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Highways England's ambitious Digital, Data and Technology Strategy wins CIO plaudits.

Digital twins, more open standards, less technical debt...

An ambitious Digital, Data and Technology Strategy published by Highways England -- the government-owned company that manages England’s motorways and major A-roads -- has won plaudits from CIOs, as the organisation moves to fundamentally transform its technology environment and generate more insight from data amid a £27.4 billion investment in the strategic road network (SRN) between 2020 and 2025.

Technology investments will allow Highways England to heavily automate and optimise the lifecycle of major projects, boost lifecycle management of OT assets, and even reduce "plant/site operative conflicts through increased use of connected and semi-automated plant for construction", the digital strategy (published May 2021) notes. Technology investments will also allow the company to use sensor technology and data science to predict demand, weather, environmental, traffic and asset conditions, it said.

See also: James Gfrerer: The Federal CIO on stewarding taxpayer’s dollars in complex IT environments.

The strategy is being led by CIO Victoria Higgin, who joined the company in late 2019 from National Grid. She noted in the report: "We can only transform, enable and improve through a relentless focus on growing in-house digital, data and technology capabilities. We'll need expertise and knowledge in critical technical areas, as well as building strong and mutually beneficial partnerships with an expert supply chain.

New Highways England Digital Strategy: From digital twins to automated plant.
Highways England CIO Victoria Higgin is leading delivery.

She added: "This plan builds on a strong foundation - some of this work has already started, and armed with this strategy, we're clear about what needs to happen next." (On a a recent call with The Stack, one CIO for a public sector body admitted to a little "professional jealousy" at the strategy, highlighting it as a great example of data use to drive bold digital transformation.)

Among recent successes, Highways England set up a new "Data-as-a-Service" platform with consultancy BJSS (it is wholly Highways England-owned.) This was built on Databricks and Azure Synapse as a cloud-native data architecture platform. The aim is to allow any team to build data pipelines and deliver data projects in one place, as the company plumbs in ever more data sources.

Highways England Digital Strategy

The company recently restructured its IT delivery capabilities and also shared a new £1 billion IT and OT commercial framework approach with suppliers that it says will become the standard for engaging with the supply chain during 2021 -- it hopes to bring in more SMEs to the supply chain too.

Under the new strategy, Highways England aims to reduce technical debt, introduce open standards for increased interoperability, (something that will also let it move on from a bespoke CCTV solution and get future CCTV cameras from the open market, for example), and implement "a strategic platform approach with fewer, and more reliable platforms, to encourage re-use, reduce costs, enhance security and make use of the services that deliver most value", the Highways England digital strategy reveals.

The generation of insights from data, "considering the entire lifecycle of major projects" -- including by providing "fit-for-purpose asset databases which are accessible on strategic platforms" -- is a key priority.

Greater digitalisation of the SRN will increase vulnerability to cyber threats, the paper acknowledges frankly. Highways England says it will take a "deeper strategic approach to cybersecurity by providing threat intelligence, strategic procurement support and scenario testing to find threats and incidents before they happen", while investing heavily in training up staff on security as part of developing "a digital, data and technology-driven culture."

It also plans to establish a Digital Leaders Forum, which will build a CIO network for the roads construction industry to "increase transparency and
collaboration" and help it get the most out of innovation happening across the supply chain.

Read the full Highways England Digital Strategy here (pdf).