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Ian McLaren, CFO of the UK’s biggest rail network, on open source apps, serving TBs of data daily, and not having a CIO.

"We're using APIs to pull even more data in"

Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) is the UK’s biggest rail network. In a normal year, it supports nearly a million journeys daily. The past year has not been a normal one. As a result, the company -- which operates the Thameslink, Southern, Great Northern, and Gatwick Express rail services -- has had to make a number of shifts in how it operates; including using data to react faster to events across its business.

GTR does not have a Chief Information Officer (CIO). Rather, its head of IT reports directly to CFO Ian McLaren, who has a long-standing interest in digital transformation; having previously led the finance function at cybersecurity specialist Detica (acquired by BAE Systems in 2008), and video analytics firm Digital Barriers.

McLaren joined The Stack to discuss how Govia Thameslink is adapting to huge shifts in how it must work: from open sourcing driver safety/Covid testing applications, through to using passenger insight to dynamically adjust station staffing and updates -- among a range of innovations GTR is making across its physical and IT estate.

Big on Power BI...

On the IT side GTR is a major Microsoft user and works directly with the company (rather than via a reseller).

It recently swapped out a legacy systems for a Teams-based PBX which McLaren says has saved the company over £100,000 a year, and been making growing use of Power BI to visualise data pulled from an Azure data lake, as it aims to make intelligent use of data sets to operate safely throughout the pandemic. (It also runs an on-premises Oracle ERP system that the company is considering taking to the cloud).

Ian McLaren, CFO said: “Our data platform at the moment has 50TB of data in it and we're serving one TB a day. We’re pulling in data from around 50 sources: from Network Rail’s real time train operations, to financial data – where tickets are being sold, by which operator, at which booking window, etc. -- then there’s analytics on safety data; a host of different things. We have a small but very capable data science team working on that."

Few industries have been impacted quite so dramatically by the pandemic as rail, which has had to sustain operations with radically reduced passenger numbers (it was able to do so thanks to substantial government support) while keeping those staff and passengers who are travelling safe.

"I can't speak highly enough of the daily real time reports that are coming out from the business that we've developed in house."

The company has approximately 7,500 workers; the vast majority are mobile. A rapid effort by GTR's IT team in the wake of 2020's first lockdown helped keep them as safe as possible, the CFO notes, allowing it to identify "not only identify what was happening on the front line, in terms of passengers, but also introduce an application that enabled us to rapidly get information out to the team -- from Public Health England's latest on Covid, to where we were seeing rises in sickness, etc."

He adds: "That's been very important because in the last four weeks, we've literally seen a doubling in the number of people who have been signed off with a confirmed case of Covid; we're approaching 90 colleagues who have been tested positive, so it's really enabled us to understand where we've got challenges.  I can't speak highly enough of the daily real time reports that are coming out from the business that we've developed in house."

Over the last nine months the company has rolled out 2,500 new smartphones to drivers, with Power BI-based applications allowing them to check public health updates and track precisely when a cab was treated/cleaned and by whom. (McLaren tells The Stack that "needless to say our drivers wanted to know that when they were getting into the front end of a train that it was clean and safe to do so. We clean all our trains with antiviruscide, and we're recording when trains were cleaned and by whom, along with date and time. Drivers can go on the app, stick in the head code of the train, and it'll tell you when it was last cleaned.")

GTR has also moved to open source the applications it's developed in the course of the pandemic; sharing them with other train operating companies. He notes: "We've made these available on GitHub... and we're also looking at making our data freely available as well."

Opening up data: "This isn't vapourware; it's tangible stuff that can make a real difference."

Security wise GTR outsources its SOC and SIEM functions, but has its own CISO. McLaren doubles up as de facto CIO to set strategic direction on technology ("I do a good dog and pony show… I have pretty good vision of what we need to do as an organisation and I work hand in glove with IT").

McLaren, along with GTR CEO Patrick Verwer, was also among the early driving forces behind a project called the "Billion Journey Project"; an incubator programme with a range of rail sector partners that would typically put out a challenge statement (whether around customer experience, first/last mile journey or other areas) and then run a 12-week programme with a selected cohort.

Lessons learned from that were vital in demonstrating that such industry collaboration can result in real innovation,  he says: "A lot of good things came through our innovation labs. This isn't vapourware; it's tangible stuff that can make a real difference to the industry."

He's keen as a result in the very near future to start opening up not just the source code of recently developed applications, but GTR's own data sets, telling The Stack: "While we can do some good things, there's nothing better than getting some young tech startup looking at looking at data and doing something with a correlation with something they may have spotted. We're really passionate about innovation and innovation comes from collaboration. I actually sit on what's called the Rail Data Council, which is looking at making datasets freely available in a data marketplace in the future. We're looking to do is steal a march on that and actually do it within the next couple of months. We're very proactive, we want to do it."

McLaren adds: "We're now working with the train builders, and some of the large providers to the industry [to get more data]; using API's to pull even more data in. Greater understanding real time of how passengers are travelling around our network [is also crucial]. One of the data sets we bought six months ago from Telefonica based on mobile data gave us some insight that we hadn't been aware of; for example people heading to Victoria from Brighton, only getting three or four stops out, and then going back home., or people using unexpected interchange stations. That's allowed us to adapt the profile of where staff will be allocated.

"The other thing we're looking at is our retail propositions. So during lockdown, we've introduced over 100 Amazon lockers in in our 250 stations. When people do come back to the network, they'll see that we've been investing in propositions that will give them something more than just travelling from A to B."

See also: Dr Michael Gorriz, Group CIO, Standard Chartered, on going all-in on the cloud in 2021.