by Edward Qualtrough

TfL CIO Steve Townsend taking Olympics confidence into new projects

Jul 18, 201312 mins
Cloud ComputingGovernmentIT Leadership

A year on from the London 2012 Olympics, Transport for London (TfL) CIO Steve Townsend is still buoyed by his organisation’s success in delivering a smooth service during Games time and is looking forward to his next projects, which include building on the underground WiFi rollout and a complete overhaul of TfL’s end-user computing.

Townsend, who began his role in August 2011, oversees the technology that moves 24 million people around the capital daily, and told CIO in June 2013 that TfL has been working with a new confidence since last summer.

“The Games to me proved the benefit of planning,” he said, “and not just for my information management (IM) department but for the whole organisation.

“While some of those early horror stories were being written we were busy running scenario after scenario, making sure no stone was left unturned.

“Did it boost our confidence? Certainly. We knew the task was huge, and the reliance on technology was massive. We were extremely proud of what we could deliver.

“And it demonstrated to the wider TfL the power of working collaboratively.

“There are other things I’m proud of doing but being part of that journey and being able to support an organisation and challenge the public perception we have and to deliver that level of service made me extremely proud.”

WiFi rollout

Aside from the ubiquitous, dumb Britain-esque articles peddled by some sections of the media about the UK’s ability to deliver on a grand scale, TfL had to deal with the huge influx of visitors while also rolling out its ambitious underground WiFi project – 200ft below the surface in one of the world’s oldest underground systems, much of it with Victorian infrastructure.

Townsend and his team hit their goal of having connectivity installed in 72 key stations by the start of the Olympics, which he said demonstrated the organisation’s ability to respond to the travelling public’s needs, and utilise technology as part of the future customer service they offer.

Subsequently, 120 Tube stations are now live – with Townsend and his team now looking at ways TfL can use the new infrastructure to improve their own way of working.

“We are looking at not just the travelling public’s benefits of having that level of mobility. What was always part of the strategy was how we would enable internal mechanisms to utilise the new service.”

Townsend explained that the WiFi system – delivered on budget and on track to deliver its RoI by 2017 – is already underpinning a number of other projects, including data monitoring in order to run a smoother service.

“We’re not just leveraging the fact that it’s available to our customers, we’re leveraging the fact we have an internal WiFi capability and we’re utilising that to transmit real-time information and also use conditional monitoring data as well.

“What’s the health of a train, or escalator? What’s the health of a lift? Then proactively we can fix them before they actually break.

“We’re taking data wirelessly from a number of our mechanical and non-mechanical services. Although we haven’t converged the systems, we have been able to converge the data.

“As trains trundle around the underground we’re able to communicate with them in a way we’ve not been able to do before, picking up that data and sending it back to our maintenance teams who can make a judgement call about whether you leave that train in service, or take it out of service at the next opportunity and replace it with a healthy one.

“To have that capability in 120 stations is a tremendous achievement – through that we’ve seen the true leverage of the commercial marketplace.”

End-user computing

One of Townsend’s biggest programmes at the moment is a complete overhaul of TfL’s end-user computing for its workers.

“We’ve got to make sure we are delivering efficient services across the organisation so people can get on with their jobs of moving people across London. We have to address our end-user computing domain,” he said.

“It’s due a refresh but we’re not just doing a desktop upgrade by replacing shiny boxes, we’re looking at the end-user experience and enabling this organisation to work on the devices it needs to work better itself and enable itself to become more efficient.

“We’re looking at the desktop clearly, but also at mobility and how we can provide real-time information and management information to our end users internally in the most effective and up-to-date way.”

But TfL will not be looking at leading-edge technology, Townsend told CIO, since he believes that it’s not right for a public sector organisation to test and trial new adventures of the software providers around the world.

“But we are providing appropriate technology to enable the organisation to the full. This will touch everybody in the organisation,” Townsend said.

“It’s not about sticking the latest PC on a desktop, it’s about understanding personas of the organisation and making sure the information is delivered appropriately to how people want to accept it or utilise it to the full.

“Saying that one size fits all – I don’t think cuts the mustard.

“If you give basic functionality to a high-end user they’re not efficient and cost-effective. But if you give everybody high-end IT, equipment and user interfaces, that’s not very efficient either.

“We need to give our users what they need to support them in their duties, whether they be in maintenance, franchise management, management of roads, streets or traffic lights, and service that information up in the most appropriate way.

“That’s what end-user computing is about, and that’s what we’ve set on this year.”

The TfL pilot of 1,000 users finishes in September, which will serve as the production platform for all 27,000 TfL members of staff.

Mobile and BYOD

Of course, an end-user computing project or pilot scheme has to take into account whatever kind of bring-your-own device trend exists at the organisation. Townsend acknowledges that this is absolutely no different at TfL and he faces similar issues to plenty of other CIOs.

“Where there’s a need for the business to be more mobile, we’ll justify the business case and we’ll supply those devices to our people to carry out their job,” he said.

But Townsend is concerned about some of the pitfalls of employees who have one personal device to carry out their role with no back-up, and thinks CIOs need to be wary of the pressures this can put on staff.

“As a secondary tool I think there’s an opportunity to allow people to their personal devices. And that should be some basic information we transfer from our own internal networks on to those personal devices.

