How TfL will use data about you to keep London moving as its population soars

Every day, 24 million journeys are made across London’s city transport network, on buses, tubes, trains, trams, boats and cable cars.

The responsibility for the daily operation of this entire network falls to Transport for London (TfL), a local government body chaired by the mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

In other words, this organisation, which employs more than 27,000 staff, is in charge of keeping London moving. And doing that increasingly requires an extremely savvy deployment of technology.

TfL has long been known for its innovation in ticketing. Even as far back as the 1950s, it was the first transport organisation in the world to use magnetic stripes – and in 2003 it put ‘Oyster card’ into the national vocabulary. But ticketing innovation has sped up rapidly in the last year, with the introduction first of contactless card transactions that remove the need to top up and, most recently, Apple’s mobile payments service, Apple Pay.

Before Apple Pay, 1 million contactless taps were being made every day on London transport, making up one in seven of all contactless transactions in the UK.

And since Apple Pay’s UK launch in July, TfL has again proven the most popular for users, with twice as many people using it to pay for a journey on a London bus, tube or train than any other outlet.

‘We think Apple Pay will revolutionise London transport,’ says Steve Townsend, CIO at TfL. ‘We’re the first public sector organisation to look at Apple Pay and utilise it in this way.

‘A few years ago, we used to think about getting the next train there or the next bus there or making sure we’ve got cleans taps – now we’re talking about enhancing the travelling public’s experience.

‘It’s really important that it’s not just about the getting from A to B, but how you get there and what kind of experience you have, so we believe that things like Apple Pay and other technologies we’re bringing in around journey planning and travel information provides choice.’

Tight squeeze

The biggest challenge facing TfL in the coming years, however, is London’s rapidly growing population.

Currently accommodating 8.6 million people within its 1,572 square kilometres of land, with a population density of 5,197 people per square kilometre, London is Western Europe’s largest city. By 2030, that population is expected to reach 10 million.

Anybody who commutes in London during the rush hour will be daunted by this prospect. It falls to TfL to prepare London’s transport services for this inevitable spike in demand – and technology must be the enabler.

But just how efficient can you make a railway or bus network? The answer, TfL now believes, lies in big data and analytics – predicting when things are going to go wrong and optimising transport networks accordingly.

‘If they aren’t in optimal shape, it becomes a very difficult journey for the travelling public,’ says Townsend. ‘So it’s highly important that we get our mechanics around commercial management or ordering spare parts and making sure they turn up on time.’

TfL is investing in condition monitoring, data collection and machine learning to predict how those assets are going to behave.

It believes that these tools will allow it to understand how its assets are going to respond under certain conditions by utilising travel data and putting it through its paces in real time, but not actually wearing buses or trains out. 

A centralised asset management regime across the organisation will, it hopes, drive out some of the mechanical costs, while resource management will make sure that the right people are doing the right things at the right time.

‘We’re even looking at our ERP systems and what’s the best way to do resource planning, and some of our relationship management to make sure that our third parties are in the right place at the right time,’ says Townsend. ‘We’re trying to predict what is the best way to manage traffic flow around London.’

This includes things like capturing data from windscreen wipers on cars and information on when drivers brake or accelerate heavily, creating insights around how weather conditions and other factors affect the speed at which people drive.

Up to the second

Recording such travel characteristics chalks up trillions of data transactions, so Townsend has invested in SAP’s in-memory analytics platform, HANA, to manage data and improve decision-making in real time.

‘“It happened 15 minutes ago” is not going to be good enough in the future when you’re trying to manage the demand of the ever-increasing population,’ he says.

Operating one of the world’s largest metropolitan telecoms networks, TfL has previously taken the approach of having to ‘cope’ with the huge volumes of data at its disposal. Now, Townsend wants to utilise it.

Last July, TfL selected services from analytics firm Tibco to bring together data sources across the organisation and generally improve how internal departments share information.

By centralising data management, TfL is able to build a more accurate view of traffic flow across London, and then act on that information to improve transport services.

>See also: Why London is leading the European wearables industry

‘Our big data story is growing. It’s growing with thought leadership, which is very important, and because we’ve got more courage to put this data together. The courage comes with the ability to do it.’

This involves looking at not just data from all the different journeys in London, but also the front-end data relating to how customers plan journeys and interact with TfL. Its ability to mix that personalised data with its capabilities regarding back-end platforms is of the most value to TfL going forward. It wants to understand when people travel, what they like to do and where they like to visit.

‘With that information, we can do demand planning or travel management in a completely different way,’ says Townsend. ‘By using one with the other, we come up with a new answer for how we plan London’s transport network.’

Value from data

But what, ultimately, is the business value of TfL investing significant sums of money and resources into big data?

