Charting the evolution of data management with SYPTE
South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE) is at the centre of delivering vital public transport information – to both operators and the travelling public.
Passenger information is an essential component of accessible public transport, but in order to deliver it, organisations like SYPTE must handle huge quantities of data.
Utilising this data effectively takes time and a great deal of ingenuity; and within SYPTE, one team knows this better than most. The organisation’s Service Information Data (SID) team have revolutionised the way SYPTE handle the data needed to ensure high-quality information is out there for bus passengers.
To find out more, we spoke to two of the key players behind this revolution: Leanne Gill, Service Information Data Manager, and Andrew Davie, Service Info Data Officer,
All about the data
Speaking to Leanne and Andrew, it is immediately apparent how passionate they are about both public transport and the role technology can play in improving service accessibility and passenger experience.
“It’s crucial that we’re able to provide regular service data to our bus passengers,” Leanne explains. “People using public transport need to be able to access accurate, up-to-date information on their routes and services – and that’s where we come in!”
“In our department, one of our fellow teams will be responsible for managing customer-facing passenger information technology, like Real Time Passenger Information (RTPI) signs and journey planners on our website,” Leanne continues. “But these tools are only as good as the data behind them, so it’s up to us to make sure this data is published in a timely manner, and doesn’t have any errors or issues.”
“We handle the information side of things,” Andrew adds. “Accurate information helps people to plan their journey, and to trust public transport to get from A to B, hopefully removing some of the barriers that might prevent people from using it. It’s all about the data!”
The data revolution
Of course, this type of data is inherently complex. SYPTE manages information for all of South Yorkshire’s bus and tram services, which can require a great deal of time and effort to maintain. This is something Leanne and Andrew know only too well, as they explain their previous working processes:
“We used to rely on a lot of manual intervention when dealing with all the data we were receiving from our bus operating partners,” Leanne explains. “For example, making sure the schedule data we received was in the correct format needed to push out to our passenger information teams took a lot of time – since we would receive it in different formats.”
“Then a number of years back one of the large bus operators registered with Electronic Bus Service Registration (EBSR), and at the time we were the only authority working with this. But moving away from paper registrations, which had been existence since the 1930s, represented a sea change in how we handled all the data and how we worked,” Leanne continues.
“Obviously, there’s a big benefit of going electronic, because it makes it so much easier to share data between ourselves and our operators,” Andrew says. “There was a big push on our part, following the EBSR announcement, to get other operators on board, too. But in order to adapt all this scheduling data into a submittable format, we needed to use a system that could process it.”
Initially, the SYPTE team approached this by passingall the data they received from their operating partners over to Trapeze – who would process everything and format it correctly, before sending it back to Leanne and her team to publish. This approach is in fact the way most Traveline regions have managed their data for many years.
However, while this solved the challenge of processing different data formats, the time it took to send the information back and forth across the country did limit the full potential of utilising electronic data.
“Sending the data to Trapeze first helped us improve quality, but we wanted to make sure we were in a position to also meet the deadline for publishing data through our ‘Open Data’ channels,” Leanne explains.
Spotting an opportunity to improve processes, SYPTE worked with Trapeze to develop Transmill. Transmill is a hosted solution that exposes Trapeze’s complex data processing software via a simple user interface. Transmill allows clients to upload the multiple source files and formats needed to build a journey planner and related passenger information outputs, then automatically builds these files and checks the quality of the built data before automatically distributing the output files. This removes the need for Leanne’s team to first send and then wait to receive the processed data files.
“Using Transmill means we can process data ourselves at the push of a button,” Leanne says. “It’s had a huge impact on the way we work, massively improving processes and streamlining everything. It’s been part of a real revolution in terms of how we do things.”
The power of technology
Since installing Transmill, Leanne’s team has immediately noted some key benefits of the system, as they test its functionality.
“Previously, flexibility was an issue, because there was sometimes a struggle to get all the data together in time,” Leanne says. “Transmill significantly speeds up processes. Not just because we don’t have to go back and forth with the data; but the system also enables us to run extra data exports, which helps us identify any issues and automatically reports on data errors.”
“So we can now make use of previously ‘free’ days –like Friday – where no data processing took place, and run a ‘test’ on our data, to make sure everything is okay. This removes a lot of the risks tied up in data – like entry errors, and so forth – and really provides us with an extra safety net to ensure quality information reaches our passengers,” Leanne adds.
