An interview with Erik Portier, Managing Director of LijnCom, a subsidiary of De Lijn
Our 2015 edition of the SAS Forum Belux is all about ‘Accelerating Innovation with Big Analytics’. One of the most inspiring and innovative cases that will be presented comes from Flemish Transport Company De Lijn. This interview will provide you with a sneak peek at De Lijn’s pioneering data projects and give you a taste of what to expect on October 15 at our SAS Forum.
The Internet of Things (one of the 4 content tracks of the SAS Forum) is a big innovation driver for organisations. Can you elaborate on the efforts of De Lijn in this area?
Erik Portier, Managing Director of LijnCom: Our busses have been connected for quite a while now, but we were not yet able to harness their connectivity beyond mere operational processes. However, together with provider Zapfi we are now offering sponsored free Wi-Fi on 200 of our vehicles and are planning to expand this number to 800 by 2020. This pilot project already taught us a lot about the habits and preferences of our passengers: their online surfing behaviour, the regional differences or preferences per age group. It delivered us some pretty unexpected insights. All of this through anonymised data, obviously, in order to respect the privacy of our WI-FI users.
The possibilities of this connectivity are legion, especially regarding our service to the customer. We are, for instance, looking into an app that can warn visually impaired passengers when their stop is nearing. Or we could measure how, when and where the population is travelling in real time and mobilize extra busses in unexpected peak periods. We could have a bus find the best alternative route in case of a traffic jam. And let’s not forget what these smart busses could mean for the operational excellence of De Lijn: for instance, warning us when the expiry date of an exhaust pipe is coming up, before it breaks down and reducing high cost investments that way.
Last but not least, leveraging the Internet of Things in connected busses will play a crucial role in the success of smart cities. Each time a bus encounters a large pothole in the road, for example, it could automatically notify the city council of the exact location of this malfunction. The consequences for road maintenance, safety and cost-cutting would be significant in such a case.
Another big disrupter in your industry is the driverless bus. Are you looking into those as well?
Erik Portier: Obviously, any player in the transportation sector cannot afford to ignore this trend. We’re already working on a pilot project with shuttle busses in the more sheltered environment of Zaventem airport. This is one of the first projects in this field in the world.
This is a very ambitious innovation project. What’s your roadmap?
Erik Portier: We’re deliberately and carefully operating in test phases. We’ll probably be moving from the closed environment of Zaventem to highways next, where the driverless technology will support – not replace – drivers. From there on, we could evolve towards tests in smaller villages, where driverless vehicles could replace what we call the ‘Dial Bus’ (on-demand busses for less densely populated areas). We want to investigate this with small trials, learn from those and move on.
The sharing economy, too, is pushing a lot of organisations towards redesigning their business models. How is De Lijn dealing with that?
Erik Portier: We believe in smart collaborations, so we’re incorporating the trend to help us meet the conditions of the policy agreement we have with the government. We use our own core network in the densely populated areas and link our services to those of others in more rural regions. It’s the best way to reach as many customers as possible. The peer-to-peer mobility organisation Pickmeup is, for instance, a great partner to help us in the more rural areas. Our ultimate goal is to become the ‘Director’ of the mobility of the future, which we believe will be a rich mix of all kinds of transportation: from public to peer to peer, from driverless technology to bike and even car sharing like the Blue Bikes and Cambio. All these innovations can help us improve our reach and our services.
What advice would you give to companies wanting to innovate through data analytics
Erik Portier: I’d say ‘don’t forget the basics’. Analytics tools are very powerful, but think about your foundation first. All of the above projects are still in an embryonic phase. We’re testing and learning a lot from this. But the foundation of each and every one of these innovation lies in data, and its underlying architecture. That is why we are first carefully analysing which data we need, in which format we’ll be needing it, how we are going to analyse it, which architecture will be the best for our analytical projects, which sets of external data we should purchase, which open data should be added to the mix, which correlation will there be between these sets of data and which conclusions can you safely make. I feel that a lot of organisations rush into these analytics and Big Data projects without rigorously analysing their current situations and future needs. They are going to miss a lot of the potential that their data and that of external parties can offer them that way.
Join SAS Forum Belux on October 15 next in Antwerp to learn more about this and other riveting cases and to gather valuable insights about the digital society, the Internet of Things, data science and data management: www.sasforum.be.