by Mark Chillingworth

HS2 CIO James Findlay interview – Boats, trains and CIO reveals

Mar 18, 201511 mins
IT LeadershipTransportation and Logistics Industry

HS2, the contentious high speed rail plan, is not, as you are supposed to think, about giving the UK a French TGV-style rail service, it is not about the environment, it is not about bringing the cities of the Midlands and North closer to the capital. HS2 is about a boat. A very big boat, too.

In the early weeks of this year there was a great deal of excitement about the container ship Globe docking at Felixstowe in Suffolk. It is reported to be able to carry 186,000 tons in the 19,000 20ft containers it carries, which the BBC equates to 300 million tablet devices. Over the next year five such ships will join it on the high seas of the world. Globe was on its maiden voyage when it docked in Felixstowe and at that time was the largest ship in the world, but will soon be surpassed by even larger vessels. The world’s shipping lines are replacing their legacy fleets with new, more efficient and larger vessels because they are more cost-effective. But there is a knock-on effect.

Speaking at his Canary Wharf office, James Findlay told CIO UK that “95% of our trade is by sea, so transport is critical to our ability to compete.”

When a ship such as Globe unloads (it takes 24 hours), its load would form a single line measuring 72 miles, Birmingham to Manchester as it happens, and the next phase of HS2.

“The ports at London and Southampton are being dredged for the new mega ships, so the challenge is the ability to distribute the loads. The ability to interface are critical to our survival and that requires a lot of strategic thinking about the hub cities in the UK.” While politicians try and sell HS2 to the public with everything but the truth; Findlay deals in facts and he knows the facts. Not just because he’s a well aligned CIO, but because he has a heritage on the seas, having been IT and projects leader at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency for close to a decade and before that a career in ports and defence. To this day, the coast plays a major part in his life, and he sees what’s happening on our waves and to our demands of our economy.

“Over the next 10 years we will be at peak capacity on the existing rail network,” he says returning to dry land. “HS2 provides a relief to primary freight traffic. We won’t build more roads,” he says with knowledge, as Findlay doubles up as Technology Leader for the Department for Transport. “Network Rail has been re-engineering some of the lines through a process of dropping the lines,” but as he explains, because the UK was the first adopter of rail networks, the nation is lumbered with a legacy of Victorian lines that can’t take the growing capacity of local, intercity and freight rail. A new rail infrastructure is required.

“We are in the Parliamentary process at present,” he told CIO UK. “The HS2 Select Committee is currently sitting.”

The UK is not alone; our neighbours France completed studies for a similar project in 2007 and have already begun construction of a new TGV line between Tours and Bordeaux to provide more freight train access to the existing infrastructure. The French line will be completed in 2017, the year construction starts on HS2, and add to France’s already impressive high speed rail network. If HS2 begins construction in 2017, it will not be completed until 2026.

“I’m very fortunate that in both the Department for Transport and HS2 we have some fantastic digital people so that I can do both roles. It is a bit of a juggle, but I believe firmly that both in what HS2 is and what we are doing on behalf of the Department for Transport,” he says of his dual roles. “Both roles provide an incredible insight.”

Whether built or not, HS2 won’t just transform the Chiltern Hills, it has already transformed the tracks of government. The High Speed Rail (Preparation) Act 2013 was the first piece of proposed legislation to be submitted electronically.

“That was a transformational moment and it will be for how we work with the broader community as it has huge impact. HS2 has tried to make everything as transparent and as accessible as possible.

“The Act does not use any proprietary formats, so while it’s a large and complex piece of legislation, it is also the most accessible, and recently it has been extended to include interactive maps. In paper, just phase one of HS2 would have been a metric ton. The power of digital access to information is that in the past the Act would have been deposited in Parliament and Town Halls, and the only people that would have read it would have been lawyers and those with a special interest. It has transformed how people interact with the parliamentary process and I cannot see us returning to a paper deposit,” he says. Given the number of communities that HS2 passes there’s a high level of interest, special or not, and politics in the UK needs a renaissance following years of declining turn out at the ballot box.

“From a petitioning perspective we have had far more than was received for the Crossrail project, and I think that is good,” he says of the east to west under London rail line being built with former Hiscox CIOAndrew Turner at the IT wheel.

“We live in a democracy and people should have their right to make their view heard. It gives you a fantastic insight in terms of community engagement, as there is going to be an impact and you have to be sensitive in how to deal with that. This electronic Act allows them to challenge HS2 face-to-face,” he says.

Digital hasn’t just impacted the submission of the Act, Findlay is a CIO that understands and embraces how digital can be used at every juncture to enable insight and experience. To that end HS2 joined the Open Data Institute, founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Sir Nigel Shadbolt to be a non-for-profit organisation that ensures data is available to create “economic, environmental and social value” the Shoreditch-based body says.