While many organisations have struggled to identify tangible ROI from big data investment, Townsend focuses on how it can drive productivity, deliver more trains per hour, improve air quality by examining congestion charging and get more buses down a street without harming traffic flow.

‘If we can put all those facts together – a green agenda, a productivity perspective and saving money because we’re smarter – we’re definitely going to see a return on our investments in big data.’

One data initiative that doesn’t need its ROI justifying is open data, which is the idea of making information available for others to use. TfL has done just that by sharing real-time transport data with partner businesses to develop cloud-based applications.

TransportAPI, for example, brought all national transport data together to create the UK’s only complete transport API. This has led to the creation of more than 500 apps that help people get from A to B in London, which has eased the pressure on TfL to build its own transport applications and the IT infrastructure to support them.

‘I think open data is really important because, in some respects, it gives the power to the development community,’ says Townsend. ‘It’s almost like a crowdsourcing opportunity, and it’s like free R&D.

‘It’s also good to allow businesses to operate in a different way, which gives a sort of reverse benefit for TfL. If they can take some data and deliver goods at different times of the day, or work with their customers to accept goods at different times, it automatically gives us a free return on investment just by allowing them to utilise it.’

There’s no doubt that the trading of data gives TfL the ability to do more with the open marketplace, but Townsend also talks of a ‘strong appetite’ within the organisation to build a decisions platform that provides people with advice on how to travel.

‘It knows where they’ve been, where they’re going and their calendar entries – real-time information about where you want to go. That takes big data to exactly where it needs to be in London: informing people on how best to get about to give them the greatest potential for productivity.’

Moving target

But all this talk of trillions of data points and sharing with third parties is surely enough to trigger the curiosity of any modern-day hacker.

It’s easy to see how TfL could be vulnerable to a cyber attack. It has an extensive public Wi-Fi network and operates one of the most extensive contactless payment services in the world. Add to that the automation and infrastructure behind its transport systems, traffic controls and staff collaboration, and there is a disconcerting number of potential access points.

On top of his IT responsibilities, Townsend is also responsible for cyber security at TfL, which brings a whole new level of responsibility to his job.

Ten years ago, when Islamist extremists devastatingly targeted London transport, the idea of a CIO being heavily involved in securing the public was unheard of. But at a time of high alert to terrorist threat, a technology-driven attack – an act of cyber warfare – is no longer outside the realms of possibility.

‘I help the federated team respond to incidents – being prepared and making sure we contract with our third parties in the right way,’ says Townsend. ‘The more of that awareness you have across the organisation, the less you have to worry about because you’re naturally building in a protection mechanism.

Townsend regularly briefs TfL’s leadership board on these matters, and admits that they are interested in the steps and measures being taken to protect not only TfL, but also its employees and the travelling public.

‘It is becoming harder but collectively, as an industry, if we join forces then we will make it harder to penetrate the precautions we are putting in place,’ he says. ‘Am I worried? Yes. Am I worried day-to-day? No, because we are collectively addressing the risks around cyber security for TfL.’

When pressed on exactly how a hacker could disrupt London transport services through an orchestrated cyber attack, Townsend is not willing to play ball.

‘If I tell you what they could do, that could give an opportunity for someone to do it,’ he says. ‘One of the first rules of cyber is never to give your weak points away.’

However, he does emphasise that if a cyber attack was executed and somebody was able to get into TfL’s systems, his team has built in ‘fail-safes’ that will allow the organisation to keep operating and London to keep moving.

People power

Looking forward, TfL has much in the pipeline technology-wise, including a growing emphasis on green travel, but it is the prospect of more driverless trains that attracts the most attention.

Trains running on the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) have been entirely automated since its inauguration in 1987, and TfL is keen to roll out this system to its Underground stock in order to increase capacity for the surging population.

Last October, it unveiled a new generation of driverless trains that will come into service in 2022. The first to get the trains, the Piccadilly Line, will enjoy 60% increased capacity, while the Waterloo & City line will get an extra 50%, and the Central and Bakerloo lines an extra 25%.

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The question on everyone’s lips internally, however, is how will all these initiatives affect their jobs?

Just a year after a major tube strike over the full automation of ticketing – resulting in the loss of 953 front-line staff – Townsend is eager to emphasise the human element of his technology strategy.

Indeed, just like the DLR, the proposal for the new trains includes a passenger service agent (PSA) on-board each train to patrol and make announcements.

‘Will vehicles that drive themselves play a part in our future? You’ve only got to read the press to know that that’s the direction we’re going in because that drives a value-based service going forward,’ he says. ‘But that’s not me saying we’re going to remove people and reduce the population of TfL, because there will always be a need for people in our organisation.

‘We’re a service-based organisation – not a just a mover of transport anymore – so people are paramount for the end-to-end service.’

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...