Building a healthy data environment for water companies

Lessons from Network Rail

Like water companies, rail operators provide critical national infrastructure – and both sectors face intense pressures on resilience, performance and sustainability. So, what can one sector learn from the other to meet these challenges through digital transformation? I have asked Vince Herrera-Leon, Head of Digital Services (Property) at Network Rail, to share some of his insights.

We know that Network Rail is a major public service in the UK. In terms of the parallels between these two sectors: both face the changing demands of highly regulated markets; both operate complex and diverse infrastructures with the challenge of leveraging existing assets; and both have a central role to play in the transition to the green economy. Would you agree, Vince?

Vince: Absolutely. Network Rail owns, operates and develops Britain’s railway infrastructure: that’s 20,000 miles of track, 30,000 bridges, tunnels and viaducts and thousands of signals, level crossings and stations. In the wake of COP26 and profound disruption during the pandemic, two essential priorities are clear to us: firstly to be able to adapt fast to anything that the future brings; and secondly, to become an even more sustainable business. To address both, it’s crucial that the organization can gather the significant volumes of data we have available and turn that into actionable insights.

 

As digital transformation of utilities continues, we know that high-quality data is a critical asset to enable more predictive, prescriptive and automated ways of operating.

This will equip companies to provide even better services to communities, deliver great value, and achieve net-zero carbon.

So, what does Network Rail’s digital vision and strategy look like, and how could this inform the water industry’s own digital transformation?

High-quality data enables more predictive, prescriptive and automated ways of operating. This will equip water companies to provide even better services to communities, deliver great value, and achieve net-zero carbon.

Vince: In terms of focus, our strategy is directed at transformation in four areas of the business:

    • Digital stations and routes: this is about leveraging Internet of Things (IoT), public wi-fi, mobile digital advertising, tenant digital services, better understanding footfall and improving customer experience.
    • Digital landlord and landowner: this is about improving asset management, inspections, better financial management, improving tenant lease renewals and lease data.
    • Digital workplace: to make sure we improve ways of working, work flexibly, enable smart buildings and optimize space and use of buildings.
    • Digital employee so that we support our people by improving productivity, enabling remote/mobile working, using process automation and AI to empower our teams, and providing up-to-date and effective IT.

To join this all together, with Atos’ help, Network Rail is developing a new digital platform that underpins these four pillars. What’s crucial is that data across the business is stored, shared and processed using the platform.

What is Network Rail doing to ensure that data is an enabler?

Vince:We are developing the mechanisms for providing data as a service, available across our business. Data quality is essential and has been seen as a game-changer in terms of the future network. The strategy is to pool and consolidate data, including with external data sources and ecosystems. Robust data management is also key to turn data into information, with use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to turn information into knowledge, and knowledge into predictive and intelligent wisdom that is actionable by the business.

It’s early days, but do you have examples of where digital and data are making a difference?

Vince: Digital transformation has opened, and continues to open, doors to meaningful opportunities. In terms of concrete examples so far, we defined the blueprint and supporting guidance to define what good looks like for the Network Rail of the future. We’ve developed new apps for passengers to make their journeys easier and pleasant. We’ve improved property management by integrating ten separate and siloed systems into one single, common and efficient platform. We’ve developed an intelligent analytics platforms supporting data lakes, information and knowledge sharing to create an ecosystem behind the physical infrastructure. And we’re collaborating with our supply chain to build out our ecosystem.

Thank you for sharing this, Vince. Finally, what would you say are the lessons for the water industry?

Vince: I’d say there are three overall takeouts. Firstly, it's crucial to openly acknowledge and effectively communicate the change that needs to happen across the business. Secondly, you need a clear vision, a quantifiable ‘north star’ outcome and the roadmap towards achieving it. And thirdly, you need an execution plan that brings incremental gains and enables positive change. Accelerating digitalization and developing a solid data backbone are key to future success. By digitalizing the processes of our frontline teams, we aim to ensure safety, drive performance and sustainability and reduce costs – ambitions that we know our peers in the water industry share.

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About John Harrison
Head of Industry Consulting Energy & Utilities, Northern Europe
John leads Energy & Utilities Consulting services for Northern Europe and has over 25 years of management and consultancy experience. He specialises in helping organisations achieve step changes in performance by providing independent, impartial, and pragmatic advice, shaping and leadership to complex digital transformation programmes. John is an inspirational leader who builds and develops effective multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural teams. He has extensive track record of success leading transformations for water, energy and oil & gas companies.