Case Study: Norfolk County Council
A Small Team Doing Big Things with Real-Time Data
(This article first appeared in ITS-UK on 16 May 2021)
Many UK authority staff will be familiar with the challenge of working in a small team and being responsible for managing public transport across a large region.
One such authority is Norfolk County Council, where the team needed strong control over their data in order to provide accurate and up to date Real Time Passenger Information (RTPI), ensuring the public can access reliable information at all times via apps and at-stop displays.
Supporting a Small Team
Given that the team handling data is essentially just one person, to Senior Travel and Transport Officer Rob Pratt, efficiency was vital. Rob said: “Being such a small team, I needed to find ways to make processes as streamlined and simple as possible.”
Impressively, Rob recognised that in order to effectively control data, he actually needed to loosen the reins himself: “I had to give Trapeze – as our RTPI provider – the freedom to deliver something that really met our needs. I think local authorities are sometimes too insistent on the fine detail of what they want. It may be better to place trust in suppliers to deliver well thought-out tender responses.
“After all, you don’t go to a doctors and tell them what is wrong with you. It should be the same set–up with technology suppliers – they are the experts in their field. With this project, we put our confidence in Trapeze to deliver something that worked for us.”
Fortunately, Norfolk could have complete trust in Trapeze’s ability to deliver solutions that meet customers’ needs, given that the team is led by Colin Urquhart – himself a former customer and system user.
Colin said, “Even with Trapeze’s off-the-shelf products, authorities can have solutions tailored to their own needs. Our team of experts can support this and advise customers on the right route to take to achieve their specific goals.
“I was a user of this technology at Nexus and SPT, so I have experienced it from the other side – which is why we thrive when we are given the opportunity to put something in place that we know will work for our customer.”
Delivering the Technology
At the start of the project, Norfolk experienced some internal delays when it came to funding and administration which meant timescales had become tight when it came to the implementation phase.
However, the project was successfully delivered from start to finish in a little over six weeks.
Rob said: “We were so pleased with the speed of delivery and very impressed that the team was able to get us up and running so quickly.
Interestingly, instead of using SIRI as a data standard, Rob and the team decided to switch to using General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) as the data specification. This is a simple data structure that is be easier for third party developers to understand and implement – for example, roadside display suppliers and app developers.
Using GTFS also means any mistakes within the data can be spotted easily, so Rob and his small team needn’t spend their limited time analysing data to check for inaccuracies.
Rob said: “When it came to GTFS, we knew it would be far simpler and more methodical doing it this way. It is new way of working for us, but it has proven far easier to process data in this format.”
Reinstating Control and Improving Reputations
After using the system for just two weeks, Rob is already seeing improvements in the quality of data, as well as accuracy of RTPI information.
He said: “Right from day one we were able to process and display a good amount of information, and we have seen massive improvements in terms of quality and volume of data which is a huge plus for us. Our senior managers are very happy.
“Also, we now have far more control over data as there is almost a ‘staging area’ that allows us to check and override data if necessary before it is published.
“Previously we would only ever know if there was a mistake in the data when members of the public told us, and by that point our reputation was already damaged. But by being able to have this control we can make sure only accurate data is put out to the public.
“Before the deployment of the new system, locations like Norwich Bus Station and Park and Ride wouldn’t have any real time passenger information. This really is a huge step change for Norfolk and the impact is unprecedented.”
Niki Park, Head of Passenger Transport said: “We have seen a dramatic increase in the volume and quality of real-time information on the RTPI displays which will be hugely beneficial to bus passengers in Norfolk.”
Rob continued: “And the fact that the system is so user friendly and I can use it to cover such a broad area is such a positive considering the size of the team.
“It is still early days for us as we are new to the system, but we are so pleased with how it has helped us achieve our goals so far.
“You can never expect to learn the entire functionality overnight, but I have learned far more during a 20–minute phone call with the Trapeze team than I would have done in two hours of on my own – the support has been great.”
A Platform for Innovation
As well as the immediate benefits the system brings, Rob can already see how using the technology to share data internally could bring longer term benefits across the authority.
He said: “I think this kind of system really has potential to be used as a platform to share data across our different local authority departments that may not typically collaborate very often.
“For example, bus movement data could really help our highways department to test the success and impact of some of their schemes.
“It would be really interesting to explore this more as we become more familiar with the system and maximise the benefits it brings.”
At present many local authorities face resourcing challenges. But Norfolk is a great example of how technology can help a small team to make the most of their time, enabling them to keep control over data and ensure passengers are kept up to date with live and reliable information.
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