In the media

Rail and roads in the UK: time to move on the (data) offence

By Gianluca Barletta

Rail Professional

22 March 2022

Successful football teams such as Liverpool and Bayern Munich have shown how offensive strategies, when balanced with good defence, are key to bringing success.

This article was first published in Rail Professional

Translating this concept to the world of data, a strategy based on ‘offence’, is aimed at using data to create new services for customers and radically improve efficiencies. A ‘defensive’ strategy uses data to ensure regulatory compliance and basic functions and services. In other words, it warrants a ‘licence to operate’, but little else [1].

Whilst the importance of a defensive strategy is fundamental, it’s the ‘offensive’ use of data in transport which could be transformative. For example, imagine being able to get a pizza delivered to the next station’s stop on your train journey home and handed to you on the steps of your carriage. Although this is not a critical daily need, this is an example of what the future could look like.

Another more common example of ‘offensive’ use of data can be found with bus journeys. Adopting a user-centric approach, integrating bus data with real time road traffic info and live train timetables can provide customers with an integrated (and reliable) view of their end-to-end journey, which is needed especially in non-urban areas. This would offer a credible alternative to car journeys, thus de-congesting roads and contributing to decarbonising the environment. So, how can we accomplish this?

Open data

Over the last few years, the Department for Transport, National Highways, Network Rail and Transport for London have accelerated the adoption of “open data” as a mantra for sharing data across a multitude of stakeholders and third parties. For example, the Bus Open Data Service was launched in November 2020 with statutory obligation to publish data from 1st January 2021. This allows for more accurate information to be made available to users through mobility planning apps. The current situation is not yet optimal for users, especially in smaller towns and rural areas, where information is often not available or reliable, resulting in poor passenger experiences. National datasets are currently being built for timetables, fares and locations, so the time is ripe to move on the ‘offence’ and explore further use cases.

Open platforms

In a similar fashion, open platforms are the key to enable that pizza to be delivered on your train. In fact, if we break up the previous example, we can see why open platforms are so important. In essence, there are three platforms that need to communicate with each other to make that happen: the food delivery platform (which holds data about what you want to eat, from which restaurant, delivered where and when), the train operator platform (your seat information, the ETA to the station including possible delays), and the station operation system (the delivery person who will need to get through the barriers).

For these three systems to communicate, they need to speak the same (data) language and be open to talking to each other and accessing each other’s data. The use of Application Programming Interfaces (better known as APIs) and creation of data standards across platforms will have a big effect in making all this possible and move on the ‘offence’ to improve the customer’s experience.

However, open data and open platforms on their own are not enough. In order to create the most valuable use cases and experiences, a multidisciplinary, eco-system approach is needed, including:

  • Market and user research to help prioritise initiatives and use cases based on customers’ needs and market opportunities.
  • Organisational agility, to achieve innovation reducing time-to-value [2].
  • Digital platforms to create positive user experiences.
  • Cloud-based platforms to enable the transport ecosystem to grow both in depth (scalability) and width (new entrants).
  • Deep analytics, to create actionable insights from the data.

In addition,to these elements, the philosophy needed to identify the right use cases and solutions is going to be very important: an end-to-end approach to innovation will enable that user-centric approach which, supported by data and digital technology, is needed to create great customer experiences, i.e., to move on to the ‘offence’.

A good example of this is given by Network Rail who had one clear objective: cut delays and drive down costs while keeping the railways safe. Given the many complexities of the rail network, an agile approach to delivery conducted by a fully multi-disciplinary team was adopted to address the challenges and create flexibility. The outcome was a Rail Asset Identification System – an artificial intelligence tool that automatically identifies, catalogues and visualises parts of the network and their location to help avoid accidents.

In conclusion, we are starting to see major innovations in the user experience of roads and rail leveraging the power of data. Applying ingenuity and an agile, end-to-end approach to innovation will be key to moving on the ‘offence’ and producing a positive experience for transport users and providers.

[1] The concepts of data offence and defence were first used by Leandro Dalle Mule and Thomas H. Davenport in a Harvard Business Review article.

[2] At PA we have identified 5 key ingredients to be successful: Centre on your customer - Speed up time to value - Design for simplicity - Build to evolve - Liberate your people.

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