The Toronto Transit Commission promotes its services to commuters as “The Better Way”, and with the help of CIO John Cannon and the IT department, it’s making good on that promise.
A 33-year veteran of the TTC, Cannon worked in many areas of the organization before joining the IT department in 2001, just after the transit service had gone through its Y2K preparations. During Y2K the organization wasn’t able to replace a lot of its systems outright, so most of the activities that Cannon was involved in early on with the department had to do with keeping those systems going and upgrading or replacing them. But more recently, as the TTC seeks to improve its service, he and the IT department have become involved in a number of important new initiatives.
“In 2007 we were approached by TTC Chair Adam Giambrone and asked to review a lot of customer information applications that could improve the way we disseminate information to the public,” said Cannon. “Traditionally we’ve been more involved with the ‘behind the scenes’ business-support applications. This has now brought IT into the forefront.”
One of the key new services IT has helped deliver is a next-vehicle-arrival notification system, which uses Global Positioning System software to track vehicles and LED / LCD screens in subway stations and select TTC stops to display arrival information.
“We were asked to provide a system that would tell customers when the next train will arrive within the subway and when the next bus or streetcar will arrive on surface routes, enabling them to plan their trip accordingly,” said Cannon. “If they’ve just arrived at a spot they can tell from the signs, or eventually from their cell phone, that the vehicle is ten minutes away, giving them the opportunity, for example, to get a coffee before they come back to the bus stop. We think that’s going to be very effective.”
The pilot project for the notification system was launched in December, with display screens being installed at the Spadina Station streetcar platform and the Union Station streetcar stop. Additional screens are now being installed at other subway stations and select on-street stops. By the end of 2008, all streetcars had been retrofitted with the GPS equipment, with retrofitting of buses taking place this year. By the end of 2009, all subway stations will have next-train-arrival screens.
Work enabling customers to use SMS Text for obtaining next-vehicle-arrival information on all TTC surface routes also started this year. The final project roll-out will include a unique identifier for each vehicle stop to allow customers to obtain specific stop information via wireless technologies (i.e. Internet and/or SMS text messaging).
The IT department has also been involved in developing the new e-Alert subscription service, which issues email notices to the public when there is a major delay occurring in the subway/rt system. Notification is sent out if the subway/rt is delayed and shuttle bus service is in operation, which generally includes delays of more than 15 minutes.
The public’s appetite for such a service was confirmed immediately upon the recent rollout of e-Alert. “As soon as we released it we ended up with over 8,000 people signing up the first day,” said Cannon. “We’ll be expanding it to include surface interruptions to our service when they occur, and this will enable customers to plan an alternative route if they see there’s going to be a delay to their transit trip.” Subscription to this free service is available at www.ttc.ca. Service delay information is also available on the TTC website.
Another project planned for later this year is an e-commerce application enabling customers to purchase their passes, as well as any other fare media online. But according to Cannon, the biggest application that the IT department is now working on is the Internet Trip Planner, giving TTC users a self-serve means of planning their transit trips using routing information, timing points and walking distances.
“A lot of people have been anxious for that one,” he said. “They will be able to put in their starting point and their destination, and the application will enable them to plot their trip. It will tell them what bus, streetcar and subway they need to take, where they need to make a transfer, and what the cost of the fares are going to be as they get on or off the vehicles.” The application is scheduled to be online in July.
According to Cannon, one of the biggest challenges in heading IT at the TTC has been managing expectations, both internally and externally. “When our E-committee broached the idea of these applications [next vehicle arrival notification; e-Alerts; Internet Trip Planner] we all thought that this was exciting, new and interesting for the TTC. But then I saw this glint in their eye and I said, ‘Do you want all these at the same time?’, and the answer was ‘Yes’. So that presented quite a challenge in figuring out an achievable game plan to get all of those initiatives up and running simultaneously.”
One of the keys to success in the rollouts has come from a measured approach: doing things in “bite-sized pieces”, rolling them out, getting feedback from the public as new things are piloted, and using that feedback to fine-tune the application. In part, the process relies on the public’s indulgence, and Cannon admits that managing the expectations of the public is one of the biggest challenges currently facing the IT department.
INTRODUCING QUALITY AUDITS
The success that the TTC has experienced so far in rolling out the new applications can be attributed in part to the ‘Quality’ initiatives undertaken by IT over the past several years.
