Deliver Business Value through Innovations

By Sarah Ming Hsi, CIO, Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA)

Sarah Ming Hsi, CIO, Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA)

I serve as the Assistant General Manager of Technology and Chief Information Officer for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA). I lead the Department of Technology, which is responsible for providing efficient, reliable, cost-effective and responsive technology services to internal technology users and external riders throughout the MARTA system. Our vision is to build a reliable, agile and innovative transit information technology organization. Our mission is to improve rider experience and reduce costs through the use of information and technology. Our top three strategic objectives are to ensure the technology infrastructure is reliable, dependable and secure; to create a diverse, service-oriented culture that values individual development and teamwork; and to increase ridership through innovation technology in a time of rapid and constant technological change.

  "Innovation may not always begin with new technology"

Traditionally, the IT organization of a transit agency focuses only on daily operations. In recent years, we are increasingly focusing on using technology innovation to improve our customer experience and reduce our operating cost. Last year, we started the Mobile Ticketing Initiative. Instead of waiting in line to buy a Breeze card at the station, the solution will allow our riders to purchase their fare via a mobile app and ride the trains and buses using their smartphones. With 70 percent of U.S. adults owning a smartphone, we believe the initiative will improve our customer service by cutting down the lines in front of the vending machines. On the operations side, this initiative can reduce our cash collection and maintenance costs of these vending machines. We plan to implement this system in September this year.

Another exciting initiative we kicked off a year ago is providing the cellular and Wi-Fi services on our buses and trains. MARTA has 10 miles of tunnels and 15 underground stations. Building a cellular and Wi-Fi network for the tunnels and underground stations is expensive and requires the funding and expertise that we don’t have within the organization. In March 2016, we secured a contract with a neutral host provider to build the cellular network at no cost to MARTA. The neutral host providers will also share their lease revenue with MARTA for the next 20 years. It is a win-win-win project for the riders, the neutral host provider, and MARTA. With over 90 percent population owns cell phones; we need cellular service for customer experience, safety, and security. Building on the cellular communication infrastructure, we can offer more services to our riders through free Wi-Fi services on the train and at stations.

Innovation may not always begin with new technology. As an IT organization within a public transit agency, often we have to work with legacy technologies. One of our legacy systems are the electronic signs in the rail stations. The signs were installed 10 years ago by a company which went bankrupted a few years back. We brought in the manufacturers of the signs, reverse engineered the signage software, upgraded servers, streamlined internal process and improved the availability of the signs from 35 percent to 95 percent. In addition, we conducted an assessment of the station public address (PA) system and signage system. Reduced the future upgrade project budget by building a real-time rail and bus information platform. Instead of purchasing an expensive system integration software, the rail and bus information platform will allow the PA system, signage system, mobile app, website and external entities to subscribe to the information and present to our customers. Because we are building this real-time rail and bus platform, it gives us the flexibility to pull information from other transit systems within the region. Using the regional collaboration as a key selling pointing, we received $30 million regional transportation grant from the state of Georgia to provide additional funding for our effort.

Forbes announced early this year that “Atlanta is a top 3 tech mecca of tomorrow.” Being the major transit in the country’s hottest tech boomtowns, innovation does not have to be within the company. It can happen in the tech community. Trying to tap into the creative and innovative minds in Atlanta’s tech community, we held two civic hackathons. Partnering with the City of Atlanta, we created an open data portal for the hackers. Over five hundred students, engineers, coders, planners, and designers attended hackathons and worked a 24-hour sprint to create amazing ideas, apps, solutions, and technologies to improve our riders experience. After the hackathons, through civic hack nights and Slack, the IT staff continue work with the hackers to advance their creations and bridge the connection between the company and the tech community.

As a CIO of a transit agency, it’s rewarding to see our technology have a positive impact on our 400,000 daily riders. According to a recent survey by Atlanta Regional Commission, transportation remains the region’s top concern. 91 percent of survey respondents ranked improving public transit important to metro Atlanta’s future. 44 percent of survey respondents believe expanding public transit is the best long-term solution to the region’s traffic problems. IT of a major public transit agency in the Atlanta region, we are uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between customer needs and business operations by leveraging technology. It is our intention to contribute at a greater level with future technologies to continue improving our customer experience and help our visionary CEO, Keith Parker, to expand the transit network.

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