Constant change is the new normal: Transit authorities and operators need faster access to relevant data insights to successfully navigate the new reality. Here are some ways they can do that.
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in sudden, large-scale changes in people’s mobility patterns across the globe. Restrictions, working-from-home orders, and people’s fears of contracting the virus have led to fewer public transit journeys, trips to different destinations at different times, and more private modes of travel. Over the last 21 months, public transit agencies have had to adapt to these changes; adjusting vehicle capacity, introducing new safety measures, and flexibly managing service levels from one day to the next.
To make the right calls, transit organizations have needed to obtain relevant insights faster than ever, while not losing track of overall trend lines. It has been like fitting together many different puzzle pieces, from public health data to governments’ evolving restrictions to customers’ changing behaviors. This effort has noticeably changed the way that they think about data: What might have been perceived as a hunger for data has proven to be a growing hunger for insights and, in particular, for the stories behind the data.
This has accelerated transit providers’ search for ways to become more data-driven and to develop relevant insights faster. A challenge that can be daunting but should be embraced for reasons beyond the pandemic—above all because mobility is becoming an increasingly digital playing field where data is the name of the game. Two main trends are dictating this: the pace of change in customer preferences, and the proliferation of new mobility companies enabled by the digital revolution.
On the one hand, as customers get used to more convenient, digital solutions in all aspects of life, their preferences are changing dramatically. They will soon expect (or are already expecting) the same level of convenience in their mobility journeys that they experience when shopping online. To be able to design services that successfully respond to these changing demands, public transit providers need to keep up and to continually grasp how customer preferences are shifting.
On the other hand, the emergence of ride-hailing, shared mobility, and Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) has led public transit operators and authorities to find themselves in a competitive landscape that is filled with digital-native companies—the Ubers, the Bolts, the Limes, and the like. Companies that not only have data at the core of their DNA, but in many cases collect and monitor mobility patterns on a global scale. This puts them at a significant advantage compared to their public counterparts when it comes to understanding mobility behavior changes more broadly.
It is therefore paramount that public transit organizations keep advancing their agendas to integrate data insights into every facet of their operation. The good news is that this does not necessarily require establishing a large, dedicated data analytics team swarming with data scientists. In fact, simple changes in the organizational mindset around data and the training of current staff can yield quick dividends.
To start naturally integrating data insights into every part of an organization, there are three strategies we’ve found to be particularly powerful. Collectively, we call them the 3 D’s of data: demystify, decentralize, democratize.
Demystify. Gathering relevant insights from data does not, in most cases, require big data processing, machine learning, or other high-end advanced analytics skills. In fact, a sound understanding of the business and its KPIs is much more central to giving meaning to the data. Also, in many cases, decision-supporting insights can be derived through simple calculations or data visualization. Data’s intimidating aspects can have a paralyzing effect on data efforts. By abandoning the notion that data is the privilege of a chosen few and redubbing data-driven thinking as evidence-based thinking, organizations can demystify data and begin to remove this paralyzing feeling.
Decentralize. Becoming a data-driven organization means integrating relevant data insights into every level of decision-making. When the understanding of data is the sole responsibility of a single team, which is usually not part of the business team, this task becomes close to impossible. To instill data-driven thinking in every facet of the organization, citizen data analysts—people who deeply understand the goals and nuances of their organization’s operations—need to be appointed and encouraged on every team.
Democratize. Battling the idea that data is the privilege of a chosen few is essential, but it’s not enough to empower whole teams to produce and use relevant data insights more efficiently and effectively. They also need to be able to obtain data quickly and to easily understand what it means. Creating user-friendly dashboards that are tailored to each team’s responsibilities and processes—and that are available at each team member’s fingertips—can go a long way toward spontaneously nudging teams to integrate data insights into every aspect of their work.
After almost two years of a COVID-19-dominated reality, the pandemic’s future evolution and long-lasting effects still remain largely uncertain. But if there is one thing that the volatile course of the pandemic has underlined, it is that timely access to relevant insights is indispensable for navigating through the fast-changing landscape of the new reality. And this is a learning that is here to stay.