“When I first arrived in the department they’d just come off of the Y2K experience and there were a lot of mixed messages and different directions, as well as several vacancies in the department, so I wanted to settle everything down and stabilize things,” said Cannon. “I started a program of getting everybody focussed on the key things we needed to achieve within IT from an overall management perspective.”
Cannon heard about a program being offered by the National Quality Institute of Canada that fit very well with his plans. The program would look at the overall management focus that he was trying to implement and allow a third-party objective review and evaluation of how it was being done. “In 2002 we started down the path of bringing about the management changes that would impact the fundamental direction of the department, and we were seeing progress in this,” said Cannon. “Then we invited the NQI group in, and through their audits they confirmed that, indeed, we were making positive changes.”
The IT department thrived on the oversight, achieving a bronze, a silver, and a gold level over its seven years of involvement with the program. Last year, it was recognised with the Canadian Award of Excellence from the NQI group. Soon after receiving the Award of Excellence, Cannon was surprised to receive a personal letter from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, recognising the efforts made by the department and citing them as something that should be strived for by the rest of the IT industry across Canada.
Cannon attributes the department’s success with the quality program to having what he calls “the whole package”.
“Any one element can make a program work well but in our case we have many,” he said. “Senior management at the TTC are fully supportive and encouraging; they’re totally in line with what we’re doing and they provide the budgets and resources needed for us to accomplish what we’re looking to do.”
Another part of the package is the IT organization itself, which now numbers about 170 employees and includes five direct reports: Application Services, Technical Services, Client Services, Project Management, and Quality Assurance. “We’ve got a great team of directors, as well as the people in the department themselves,” said Cannon. “I said to them, ‘we’ve got these challenges and we have to step up to the plate – can you do it?’ And they all came through.”
REVITALIZING THE SUBWAY
Looking ahead, Cannon notes that the TTC is actively looking at bringing in automatic train operation for the subway system. This will enable it to operate trains more closely together, thereby increasing the ability of the system to move more passengers with the existing fleet. “First we had to put in a new signalling system which gives us more updated accuracy,” said Cannon. “We’ll now be looking at putting in a computer system that will allow the trains to operate more closely to each other.” The biggest challenge here is around safety, and so the Commission will focus heavily on building a number of checks and balances into the system.
Cannon also noted that the TTC is planning to introduce a new fleet of subway cars that will really make the public sit up and take notice. Rather than the current configuration of individual cars, the new fleet will be composed of vehicles based on a continuous open concept. “Commuters will be able to walk from one end of the train to the other; it’s totally open. And these trains will have both front- and rear-end operation,” said Cannon, “This is going to enable us to carry significantly more passengers. When you couple the new vehicles and the automatic train operation, we’re looking at significant improvements in the overall operation of the subway system.” The TTC is now in the process of finalising the signalling system and making sure that it will work as expected. The new trains will start to arrive in 2010.
MORE OPPORTUNITIES FOR IT
According to Cannon, the IT department has plenty of other opportunities to enhance TTC operations, both internally and externally.
Chair Adam Giambrone has asked the department to look at other ways of using technology to improve customer communications, and there will be a number of initiatives along these lines, including the use of Web 2.0 applications.
“As well, there are some things we can look at doing better internally,” said Cannon. “A lot of the new subway cars, streetcars and buses are coming equipped with computers and/or IT applications for monitoring the maintenance and the actions of the vehicles. And so there’s now a requirement for us to get involved up front as the vehicles come online in order to make sure that we’ve got the infrastructure to support the information exchange with the new equipment. That is something new for the organisation.”
He added that the IT department is also looking for other ways in which to bring technology benefits to the forefront of the business.
In his efforts to find a “better way” of using IT to support the business, Cannon decided to get more involved with his IT management peers, joining the CIO Association of Canada two years ago. He is now the president of CIOCAN’s Ontario chapter.
“I found that many of the problems I was dealing with at the TTC were universal. All of the CIOs I came in contact with had the same kind of issues to a greater or lesser degree,” he said. “We’ve overcome a lot of the issues that some people are currently struggling with, and I’m happy to be able to share some of the things we’ve done within the TTC to help others resolve their issues.”