Information Age Roundtable: The power of data in transport and logistics

Transport and logistics, more than ever, is harnessing the power of data to ensure a quick recovery from the current pandemic. The sector has been among one of the hardest hit by Covid-19, and as use of public transport, as well as cars and coaches, has been greatly reduced due to lockdown, the industry faces a substantial rebuilding job as it tries to navigate its way back to prosperity.

“I started to see the impacts in early January, when a client from the aviation industry came and basically said ‘I’m closing down all the projects from the middle of January’,” said Theo Quick, global deputy industry head of retail, transport & logistics at Atos.

Sue Walnut, head of IT service for UK and Germany at National Express Group, spoke about how the pandemic had particularly affected the coach industry.

“Our white coaches have not run at all for several months in the UK. They’ve just started reoperating, but this has had a big impact” said Walnut.

“Our urban bus operations have seen huge falls in patronage, and although we have continued throughout the pandemic to transport key workers and other people who are able to do it, the biggest concern that we have is how the government in particular are looking to balance the clean air that everybody’s been celebrating, with their contradictory messages telling people to avoid taking public transport. So that is probably our biggest challenge going forward.”

However, at a recent transport and logistics roundtable organised by Information Age and Information Builders, a variety of effective use cases for data within transport and logistics were revealed.

Discussing how Information Builders have been able to help transport and logistics companies get the best out of their data, Gary Pemberton, the data and analytics provider’s pre-sales consultant, explained: “A lot of customers we talk to tell us about where they are today and where they have been, but they’re really trying to do is understand where they’re going to be going in the future, and we’re bringing information together to allow them to do that.”

Bill Harmer, senior vice-president EMEA at Information Builders, added: “Firstly, we help to give transparent shipment and delivery information to customers and partners in real-time. Secondly, we support supply chain management, alleviate potential issues, raise alerts, mitigate risks and help to avoid bottlenecks.

“Thirdly, we deliver predictive performance, identifying patterns, and predicting demand or changes in people’s forward supply chain activity.”

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Steve Bailey, senior solutions architect at Wincanton, addressed the shift to remote collaboration tools that most companies have had to undertake to accommodate staff working from home.

“From an organisational perspective, we’ve seen a fundamental shift in the technology we use. It’s been interesting to see how Microsoft Office 365 has helped our drive to become a more collaborative workforce,” said Bailey.

“We’ve seen changes in colleagues’ behaviour patterns, where they are able to maintain 20-40 projects at any one time. Using collaborative tools and data has certainly helped us to deliver a better service for our customers.”

Adapting to change

A prominent takeaway from the discussion between sector experts was how quickly the industry has had to adapt to the circumstances, which has made planning for future practices more difficult.

“The pace of change is the fastest it’s ever been in human history,” said Dan Myers, managing director UK&I at XPO Logistics. “But the direction is less predictable. Who would have thought we would be where we are today, six months ago?

“I think what our digital infrastructure does is demonstrate our ability to adapt very quickly. It’s provided that agility we’ve needed as an organisation.

“We’ve built things in a matter of days that we never envisaged having to create. Right now, it’s still difficult to see what the new normal will look like, and because that’s less clear to us, the need to pivot and change quickly will be the difference between success and failure.

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“XPO has been investing about $550 million in technology annually and recently launched a new ‘points of interest’ GPS-based map function for its Drive XPO mobile app for truck drivers. This is to help commercial truck drivers find truck stations and amenities that are nearby and operating, avoiding closures caused by COVID-19 restrictions.”

Simon Reed, head of technology and data, surface transport at Transport for London, added: “You couldn’t have foreseen the changes that we’ve seen recently where trends in the next five to 10 years just happen in three months. Cash: gone, working from home: mandatory. It’s just happened.”


Reed went on to discuss how TFL has managed fragmented data sources: “It (our data sources) are definitely not cohesive due to the size of operation. We have a lot of stovepipe operational system implementations, and the tools we use to monitor the bus service, road service, trams and taxis are all line-of-business applications, and everything we do produces a phenomenal amount of data.

“The key to managing this is getting that data together into a form of data that others can use, to get the results of your operation. With that, we have a small team who takes that data ingest to a single place and translates that to the needs of directors and the DFT.

“This (reporting) is a lot about origins and destinations. What you find as an operator is you’ve got control of this on your own closed network. What we’re having to do as the transport authority is join those network dots up, so if someone uses both multiple modes of transport, we have to report the origin and destination over all of those networks.