“The data we are publishing has been picked up by companies and is being used to provide advice and services, so there are spin-off benefits,” property giants Landmark have been one well-known user.

“Oculus Rift virtual reality experiences of our data is incredibly powerful as humans are incredibly good at spotting mistakes, so it is great to visualise what we are doing, we are already looking at the construction sites, prefabricated parts,” which he says is improving efficiency. Looking forwards to the build and use of the HS2 line, Findlay’s team is assessing fibre optics that listen to the line and alert operators if there is a flat spot on a wheel of a locomotive. He says RFID is also planned to be integrated into the HS2 infrastructure to enable greater efficiency of construction and maintenance.

Findlay has told CIO UK before of his support for using SME IT vendors and the government’s G-Cloud, although his two remits do see major spend with traditional vendors such as BT, SAP, Microsoft, Fujitsu and Oracle.

According to Findlay, the transparency of the G-Cloud – where service descriptions and prices are available for all to see – makes the procurement process “a lot simpler and straightforward”.

SMEs give HS2 access to “groundbreaking” technology and allowed the project to move “at breakneck speed”, he says. “I have worked very hard to ensure that SMEs are at the centre of our thinking around the delivery of IT and services. We’ve found SMEs are fantastic at innovation and being flexible around our needs. Some of what we’re doing, including in the tech space, is groundbreaking. No one else is doing it.”

Inovem’s cloud collaboration software Kahootz, acquired via G-Cloud at a price of £2 per user per month is one example. “It’s a very good, secure method of providing significant collaboration, document and data exchanges between the organisation and the supply chain,” he says of Kahootz.

Fujitsu supported the delivery of devices out to the regions affected by HS2 and the Act, where Findlay said the scale of a major vendor and its “geographic spread” could not be matched by an SME.

“All the SMEs we have engaged with are very innovative and very focused on the client, that is important, not just for the IT space,” he says of the wider desire in HS2 to work with SMEs. Amazon Web Service is used to host a cloud-based Geographic Information Service (GIS), while he is moving HS2’s business as usual applications onto the Microsoft Azure cloud platform.

“I want to make sure that we are getting the best value for money,” and he chose Azure to be sure “I can get my data in and out easily”. Where we have large volumes of data with no security implications to put it in Amazon,” he says.

CIO UK columnist Jerry Fishenden, who played a major role in an inquest into government IT, says Findlay has “strategic business vision, able to focus on users’ needs, drive processes of continuous improvement, cultivates open competitive markets, and makes effective use of modern tools, technologies and techniques.” Findlay is a user and proponent of Wardley Maps, devised by Simon Wardley of the Leading Edge Forum.

“We use Wardley maps to identify our opportunities, silos and to ensure we have a modular approach and do not end up locked in. Simon Wardley talks of situational awareness and we are very visual beings, so it is far easier to visualise and have a richer picture to find ways that IT can be commoditised or perhaps outsourced. This approach enabled the team to articulate to the board business values, but decisions in a way that is engaging,” he explains.

Findlay joined HS2 in October 2012and perhaps as a result is seen as part of a new wave of government technology leader to have swelled the ranks of central authority since the coalition came to power. His Department for Transport role sees him in the Technology Leaders Network, set up by the Cabinet’s Government Digital Service and its CTO Liam Maxwell.

“There is a broader piece, which is to create a government as a platform, not just focus on technology and capabilities, and where it is appropriate you try to achieve some joined up process. We have got the culture of embracing innovation,” he says. Certainly Findlay’s frank description of the inter-related needs for HS2 as a wider strategy are refreshing when compared to the political messages about house building with no joined-up thought for the impact on schools, healthcare and transport, which as we have seen through the winter of 2014-15 delivers a poor result.

“It’s fair to say that government is a federated organisation, and there are certain functions that government has that are critical. That said in the technology leadership network there is a consensus that the old way of doing things has gone and that we must improve our ways of delivery.

“You will always have fast followers and there are always those with legacy that they cannot drop,” he rightly admits.

Findlay was with the Marine and Coastguard Agency from 2002 to 2012, moving from heading technical projects to head of ICT and then director of the Future Coastguard Programme, the most significant change management plan the agency has and is going through.

“There are over 1,000 ships in our waters at any one time, we share a radar system with the French and the bulk of the world’s shipping passes through our waters,” Findlay says with customary honesty of the needs for the programme. A recent Radio 4 investigation highlighted the multitude of agencies, each with different responsibilities for controlling the UK’s borders and how this level of disjointedness is creating risk.

Despite a job in rail, the sea is in Findlay’s blood, he’s spent some of his career working with it and he’s a RNLI lifeboat volunteer in his free time.

“I was at sea for many years and I felt I wanted to give something back. But it is quite sobering if it’s a child involved. All the volunteers are selfless and there is an incredible spread of volunteers from across the community, from builders and fishermen to doctors and accountants, all giving something back to the community. It is personally rewarding.”