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TfL CIO backs teenage innovators

Gill Hitchcock Published 22 December 2010

TfL CIO backs teenage innovators

Ian Campbell, CIO for Transport for London, tells Gill Hitchcock that enthusiasts' apps are playing an important part in the development of IT for travel

Innovative transport solutions of the future could be taking shape behind the bedroom doors of teenage boys.

This may surprise anyone who suspects teenage boys have other priorities, but according to Ian Campbell, chief information officer of Transport for London (TfL), it reflects the fact that many breakthroughs in IT have begun life as a bedroom experiment.

"There are certainly some fashions that come and go very quickly, but I think what we are seeing is that it's about the next generation and what they're doing," he says.

Take the Tube Exit app, for example. It emerged from a bedroom to help London Underground passengers position themselves in carriages or on platforms, to speed up their interchanges at tube stations. Campbell believes this app can aid crowd control at stations, because while passengers are waiting for trains they can shuffle along and self-select the best location. It can also help reduce confusion and congestion, because people don't have to criss-cross and are more or less where they need to be.

"A youngster did that in his bedroom, and probably just did it as an intellectual challenge, but now it is one of the most popular apps we have," he says. "Now I did not develop anything for that, but I am grateful for it. So that is where innovation comes from."

London's 'Boris Bike' cycle hire scheme is another beneficiary of apps. There are about a dozen London bike hire apps to keep cyclists up to date with availability and, says Campbell, to make the scheme easier to use. Paper maps with drop off points are fine, but unlike the app they don't tell cyclists there is only one bike at a particular location, while there are four nearby.

Encouraging useage
"By getting better quality and timely information, you are more likely to use it," he argues. "Those apps just give them that confirmation."

He uses an example of an Underground customer being able to track developments on a specific line, to anticipate any closures and adjusting their journeys accordingly.

Campbell talks about visitors to London using GPS based games to locate friends. "And then they can send a text and say 'Why don't we meet up for a coffee because I can see you're close?'

"How that could affect TfL is that people will say 'I am just a couple of stops away, I will come on the bus and meet you'. The way that generation integrates everything means it is going to be so different from how it is now. And transport has its unique place in that."

Campbell took over as TfL's CIO in March last year, filling a role previously held by Phil Pavitt, after a career in CIO positions with organisations including Royal Mail Letters, British Energy and Citibank. So how different is running TfL's IT services covering the Docklands Light Railway, taxis, London River Services, pedestrian facilities and traffic lights, as well as buses and the Underground?

"As always it's a bit of familiarity, as well as the new," he responds. "The familiarity of course is the IT work. I've always been a career CIO and in that sense it's been straightforward. Transport has its own challenges quite different from Royal Mail where I was, let alone the nuclear industry.

"But I think the commonality is also about heavy engineering. If you think about the Underground here, buses and so forth, that's engineering. So it's really getting to grips with one's new brief."

TfL's £88m Information Management Strategic Investment, introduced by Pavitt and focused in bringing IT contracts back in-house, is complete. "It finished just as I arrived," Campbell confirms. "They were looking at a data centre that was built. We have gone away from big desktops to thin clients, and that was a way of making it easier and cheaper to provide services."

Campbell is currently sponsoring a major IT transformation programme, aimed at creating a new operating model to optimise the provision and delivery of IT services across TfL and other organisations under the mayor of London's remit. The work is also contributing to the Greater London Authority's London Data Store, which provides wider access to public data and information. Some of this feeds into TfL related apps.

"The challenge for IT is that at the front end we have to deliver personal service that aligns to business needs," explains Campbell. "But behind the scenes we have to try and create a shared service model, so that we get economy of scale and efficiency in providing things across all the transport modes.

"So for me the transformation programme is about looking at our processes and services and optimising those. And I felt that the best way to do that is through a programme that brings all those aspects together."

Shared service outlook
TfL already shares an SAP enterprise resource planning system with the GLA. It also provides data hosting for the Metropolitan Police and the London Fire Brigade. Spurred by fiscal constraints, TfL is likely to launch more shared services with other London services providers, he says.

CCTV, in Campbell's view, offers a prime opportunity and the day before talking to GC he had been at a meeting in Scotland Yard to discuss a shared CCTV service with the Metropolitan Police.

Joint procurement is also set to increase. "Rather than having our own discussions with IT companies we are looking at doing single procurement, and that allows us all to be more cost-effective."

The big public sector players, including CSC, BT, Fujitsu and Microsoft, are among TfL's current suppliers, but Campbell says that his organisation is always "entering new relationships", such as one with Google. TfL is focusing more on improving passenger information, and Google Maps could have a "perfect relationship" with transport.

"People come to London, they might have their smartphone and say 'Well, I am here and I am trying to get there', and IT will provide options about whether to walk, take a bus, a train, how much each would cost and how long will it take to get there," he says.

"And that way they feel empowered to make choices. So working with Google and Microsoft and others, we are looking to help them to help us, and ultimately the public."

A major project is the setting up of a 10 year, £200m contract to aggregate the voice and data networks across TfL. "What we are trying to do there is make sure that whether it be CCTV, which needs high definition, to a little bit of low quality data, we can get the bandwidth for all of them, but not through separate contracts.

"And now the capacity that has been put into London is huge and that enables us to consolidate all those 20 plus networks that we have. And we will probably have a couple of managed service networks right across London."

Asked whether he is likely to continue his predecessor's trend of insourcing, Campbell responds that his emphasis is on "multi-sourcing or right sourcing" and on expanding TfL's commercial skills so that it can better negotiate any outsourcing deals.

For software development skills, Campbell believes it is better for TfL to exploit the skills of external suppliers, but to keep project management in-house. He also intends to create longer term relationships with suppliers.

"We would rather have fewer, but deeper relationships with these organisations," he says. "And in that way they get to know us better. Sometimes it is familiar people who come back to work with us on different projects, but we don't have the expense of having to retain them full time."

He warns, however: "It does not come easy, but by investing time and effort with them and encouraging them to know more about us and share in what we do, they are able to provide better services to us."

'Keeping London moving' could be TfL's motto and Campbell indicates that this underpins everything the organisation does.

It has the particular challenge of preventing gridlock during the 2012 Olympic Games, and has made major investments in new buses and tube trains, upgrading the Docklands Light Railway and extending the East London Line (now part of the London Overground) in preparation for a huge influx of people.

Campbell expects transport related IT to play a major role in easing congestion. For example, TfL is working on IT to help provide the best options for getting to the next destination when spectators are leaving an event at the Olympic Park. This is likely to include apps, electronic maps and GPS based systems.

"The big important one is the Olympic Village," he says. "It will be like a town, with all the stadiums in east London, and people expect through their phones these days to have the sort of GPS capability to say 'I am here and I want to go there', so they will want an app which shows them where all the facilities are. And I literally see some people walking and following their phones and their GPS, and that's a big part of it. TfL has been asked to support the Olympic Committee and provide that."

Equally important, Campbell explains, is that all this data is linked to information services at stations and bus stops, such as the bus countdown system that is gradually being rolled out on all routes.

He believes that digital technologies will be increasingly important to TfL in future, and digital signaling will allow London Underground to increase throughput of trains on some lines in time for the Games.

But the search for IT innovations goes wider than adolescent bedrooms. "I have found that the part of my team responsible for innovation are being inundated with people asking and suggesting things, and I see that continuing," Campbell says.

He thinks this is an opportunity for TfL to interact with its customers. "It's not a lot of effort, and if they have a group on Twitter or whatever who all say, 'If you only had such a device we would all want it', it is hugely beneficial for us."








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