show image

Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

Heathrow CIO Stuart Birrell on transforming airport security with machine learning

Stuart Birrell began his IT career as an engineer, working in factories, logistics and operations settings, and it is for this reason that he is well-qualified for the top IT job in an airport. He has been CIO at Gatwick Airport, followed by McClaren F1, and is now back within the aviation industry at Heathrow Airport.

“Heathrow is a big logistics operation with a big customer service front-end to it, but the back-end of it is logistics and that’s where my insight comes in – so I’m looking at how you transform that world and that operation using technology, data and insights, with a focus on getting that great passenger service,” he says.

Prior to Birrell joining the organisation, Heathrow Airport was a Microsoft shop, but as part of its transformation it had some big decisions to make. First and foremost, the airport wanted to centralise its data and analytics capability, and after analysing six different suppliers, Microsoft came out on top with its Azure platform.

“We used Azure to consolidate data because if you think about this place, it is a massive information hub – every bag, every passenger and every moment in and around the airport has data associated with it. Consolidating this ensures that we can orchestrate the 76,000 people who work across the airport who are reliant on that real-time data,” he says.

Heathrow Airport has about 600 companies working within its confines, and about 20,000 people logging into the system every day. The scale of orchestration is huge, and it has therefore been working for a few years on replatforming and consolidating to Azure.

On the back of this, Heathrow had to decide what toolset to use and build on top of Azure to analyse and deploy that information and capability through colleagues around the airport. It decided that it had to first undergo a desktop refresh, installing Windows 10 and Office 365 across the organisation. Birrell says that this opened up capabilities across the organisation and enabled some real changes to the way people worked.

“We’ve gone from a team that is very spreadsheet based and standalone to being retrained and now they’re able to run and program machine learning algorithms on Azure to improve scheduling and forecasting,” he explains.

For example, the airport can now better schedule security lanes and security teams by knowing where passengers are arriving, how many of them are arriving and what terminal, to ensure the right number of security lanes are open.

From a skills perspective, Heathrow has a community of data analysts that operate across the organisation, 20 of whom have gone through specific training on the Microsoft Azure toolset on programming capabilities.

“They’ve gone from basic Excel capabilities and Excel based analytics to professional statistical languages and that has been a real boost to us – these are the guys that come to IT that generally report to us and now they don’t have to ask our permission [to do things], we’ve federated them into the business so the different areas are looking at their own needs,” Birrell says, adding that Microsoft have helped with the training and putting together the architecture and data structures to make this possible.

“It has really started to pay dividends as these teams are able to generate their own insight, and ask their own questions without having to ask IT to do it for them – and that’s been really successful,” he says.

A mindset shift

For Birrell, the biggest challenges were not technology-related, but about a shift of mindset and getting people within the company on board.

“It’s easy to do a bit of data analysis with one or two experts. It’s more about how you deploy this around your organisation; how do you get that security team of 4,500 to start using that data and change the way they’re working in their organisation,” he states.

Now, the airport has people within the operations team who are deploying and building their own apps using the Microsoft toolset – including a drive to become paperless. In one example, a security officer, who was interested in building apps learnt about this on his own – Birrell and his team brought into IT and give him some structure, help and support, and he has since developed 12 apps to support his colleagues in security.

“His target has been to streamline their jobs, to get rid of paper, to make decisions easier, to help passengers with communication and different languages,” Birrell explains.

“These guys are not techies – but they’re interested and it’s a great opportunity to allow people this capability to develop their careers,” he adds.

The security officer has since appeared on stage with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in front of thousands of developers in Las Vegas to explain what he’s been able to do.

“This shows how big of a deal the things he did were and what we’re doing across the airport. There are so many more opportunities than there are obstacles. It is pushing IT to be able to keep up with it and support with the technology and it’s a fantastic place to be,” Birrell concludes.