sit in order to be near the exit when their journey ends, to gamifying users' daily commute.


But, while the popularity of London transport-based apps has allowed third party developers to take the strain of building some apps that would otherwise fall to TfL to create, it has also caused the organisation a different set of issues around the reliability of the apps, and could potentially conflict with TfL's own aims.


"When a developer in his garage or at home develops an application, it is for their purpose - the output and way the information is displayed is an individual's view of the world, and what is important to him therefore gets pushed forward. Obviously, we need to consider the direction and strategy of TfL and that can never be mixed in with some of those applications. That's the elements that's sometimes misleading for our travelling public," says Townsend.


"I don't think it's wrong that developers make their own applications, we just need to make sure ones most popularly used by our travelling public are ones that reflect the direction of Transport for London."


While app developers are experimenting with what new users they can put TfL's data to, its CIO has his own ideas on what more could one day be done with it and how it could see a future role for big data.


"Once we get our teeth into the innovation element, big data projects is a consideration," he says, perhaps laying the foundations for smarter travel and " moving towards 'this is what I want to do, how do I go about doing it' rather than 'I'm going to arrive in London, I'm going to get in a taxi and then I'm going to get on the tube' instead, here are alternatives that may fit your lifestyle better."


Think of it, in Townsend's words, as a journey planner on steroids. Not only could it mean users being educated about alternative travel options, it could help TfL cope with the ever-growing number of individuals taking trains, buses, tubes and boats, and the finite number vehicles it is able to provide on any given day.


"If we're to progress, we need to be educating our travelling public into alternatives and we need to do that holistically. Big data should gives those options and drive different behaviours of people as they travel around London."


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