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CIO interview: Malcolm Lowe, head of IT, Transport for Greater Manchester

Data analytics, agile working and contactless technology are helping to improve transport services across the Manchester area

Manchester is famous for a few things: its football clubs, its music scene, its wet weather. It also has one of the UK’s best local transport systems – and Malcolm Lowe, head of IT at Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), is the executive responsible for ensuring that technology helps transport across the city to flow as efficiently as possible.

As many as 5.6 million journeys are made across the region’s transport network every day. TfGM is a local government body that works with bus, tram and train operators and oversees some of Manchester’s busiest roads. Lowe says technology and data are the key to enabling the continual improvement of travel options and services for customers.

“It’s a fascinating place to work because we deal with everything from websites and mobile applications all the way through to CCTV, cameras and traffic signals at highway junctions,” he says. “That range from a technology point of view is really interesting, but the most important thing for me is that it’s actually providing a really valuable service to Greater Manchester.”

After almost 11 years at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), where he latterly served as digital director and chief technology officer, Lowe joined TfGM in February 2017. Although the sector and the challenges were new, he says the move was in many ways an opportunity to come home.

“I’m a resident and I grew up in Greater Manchester,” he says. “This role is about giving something back to Greater Manchester as a region and helping it to expand and grow. Our work makes a visible difference. As a CIO, a lot of things you do, you’re quite distant from the end-user – here, we’re actually making a difference.”

Since joining TfGM, Lowe has been responsible for a range of IT implementations. He has also branched out into other operational areas and became head of smart ticketing when the organisation began implementing an intelligent contactless system that eliminates the need for passengers to have paper tickets or to download an app.

“I’m really enjoying it,” says Lowe, referring to his leadership role. “It’s the breadth – there’s a wide range of technologies. Transport is moving forward and embracing a lot of digital systems and services as well, such as the cloud and machine learning. It’s fascinating because we get to work on everything from software to hardware and on to infrastructure.”

“Transport is moving forward and embracing a lot of digital systems and services”

Malcolm Lowe, Transport for Greater Manchester

Lowe says one of his greatest achievements since taking up the role was being asked to lead the implementation of TfGM’s smart-ticketing system. Beyond the considerable responsibility of overseeing the project, Lowe was also charged with leading the team in business-related areas such as marketing and operations. He says the sole aim was to make contactless an everyday reality on the Manchester Metrolink network.

“It was something the organisation had tried unsuccessfully quite a few years ago and I was asked whether I would take charge and make it happen,” says Lowe.

“It was a great honour to be asked to do that, so I temporarily separated my IT role to take on this piece of work and I was able to help the organisation deliver smart ticketing in a more agile and iterative way.”

This agile programme of work drew on Lowe’s experiences from DWP, where he had been using tools and techniques in the organisation’s digitisation efforts. Work on this iterative programme of work began in early 2018.

In July 2019, the Metrolink network, which is the largest light-rail network in the UK, joined New York, London, Rio de Janeiro and Singapore as a major city with an “intelligent” contactless transport system, which provides touch-in and touch-out function at tram stops and automatically charges customers the cheapest fares for their journeys.

“The organisation was really up for this,” says Lowe, thinking back on the agile work his team completed. “We did alphas and betas. And when we turned it on, it has worked from day one – it’s been a great success.”

Demonstrating the art of the possible

Going ticketless has also created a surfeit of new information relating to travel patterns. TfGM needed the ability to use big data to understand and make improvements to the network, services and the products it provides to customers. Lowe says the majority of his work in technology since joining the organisation has related to creating this insight.

“The organisation has a lot of data and information,” he says. “It was in lots of pockets; people were using all sorts of different tools and techniques. We recognised there was a great opportunity for the organisation to really embrace analytics.” 

Lowe says his initial efforts were focused on getting people from across the organisation to understand what opportunities data might provide. He focused on showing business stakeholders what he calls “the art of the possible” through a proof of concept.

“We had some spare capacity, we had some spare licences and we got a couple of data engineers to create an alpha,” he says. “I’ve got some bright people in my team. I tasked them to get as much data as they could from across the organisation for a single month. We put that data into an Azure SQL Server Data Warehouse and put Power BI over the top of it.

“We found a couple of use cases across the organisation for people who were really interested in our ideas. We built something for them, they got to use it and they really liked it. I’m a big believer in people seeing something tangible. We showed the executive team the art of the possible – we made it real for people.”

Taking a strategic approach to data

This proof-of-concept model ended up being embedded in the day-to-day work of the organisation, so it was starting to provide some mission-critical services. Lowe says he also knew contactless was coming and would produce reams of data. It was then that he moved from proof of concept to full implementation.

“We needed to put something in place that was a little bit more strategic and aligned with our principles as a technology organisation,” he says. “So we went down the data warehouse as-a-service route and, ultimately, chose Snowflake.”

Read more transport CIO interviews

TfGM is using Snowflake’s cloud-built data platform to harness and analyse crucial mobility data. The organisation worked with data-warehouse specialist Crimson Macaw to improve its wider technology stack. As well as Snowflake, TfGM has adopted Amazon Web Services (AWS) using AWS Lambda functions, and Matillion ETL and Tableau online.

TfGM now uses Snowflake and its associated technology stack to run micro simulations of transport networks and to extract travel patterns from its datasets. Lowe and his team can use this data to pinpoint the amount of people entering and exiting certain stations during busy events, including Premier League football matches and big music concerts.

Lowe says a tighter grip on data will allow the organisation to generate even more insight going forward. “From an organisational point of view, it’s about building on the foundations that we’ve got in terms of the insight and analytics platform,” he says. “That will mean looking at more use cases and bringing more data in.”

Pushing ahead with pilots

Lowe and his team are now using data to help create a range of different services on the Metrolink, such as early-bird ticketing options. The aim of this work is to encourage customers to travel outside peak rush-hours and to help reduce congestion.

TfGM is also investigating how it might take advantage of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to help analyse other parts of the network. Those data-led efforts – which will focus on traffic junctions and traffic signals – are currently at a pilot stage.

“One of the things we’re actually doing within the Snowflake platform is trying to bring in real-time data from the highways and real-time data from the buses, so we can actually see how the network is performing,” he says. “So if there’s a disruption or car crash, we might change the signal on the traffic lights on a certain route.

“This platform allows us see the impact of that – did it work, did it not work? Then, if similar things happen again, if our approach didn’t work, we can try something different. So it allows us to analyse our interventions and consider whether they have made a difference or not.”

Widening access to data

Lowe says one of TfGM’s other internal priorities is collaboration. It is putting in place products and services – such as Microsoft Office 365 – to enable its employees to work in a more collaborative and dynamic way. “That means you don’t always have to be in the office to do your work,” he says.

“We’re continuing to transform our technology landscape – there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff happening. We’re also going through a big organisational transformation and we are really investing in our people, as well and bringing skills in-house, rather than relying on third-party suppliers.”

That development work will extend into some of the other pioneering areas – such as machine learning and AI – that Lowe is eager to exploit in the next few years. He also wants to take advantage of application programming interfaces (APIs), and is keen to help other organisations exploit the static and real-time data that his organisation has already created.

“It’s about the democratisation of our functions – things like the purchasing of a ticket,” he says. “We want to provide the capability to purchase a ticket, so that other partners can then embed these functions in their applications.

“By opening up our functions and providing an API to consume our data, we will help others to create great services for us.”

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