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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.

FirstGroup CIO Dave Lynch on innovating in an industry not known for doing so

Dave Lynch spent almost a decade at transport UK public transport provider Go-Ahead, before becoming a digital consultant – it was his passion for transforming businesses as a consultant that meant that he didn’t believe he would join a company as a CIO again.

His roles as a consultant included working at Transport Scotland, with First Bus which is a FirstGroup plc company, as well as a stint in the US, where he thought he may retire. He then got an offer he couldn’t refuse – a job as FirstGroup’s chief information officer (CIO).

FirstGroup is a British multi-national transport operator, and in the last five years Lynch and his team have been busy focusing on digitising the consumer experience, and on enhancing the experience of employees.

“For example, FirstGroup has 20,000 desktops and laptops, and 120,000 employees, so as a mobility activity the idea of smartphones and tablets for drivers to look to has grown massively in the last few years, so much so that we’re rolling out a 40,000 tablet programme in our US division,” he says.

Another long-term initiative has been on working on the way that consumers would prefer to travel.

“A lot of cards were in circulation in public transport 10 or so years ago, and UK rail is still rolling out smart cards, but you have to look at where the market is going and contactless and mobile is where it is, and now as a result of Apple Pay and Google Pay, these two technologies have merged,” Lynch says.

Lynch explains that Google was first interested in how it could get the ITSO smart ticketing card onto the Google Wallet. Eventually the ITSO smart card was converted into a ‘soft card’ in Google Wallet, and this is what Lunch wanted to replicate in the rail industry.

“We wanted to do the same thing on the Southwestern railway, 18 months to prove it can be done in the rail industry, and subsequently we’ve worked with Google, mobile ticketing and data insights provider Corethree, ITSO Transit Hub, and Ticketer, to effectively bring that concept to buses, starting in Glasgow,” he says.

The technology used is Near Field Communication (NFC) on Google Pay, and it will be subsequently rolled out across the First Group network, consisting of more than 1.6 million passengers. It means users can move their plastic card to the Google Wallet on their smartphones, and top it up using Google Pay.

Lynch believes the shift is a no-brainer as it moves the card onto a modern platform and also saves costs for operators, as managing a smart card estate is quite a costly exercise.

While Apple users can use Apple Pay with FirstGroup’s app, Lynch says Apple is still about 10 months away from being able to do what Google can, but FirstGroup is working with Corethree and Ticketer to allow people to pay using contactless on Apple devices.

Lynch’s decision to go with Corethree came after he used the technology at his previous company – and he believes it has been a huge success.

“We worked on a successful app three years ago which has gone from nothing in sales to £200m, so it’s a big success story, and they’ve got the backbone to enable digital tickets to be sold swiftly – at the height of the college period when people return to university, we’re doing 300 odd transactions a second using their technology,” Lynch states.

According to Lynch, working with ITSO and Google was straightforward as they had already partnered in the past, but it was also a chance for Lynch and FirstGroup to show that innovation can happen within the transport industry.

“It was an opportunity to work with Google, and prove that the public transport industry which has a reputation for not being as innovative as others, is equally capable of delivering innovation to travelling public,” he says.

Other pilot projects that FirstGroup is currently involved with including capping fares in Aberdeen in the same way that Transport for London’s Oyster card does, while in the US, it has rolled out an app which allows parents and children to know where their school bus is, so they can go to the school stop at the right time.

In the last 18 months, the company’s bus division has also worked with Perspective IO, a business intelligence company, to analyse data from its vehicles from a performance point of view.

“We can see every vehicle running around on a map, and we can see where people are getting on and off, and where can look to see where can take time out of the schedule and where we can look at traffic data, bringing in data from apps like Waze, and bringing in efficiencies of where bottlenecks are,” he says.

Clearly Lynch and his team want to continue to innovate in an industry that isn’t known for doing so.