Now, with the system in place SYPTE can also meet their ‘Open Data’ deadline. This is part of an arrangement with National Traveline, whereby SYPTE send a release of the data factory to National Traveline once the processing is completed. This is picked up by ITO as part of an automated overnight process that runs early Tuesday morning. This then deems the updated data available for downstream users that use open data. Meeting this deadline is therefore incredibly valuable from a passenger perspective, because all this journey data can be used by other companies to create apps and other passenger information tools. Before using Transmill, there was a risk that SYPTE would miss the Monday release; meaning the updated data set was not available until the following week, raising the risk of journey planning apps using out-of-date data. With the system in place, however, this risk is eliminated.
What is more, the time savings made by using Transmill equate to cost savings – which are crucial at a time where austerity is biting hard, and organisations are under increasing pressure to remove inefficiencies and optimise processes.
“SYPTE’s budget has been reduced year on year, reflecting the resource pressures of local government –and right across the country,” Leanne explains. “So it’s crucial that we’re able to cut down on processing times, which Transmill does for us. It’s so simple, really, yet we’re saving time while also increasing data accuracy and improving quality – so we win on all fronts. It’s important to remember that the most important people are our end users and passengers, so the fact that Transmill helps make our data more accurate is vital.”
Considering the introduction of Transmill represented such a significant revolution in terms of how the SID team at SYPTE operated, one might wonder how the step-change was met by Leanne, Andrew and their colleagues. Did they experience any difficulties using the new system? It certainly doesn’t seem that way, as Andrew explains:
“The user interface is really easy to use,” he says. “Of course it takes a little while to get used to initially – as would be the case with any new system – but it’s really useful for simplifying processes. It’s easy to navigate, too, because there aren’t multiple tabs or numerous different sub headings. If someone were to ask how it could be improved, nothing would spring to mind – it’s intuitive.”
Andrew in fact has shown a very quick adjustment to using the system, often taking the initiative to write out a simple, step-by-step guide on how to use the system, to complement the standard, more detailed instructions provided originally with the system.
“I feel as though if I were to stop using the system for several months, I could still go back to it and pick it up again easily,” Andrew says. “Lots of other systems are complicated but this is so simple – but it’s a good simple because it does everything we need it to do quickly and easily, and we have no problems with it.”
Support and care
It is inspiring to see an organisation make such innovative advances in working with data and managing it effectively – and the way the SID team have taken to the new Transmill system is indicative of a clear ethos for hard work and ingenuity. Yet both Andrew and Leanne are keen to stress the importance of working closely with your supplier – from the initial installation process up through to the ‘go-live’ moment and then support and aftercare. “We have a really great working relationship with Trapeze,” Leanne explains. “The support calls they offer are great, and if we have any issues Trapeze will note them down, and we will then receive email alerts when the issue can be resolved or addressed. The Trapeze team are always willing to help and will always have an answer for you.”
“It’s really important to work with your supplier – and this applies to any technology really. It can be frustrating for team members to have issues that go on and on unanswered – it can be demoralizing. So it’s critical that you resolve things quickly. You need to keep constant communication channels open. So we have monthly chats with the Trapeze team and regular account reviews , which are really useful. It means everyone stays up to date with everything,” Leanne adds.
Looking to the future
Because Leanne can count on Transmill – and Trapeze – she and her team have been able to keep looking to improve processes, and ultimately improve their offer to passengers, which remains a key objective.
Part of this could mean re-evaluating the way SYPTE work with smaller bus operators in the region – since many of them are not yet in a position to transition to EBSR, as the larger operators have now done.
“It will be a tricky process to get smaller operators on board,” Leanne says. “Sometimes this is down to structural issues – for example, where they only have very small teams of perhaps one staff member doing all the scheduling work.”
“However, we’re very much up to the challenge here, and will keep exploring ways to help address the issue. For instance, by offering to do the schedule and data processing for the operators, or allowing them to use our in-house systems.”
Throughout all these future plans, Leanne is also certain that Transmill will play a key role.
“It’s certainly justified our investment in it,” she says. “It’s worth its weight in gold! We’re really excited about the potential Transmill has to keep improving our customer offer, and we’re hoping that soon we’ll be able to run it as and when required, rather than on a set schedule.”
“We’ll also be looking to update our database, since our current CIS one has been around for perhaps 15 or 20 years! Because we now have a great handle on how Transmill works and its functionality, we can use it to integrate with our database, which can help make our data more accurate,” Leanne adds.
Behind every great system
It’s obvious that SYPTE stands to play a leading role in transforming the way data is managed and handled, and how technology is used to revolutionise systems and change the crucial processes behind accurate passenger information.
But of course, any system is only ever as good as the people who use it. And in this instance it’s clear that SYPTE benefit from having a great team of technology ‘Superusers’ at the helm of their new Transmill system.
“People using public transport need to be able to access accurate, up-to-date information on their routes and services – and that’s where we come in!”
- Leanne Gill, Service Information Data Manager