Tony Malone joined us this month, after five years as Chief Information Officer at Highways England and three years helping to head-up the data strategy at HS2.
We talked golf, gantries and data-led decision making.
1. As the restrictions end are there any aspects of lockdown that you will miss?

Probably the most noticeable would be the quality of the air and the lack of noise pollution caused by aircraft overhead. I live relatively close to Heathrow and it’s been about the only positive thing I’ll miss.

2. How has the past year been for you – any specific mechanisms that have helped you to cope?

I’m no gardener, but I do take time out to enjoy the garden as it goes through the seasons. I’ve always been too busy or away from home for long periods of time to appreciate what I have on my doorstep. I also enjoy living in a semi-rural area, so regularly get out and enjoy my surroundings.

3. Are the accelerated technological shifts the pandemic has generated to be welcomed? (e.g. shifting supermarket/retail models to online; greater use of remote working ).

Generally yes, but we are in danger of creating an isolated society where social interaction is regarded as a risk and not the pleasure it should be.

4. What are your interests?

I’m a keen golfer and a member of Beaconsfield Golf Club. It’s only a mile down the road from me and I like the social side as much as playing. I was once offered a job as a golf professional to Kim Thomas, PGA Pro at the prestigious Stoke Park Golf course, but as Kim said “Tony, I’m offering you this position as your enthusiasm for the game is infectious, it’s just your golf will never match your enthusiasm”.

Needless to say, I didn’t take the job, but still enjoy the game!

5. How big was the challenge when you arrived at Highways England in 2015? How big a feature of HE’s operations was technology and ‘Big Data’ at that time?

When I joined HE, there was little coordinated or strategic approach to IT. Operational roadside technology was run by former traffic officers and civil engineers and data was regarded as a by-product of functional areas. My remit was to ‘sort IT out’, which I took as a mandate to bring a holistic approach to all HE digital requirements. Leading by example, I developed the strategy for a single directorate responsible for ICT, operational road-side technology, security and data. IT is now considered a credible and valuable business unit, working in partnership with its key internal and external stakeholders.

As for ‘Big Data’ – of course, some part of the business understood the important of data-driven decision making, but there wasn’t a clear strategy for exploiting the colossal volumes of data we had.

6. Was the lack of an over-arching digital strategy, data siloes etc presenting many day-to-day problems for those working within HE?

Absolutely. I was once asked by the Board how secure our data was; I replied ‘very secure’, because it was so siloed and fragmented. Perhaps a flippant response, but the reality was that we had hundred of separate systems, that in their own way were well managed, but there was no interoperability or joined-up thinking regarding the value of our data to the business.

Very early on I raised the risk to data security and primacy breaches at Board level. Getting C-suite buy-in was the key to my success, leading me to recruit a Chief Data Officer to build capability to address these issues and the creation of HE’s first Data Vision & Strategy.

7, Was it exciting to be able to have that over-view – identify where technology and a data-driven approach could help to transform the performance of the road network?

Yes and probably the thing I’m most proud about in my time at HE. We demonstrated evidential proof of the value of data, leading to savings in the tens of millions year-on-year. This played massively into the £1.2bn efficiency challenge from DfT for the period 2015-2020, which we exceeded, in part to having raised the profile of data-driven decision making.

8. What is the volume and range of data-sets held within an organisation like HE?

Too many to list, but to give you a flavour of the scale: 95bn miles are travelled on the HE road network each year, with over 4,300 miles of motorway and A-roads. Over 21,000 structure such as bridges and gantries. 40,000 calls to emergency roadside telephones calls per year. 30,000 hectares of land to maintain. The 4th largest fibre network in the country, connecting all sorts of sensors and IoT devices. Literally billions of records that all have value and can lead to better, data-driven decision making.

9. Sharing HE’s data with other relevant organisations (e.g. HS2) was a big passion of yours while you were there?

Ambition yes, in reality much harder to achieve. Even with the DfT acting as data broker, both organisations have different needs and priorities. Although there are some common systems, e.g. Bentley AssetWise, the data maturity was vastly different.

10. HS2 said from the off that it was “betting the shop on BIM”. Was this a good thing for the industry to boldly put a data-centric approach at the heart of this vast rail project?

The construction industry needed a kick start to realise the power of digitally and data-driven design, reduced duplication and better access to the ‘single version of the truth’. Ambitious absolutely, but definitely the right decision. Basically, through BIM, the construction industry has gone from a low-tech industry to being at the cutting edge of the 4th industrial revolution.

11. Did it intensify the pressure to get the data / digital strategy right?

I was there at the beginning, setting up the systems and providing the tools for others to succeed, so probably not the right question for me. That said, HS2 and HE are at the forefront of digital infrastructure design, operation and maintenance. Pressure is good when you believe in the end game.

12. What was it like supporting a project which was in the public eye in such a major way – and had a strong body of opposition?

Frustrating when you are blocked from explaining the macro-economic of why HS2 is so important to our nation. I live in the Chilterns which is a hot-bed of HS2 opposition, so going down my local pub and answering the question ‘what do you do for a living’ never turns out to be a 5-minute conversation! Infrastructure projects such as HS2 are only possible with Government backing and investment. It was great to be part of something so big.

13. Do you think HS2 will be the project that shows the industry how to ‘do’ digital in an exemplary way?

I think so, but delivery is everything. If HS2 can demonstrate that ,by making data-driven decision based on going digital from the start, the outcome is improved safety and delivery on-time and on-budget, then the facts will speak for themselves.

14. The construction / infrastructure sectors have long had a reputation for being technological laggards. Is that finally changing?

Yes. Never before has the construction industry had the (software) tools that encourage collaboration, design and visualisation for large scale assets. It’s an exciting time to be in the infrastructure business.

15. Digital twins – does their adoption in earnest mark a new milestone for digitisation in the sector?

Coupled with the IoT (devices), robotics, construction digital printing, cloud-computing, AI/Ml, etc., the barriers have never been lower, so yes.

16. As we finally see digital ways of working embedded and new technologies adopted are the days of over-programme and over-budget set to be put behind the sector?

I doubt it. Pessimistic perhaps, but it all comes down to the quality of data, not just the systems that consume and exploit it. The people-side of construction is as important as providing them with the digital tools. By that I mean, you can automate a lot of processes now using digital techniques, but until we address the political, environmental and planning constraints put upon infrastructure, then over-programming and over-budget will still remain.

17. Do you envisage the sector taking further big steps on its digital journey over the next 5/10 years? What developments are we likely to see?

Digital printing of construction materials is an immerging technology, which is very impressive, e.g. forming barriers in-situ and not having to transport them in, with all the environmental benefits therein. Autonomous vehicles and the connected highway will improve road safety and reduced travel time. Farming has already embraced autonomous tractors and we’ve started to see similar on constructions sites. Nanotechnology and neural-networks will be another exciting development (https://youtu.be/Vs5j0CLPHlI)

For more information on how PCSG supports organisations to develop digital, data-led strategies which help them to more efficiently manage and maintain their assets, please contact Olly.Thomas@pcsg.co.uk.