“But we have to be careful because everybody who works for TfL contributes to TfL and they are more and more reliant on technology. Therefore if the tech breaks, fails or it’s lost – we need to be able to control it and I need to be able to replace it very quickly, and I think that would be unfair to put the burden on someone to replace their device in 24 hours.

“We’ve got critical business services that we can’t afford to be without for that length of time. So I think there’s a place for BYOD, but I think it’s a secondary device and I think we need to look at the business case very carefully.”

Collaboration and the customer experience

Townsend echoed a growing theme among CIOs of the customer experience being more at the forefront of his role and his team’s minds, and explained some of the duties of his C-level colleague Shashi Verma, the chief customer experience officer.

Townsend said: “The customer experience is the first consideration of not just information management, but for every department at TfL. One of the first considerations when you’re making a simple change across the IT estate is what the impact is on the travelling customer. And if there is an impact, what is the benefit?

“We realise we have improvements to make; our customer satisfaction survey is at an all-time high but we’re not sitting back – we’re looking at ways we can improve that.

“We’re exploring all avenues but not all areas of technology always enhance the customer experience so we have to make sure we’re spending our budgets wisely.”

Data projects

One way swathes of Londoners might suggest transport in the city has improved in very recent years is the huge number of third-party apps which have used TfL data to aid getting around the capital, from timetables to real-time bus and train updates.

Townsend explained that TfL have strongly encouraged data transparency and a lot of their vehicle positioning data is made available through the London Data Store, a termination point or API, allowing developers to go and pick up what they need.

“We are utilising cloud services to make this available to make this available to the developers who are out there who want to make some of these fantastic applications.

“Open sourcing this information has been a huge success. But we do need to be careful because some of the ways the data is interpreted is not always beneficial to the travelling public.

“The advice we put out is based on years and years of intelligence on how best to run transport in London. You get conflicts, but at the same time opening up our data remains an extremely powerful way for a public sector organisation of getting travelling data across to the people.”

Cloud compliance

While Townsend and TfL have been able to use the cloud to host services for developers, it’s a different set of rules altogether for other aspects of TfL data – and whatever the cloud is defined as.

“We utilise the cloud for different functions. The cloud is such a strange term,” Townsend says, “and I don’t think we’ve decided as an industry what the cloud really means.

“People could say that most of my network is hosted in the cloud because we’ve sourced it externally; we could categorise that network as a cloud.

“There are elements of services where I offer software-as-a-service and storage-as-a-service as well, but some people don’t really think that’s a cloud while others do.

“What we’re doing is utilising cloud services where it best fits the organisation and where it’s driving real value, but we obviously need to adhere to regulatory compliance.

“There are certain elements of TfL data which we need to know exactly where it is at all times and apply the correct levels of regulation and compliance around that. And it’s not just regulation and compliance, we also have a care of duty to understand the close protection of people’s data.”

Townsend was also more than happy to discuss openly TfL’s procurement plans, which he has previously stated is a priority when a significant number of the current tenure come around.

“It’s not a secret that we’ve been out soft-market testing, looking at the different ways and options that we can supply information management and IT back to TfL. Every organisation should be constantly looking at whether they are delivering the fastest, most efficient, reliable services to its internal and external companies.”


Townsend said that TfL were moving to a SIAM-based model (service integration and management), looking at the renegotiation of all of the organisation’s key contracts over the next 18-24 months – with Townsend having lined up the deals to co-terminate over the same period.

“It’s about the way we offer services to our organisation in a completely transformed way. Looking at those insourced services and asking whether it’s more appropriate to outsource them, looking at those outsourced services that maybe should be closer to the organisation that we need to control in a better way.

“We’re mobilising the team to be able to go out to market to start to advertise those contracts, those towers as part of the SIAM model in a logical fashion. It’s likely that we’ll see some activity in the network space, and likely that we’ll see some activity in the application space, as well as our preparations for implementing our SIAM model.”

Townsend acknowledged that it can be tougher for smaller businesses to win large public sector contracts due to the application process, and said that the new Information Management Sourcing Strategy has been described by the TfL leadership team as the most pragmatic sourcing strategy for IM in recent history. It could offer smaller organisations a better chance of earning TfL deals, he noted.

“We work with a combination of organisations. There are times when the larger organisations are correct and proper to utilise, and there are times when niche services, particularly around forward thinking, and other smaller organisations can help you with.

“Sometimes start-ups can find it difficult to negotiate their way through the process. As part of the IMSS we will not just create a number of towers to support our organisations, we will also put a number of frameworks together which will allow us to pick up some of the more niche organisations so we can effectively deliver the full spectrum of services the information management department needs to provide.

“I would have thought the IMSS will make the engagement process a lot slicker and more comfortable – particularly for some of the smaller and medium-type enterprises.”

For now, Townsend is juggling all the CIO balls at once with the addition of budget constraints that constantly hang over a public-funded organisation. He said that the leadership team, which he is included on, have been “optioneering” – looking at difference scenarios and percentage points and the level of service TfL and his IM department could offer and where they can find better value in the marketplace.

“All this is happening in the background,” he says.

“Everyone in the world right now understands what austerity really means and what it’s bringing – and every organisation needs to know how to respond to those situations.”