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CIO interview: Michael Ibbitson, executive VP for technology and infrastructure, Dubai Airports

Former CIO at Gatwick Airport took flight to the Middle East three years ago, and is using data to transform the technology and infrastructure at Dubai Airports

Michael Ibbitson took flight from Gatwick to Dubai in January 2016. After three years in the CIO role at the UK airport, he became IT leader in its Dubai equivalent. Since then, Ibbitson has broadened his remit to take responsibility for engineering services after a year in situ and now holds the title of executive vice-president for technology and infrastructure.

In this joint leadership role, Ibbitson is working to integrate infrastructure and technology functions at Dubai Airports. The aim is to help the organisation make more efficient use of technology and data across its airport infrastructure – and it is a transition that provides benefits for the business and for Ibbitson personally.

“It’s been really exciting and a different avenue for me to explore,” he says, reflecting on his work so far. “Bringing the two functions together is helping our business to use its data to grow, so it’s also good for the organisation.”

Ibbitson looks back proudly on his achievements during his first three years in Dubai, but says the key to progress was the foundation he built soon after taking on the CIO role.

“In my first nine to 12 months, I think we achieved so much, probably as much as we managed in my three-and-a-half years at Gatwick, because I already had the experience and knowledge of running digital transformation,” he says.

“I wanted people from different parts of the industry to bring together different ideas”

Michael Ibbitson, Dubai Airports

His says his key achievement has been the transformation of the technology team. “That process is fundamentally built around building a team that has trust at the heart of it,” he says. “And that team has important levels of diversity, not just in terms of nationality and gender, but also in terms of background and skillset.”

The organisation’s hiring tactics have involved taking people from a range of sectors, such as telecoms, retail and logistics, while working to create a modern, blended team. “I wanted people from different parts of the industry to bring together different ideas,” says Ibbitson.

Dubai Airports’ data analytics team and its in-house integration capability are particularly important. “These people focus on gathering data sources, integrating them together and creating that agile capability to deliver meaningful insight based on questions posed by the business,” he says.

Using disparate data sources

Real-time data plays a crucial role in managing operational activities at Dubai Airports. Ibbitson points to the systems across baggage and passenger processing that help the airport staff stay on top of a busy schedule.

“The real-time data view across our systems helps with everything from measuring precisely the number of people in a queue to sending alerts to all the different stakeholders involved in processing passengers, such as police and immigration,” he says.

“It also helps staff measure temperatures across the facilities, especially in the summer, and helps us ensure all the passengers are comfortable and happy. If you put hundreds of passengers into a small space, you’ve got to make sure you’re keeping them cool.”

Ibbitson’s team continues to gather information, integrating more sources into its Splunk big data platform. Each bag that passes through the airport generates 200 data points about its position, such as whether it has cleared security or been loaded onto its aircraft. About 126,000 bags passed through terminal three on the busiest day in the airport’s history.

“That gives you some idea how quickly the data stacks,” he says. “We have about 24 to 26 billion data points that we gather every six months. We use that for lots of different analytical reasons and to drive future increases in performance.”

Making smarter use of enterprise applications

The organisation has also become a heavy user of the cloud. During his first year in the role, Ibbitson deployed a broad breadth of systems that helped to relieve the pressure on back-of-house systems and human resources.

That process included drawing on off-the-shelf but integrated cloud services, such as Box, Microsoft Office 365 and ServiceNow.

“That’s been key to our success,” he says. “As a modern CIO, you can leverage cloud technology very quickly, so that you can take the day-to-day load off your IT staff and then focus on your business’s main concerns.”

Ibbitson has also worked on the organisation’s application environment and the use of identity management. When he joined back in 2016, he estimates it was running as many as 130 key enterprise applications, and he knew he needed an alternative approach.

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“The fragmentation of those applications was quite high,” he says. “The identity and access management for each of those applications was segregated and siloed. And our teams would spend an inordinate amount of time creating profile data in applications for people to log into them.”

Ibbitson began a process of application consolidation, reducing the estate to about 60 main enterprise applications. He has also implemented identity management software from Okta, a system he was already familiar with using at Gatwick Airport. This platform provides an integrated access point for the organisation’s software tools, and the result for users is secure access to a simplified range of applications.

“We have one place to go to manage identities across all of our systems, including Office 365, Splunk, Box, our community app, and our real-time data platforms,” he says. “That has released a huge amount of time for our workforce off the back of that implementation.”

Working with trusted partners

Ibbitson has also used the identity management implementation to add multi-factor authentication. He says placing all employees on a single identify platform has made it much easier to ensure staff use multi-factor authentication for critical applications. Tighter identity management also makes it easier to share information with key external partners at the airport, such as major international airlines.

“We have to share data with various partners across the airport, which historically is tricky, because everybody operates on a separate domain from behind a separate firewall,” says Ibbitson.

“It takes a long time to build data integration between two completely separate companies, but it only takes two minutes to give a partner airline an account on Okta and to give it access to Splunk and secure access to a dashboard.”

Ibbitson says such joint visibility of data makes it much easier to have useful business conversations between partners. These joined-up conversations provide a strong return on investment and help support other use cases, such as potentially investing in a higher level of data integration between the airport and its external partners.

“If the approach creates sufficient business value to both entities, you can do that,” he says. “Often you don’t find out whether you have the business value until after you’ve done the integration and spent all the money. Now we can spin up an account for a third party quickly and give them access to a single application.

“And if they see value in it, they can come back to us in a month and then we’ll work on the next stage. Across a sector like ours, where we have 200 or so partners at the airport and maybe 10 to 15 really critical partners, that opportunity to be able to share data quickly is fabulous.”

Dealing with environmental considerations

So, with an integrated data platform and a high-quality data team in place at the airport, what’s next on Ibbitson’s leadership agenda? The answer is a tight focus on the key area of energy management, which falls under his remit because of his joint responsibility for technology and engineering services.

“It’s a huge potential opportunity, both in terms of efficiency and cost savings for us, as well as in terms of improving the environment, which is a critical issue for airports and airlines across the globe,” says Ibbitson.

He refers to a government agenda in Dubai to reduce energy consumption across the whole city by 30% by 2030. Ibbitson recognises that airports can make a big contribution to that target, which means his focus on energy management is increasingly important.

“After I took responsibility for engineering services in 2017, I said to my boss that I would bring the airport’s energy bill down by 20% by 2023,” he says. “Then we’ll go after the next 10% in the following 10 years. And we’re on track to do that. It’s based on lots of different projects and initiatives – but it’s all founded on big data.

“We’re tracking our energy consumption in some places in real time. So we’re deploying smart metering technologies – we’re talking about a few thousand smart meters across an airport campus to measure all these different tenants and partners in their areas to manage energy consumption better. It’s a really interesting project, because it’s engineering and technology added together. And it’s really exciting to see what results we can get from a cost-saving and environmental perspective.”

Taking advantage of big data capability

Looking even further forward, Ibbitson has plans to use emerging technologies. This includes artificial intelligence in key operational areas, such as the automation of service-desk requests. Like other airport and airline CIOs, he also has plans to use biometric technologies to help create a seamless journey for passengers from check-in to departure.

In all these transformational areas, the data capability that Ibbitson has already built within the business will play a key role. “The exciting part is creating the technology function and the mindset and culture across the organisation to use data in the appropriate way to try and solve those business problems,” he says.

“That’s probably been the most exciting thing here – being part of a transformation that has taken an organisation that didn’t have very much data on what was happening to one today that is probably world-leading in the amount of data we have and how we use it.”

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