“It’s been less about having one system, but about having one team with access to the right level of data, then they can apply the right algorithms across all sources.”

Continuing on the topic of fragmented data, Simon Rennie, head of digital at Siemens, added: “In our world, there are 3000 different assets all running around the network, so it’s a question of how to create a common view of everything that brings together the data that’s relevant for operators and passengers, so that our own teams and third parties can develop software to deliver insight. It’s absolutely vital.”

Bouncing back

Simon Mardle, principal at Capgemini, talked about the requirements needed for the transport and logistics sector to successfully respond to the Covid-19 crisis.

“We were already living in a complicated world, and I think it’s just got even more complex,” he said. “We’ve been used to optimising processes that have been in place for many years, but now we have many new ones that need to be refined and improved to ensure they are efficient and effective in dealing with our new normal requirements.

“Customers are now looking for new and different services, whether this be through a shift to online shopping, or different types of product provenance and visibility to boost customer confidence in the products they purchase.

“What the future of technology could bring us is an opportunity to deliver a win across customer concerns, and help us go faster than we’ve gone before, but in addition to delivering new technology in a more agile way that can be integrated in bite-sized chunks, we also need to think about the environment staff are working in, so that we can leverage that technology and get the best from it.

“There’s also a mindset shift required throughout the industry to make it more data-driven than ever before, and to do that, you have to trust in technology and the data that feeds it. This is a challenge in itself when technology is fed with inaccurate data; this can cause people to lose confidence and fight technology rather than work with it.”

According to Quick, it could take time to build confidence back up within the sector, but AI and IoT can boost this aspect.

“If you look at the cruise line industry, a lot of how they’re going to put that confidence back in is through technology,” he explained. “As we start to come out [of the pandemic], businesses are starting to embrace IoT a lot more, implementing this into IoT enabled hand sanitisers. There’s nothing worse from a public perception point of view than turning up to a hand sanitizer provided by an organisation and finding that it’s empty.

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“Vision AI technologies can be used for remote temperature checks as people are going in, and for enforcing social distancing. We’re starting to see a lot more of these discussions being held with clients who aren’t operating yet, but are starting to think about how to embrace this.

“We’re also working with an airport group who are starting to build help kiosks with 100 different languages provided using AI. They’re rolling those out now, even though the airports are closed.”

Harnessing and monetising data

Harnessing data within for transport and logistics firms, according to Graeme McDermott, chief data & analytics officer at Addison Lee, this can be achieved through effective challenging of how staff use reports.

“I think that teams should find the time to challenge people on how they’re using reports,” said McDermott. “In a previous company, we carried out an Excel-based exercise where we’d ask recipients to complete a spreadsheet and state how often they look at reports.

“In the back end of new tools, we could see who was using those reports and visualisations, versus when you ask people if they’re using them, you know they haven’t opened [the report] for three weeks or three months. This way, you save time and can switch unneeded reports off.”

Cassandra Moons, data protection officer at TomTom, meanwhile, talked about the idea of feeding data to customers and regulatory bodies using various channels.

“We feed real time traffic services to our automotive customers, using our in-dash navigation system, and we need to be sure that the quality of the output is really high and accurate at all times,” said Moons.
“To maintain that, we also need to be sure that the quality of the input is maintained throughout the whole process, and by establishing a continuous feedback loop.

“As you’re driving with TomTom products and you authorise sharing of information with TomTom, you also contribute to accurate up-to-date traffic information, such as traffic jams further down the road. This also helps drivers know the best routes and their estimated times of arrival.

“Looking at data quality from a regulatory point of view, data such as personal details needs to be accurate, collected and maintained in line with GDPR, and must be corrected if it’s inaccurate and no longer kept than necessary.”

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Knowing how to monetise the data at a company’s disposal is bound to be vital for recovery from Covid-19, and according to Tom Pigden, commercial director at Optrak, this requires some creativity.

“There’s too much of a feeling of ‘Things are working well enough as it is’, and not enough innovation,” said Pidgen. “We would love customers to come and say ‘We’d like to try this’, but sometimes they can be scared of it because they haven’t realised all the possible questions they could be asking, and they’re worried that they’ll get a high quote back for the work.

“In terms of doing something new [in route planning], you can start using information to drive contract negotiations. The best organisations are the ones that come up with creative ways and challenge their providers to do something interesting development-wise.”

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Aaron Hurst

Aaron Hurst is Information Age's senior reporter, providing news and features around the hottest trends across the tech industry.

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