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Nordic CIO interview: Kari Finnskog, Västtrafik

Swedish transport authority has opened up its IT to ensure it provides customers with a service that suits them

The days of public transport as a mass product are over, says Kari Finnskog, CIO at Swedish regional transport authority Västtrafik.

Finnskog is driving the organisation’s IT towards a future of increasingly personalised customer experience.

“IT is almost everywhere in the company today – more than I understood when I took this job,” Finnskog tells Computer Weekly. “We have IT in all the vehicles, the bus stops, on the website, mobile – everywhere. We need IT every time we want to develop something and also to run these operations.”

This is a big jump from 2009 when Finnskog joined Västtrafik, Sweden’s second-largest public transport company. In seven years, she has transformed the company’s IT from a maintenance and support function to a partner to the business. She has introduced collaborative processes, modern middleware and has opened up transport data.

In March 2016, Västtrafik became the first Swedish public transport company to offer digital tickets, season and single, through a mobile app. The app has had more than 600,000 downloads and today accounts for 10% of ticket sales.

This is all part of Västtrafik’s efforts to change the image of public transport from a mass product to a personalised journey, where customers can plan their journeys flexibly and buy tickets on the digital channels of their choice. Finnskog believes IT plays a crucial role in achieving this.

“Today IT and digitisation go hand-in-hand in developing the business,” she says. “IT is an enabler for reaching our goal of doubling the number of passengers and to have more satisfied customers.”

The art of networking

Finnskog has experience in various IT roles, from developer and system designer to managerial positions, but feels that CIO is her true calling. In this role, she can follow her ambition to lower the barriers between IT and business and bring the two closer together.

This is the challenge that originally attracted Finnskog to Västtrafik and now her work is bearing fruit.

“We didn’t have any IT strategy, so I built one, which we have implemented over the years,” she says. “That has helped us to be more agile and go from monolithic systems to more integrated ones. Today the business is aware of the importance of involving IT early in projects.”

Finnskog has also become Västtrafik’s first CIO to be part of its executive team. She leads an IT department of more than 60 staff and works with a network of consultants and suppliers.

Her approach to leadership is to emphasise collaboration and focus on strategic issues by delegating daily operational decisions. Finnskog believes that to really understand each other and be able to react quickly, IT and business people need to have regular contact points.

“I encourage my employees to network around the organisation and make decisions together in those networking meetings,” she says. “That is very important because in the new world, everything moves faster and customers want new solutions quicker than before and business models change, so you can’t wait for someone to tell you what to do.”

An open approach

The need for IT collaboration also extends beyond Västtrafik. The company employs about 300 people, but its partner network, which runs buses, trains and ticket shops, has about 9,000 employees.

Västtrafik also collaborates with external developers. As its own basic IT and infrastructure are now in a good shape, the company is focusing more on innovation. Through Finnskog, Västtrafik has taken a leading role in its sector by opening up data, creating application programming interfaces (APIs) and building developer tools.

Today there are at least 20 external apps that use the transport provider’s traffic and timetable data. Västtrafik has also taken part in hackathon events, where its data has been opened up for student and startup teams.

Finnskog see such collaborations as the only way forward because Västtrafik does not have the resources to build everything itself. Third-party developers have more freedom to innovate with the data and combine it with other data sources.

“We have updated the community platform for our internal developers together with our third-party developers,” she says. “We have new functionality, so developers can chat and have statistical information on how their app is used. And if we release new APIs, we can send information on that. It has become more of a community for developers.”  

Västtrafik’s earlier investments in modern middleware mean its infrastructure has been ready for APIs, but its IT organisation has had to adapt to make specific employees responsible for questions related to open data. That aside, the only major challenge Finnskog sees with opening up data is making sure all regulatory requirements are met.

“Sometimes people ask me: ‘Aren’t you afraid that a developer will create something bad or that isn’t good for your brand?’,” she says. “And I say no, I’m not afraid of that because the market will solve that. You don’t want to use a bad app, so people won’t use it.”

Driverless public transport?

Västtrafik believes digital channels, from smartphones to wearables, are key to driving positive customer experiences in public transport. As well as working on its own services, the company is co-operating with other transport providers to expand its offering.

A milestone was passed in 2016 when the Swedish public transport authorities agreed on national standards for electronic ticketing systems. This means better interoperability between various ticketing systems and, in future, the possibility of buying interchangeable tickets between different public transport authorities.

The demands of digitisation are also affecting the vehicles in use. Finnskog says the next step will be bus and train operators installing hardware and data communication tools into their vehicles and connecting them with the transport authority’s IT services. Currently, the transport authorities install their own systems.

“This is a very big thing we are discussing, testing and talking about with international partners,” says Finnskog. “It is hard to say when it will materialise. We have to do it in steps, but we have done a few tests, so we know it works for some of our services.”

Other plans include investigating driverless vehicles for public transport and how to combine traditional parts of public transport with other services, such as city bikes, ride sharing and even food deliveries. Whatever the future brings, Finnskog and her IT team will have their work cut out.

“I didn’t think I would be here as I long as I have,” she says. “But I am still curious and there is a lot to do to meet [customer] demands, develop public transport and be a part of community development.”

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