CIO interview: Victoria Higgin, Highways England

by Emma

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In May this year, Highways England published a Digital delivery paper outlining how the agency that looks after England’s motorways will use digital technologies.

In the paper, Victoria Higgin, Highways England’s chief digital and information officer (CDIO), outlines a modern and flexible technology architecture that she says will allow the organisation to create new services or improve existing ones quickly through the reuse of existing services.

“We will also focus on reducing complexity and increasing standardisation across our infrastructure and platforms, which will enable greater automation, orchestration and flexibility across our technology stacks, leading to quicker provision of infrastructure services,” she notes in the paper.

Higgin joined Highways England two years ago. Prior to this she worked for the National Grid, where she held various roles over her 22-year tenure, including working in the control room, IT, project delivery, business relationship management and IT transformation.

While the new organisation shares similarities with the National Grid in terms of being a network that requires management, she says: “When I left National Grid, I didn’t know much about Highways [England], but it has quite a big digital agenda.”

As well as both organisations being focused on national infrastructure, she says Highways England and the National Grid each have a sense of duty to the public and are safety orientated.

Making connections

Higgin describes Highways England as an organisation that connects the country. “We are not journey planners; we connect the customers through the journeys they take and through the technology we implement.”

Along with road users, customers include freight companies, the emergency services and the communities operating or building the road network. Highways England also needs to be connected to local authorities, as Higgin explains: “Nobody’s road journey starts or ends on the motorway. We all live in local authorities and so we communicate with them.”

She leads the 277-strong digital services team at Highways England, which, among other things, is looking at the country’s “digital roads” agenda. Through its strategic business plan, the organisation is investing £27.4bn in the strategic road network (SRN) between 2020 and 2025.

This is supported by digital technologies and data to enable Highways England to deliver safer, smoother and more reliable journeys for its customers. “It’s about adopting more agile ways, transforming our services and providing our people with the data they need to make better decisions,” says Higgin.

The digital highway

There are three parts to Highways England’s digital roads plan. Broadly speaking, these cover asset management and safety – operational technologies to improve traffic management and digital services for customers. “We can effectively manage the way we run the network using digital channels, real-time data and roadside technology,” says Higgin.

“We can effectively manage the way we run the network using digital channels, real-time data and roadside technology”

Victoria Higgin, Highways England

Highways England is launching two new IT frameworks for tender – the Information and Technology Commercial Framework (ITCF), worth £1.5bn, and the Operational Technology Commercial Framework (OTCF), worth £500m. Contracts will be awarded to provide the operational roadside technology, operational systems and business IT that drives the strategic road network in England. “It’s a massive piece of work,” says Higgin, “and we are looking at how we partner to enable it.”

However, being “massive” does not necessarily mean contracts will be awarded only to the largest IT and operational technology providers. “More niche companies are especially good at data and are quick in developing data projects,” says Higgin. But she concedes that there will always be a need for the big suppliers to support Highways England’s mission-critical systems.

Team effort

Alongside these major initiatives, Higgin says Highways England is also building out its own internal IT, data and cyber security capabilities. “We are developing our own people,” she says. “We are also looking at apprentice and graduate schemes.”

Internal development is especially important in roles where there is huge demand in the market, such as enterprise architecture, data science and cyber security. “There is no end of opportunities to develop.”

Like many larger organisations, Highways England has legacy IT and technical debt, but Higgin says it is on a journey to decommission some of this older IT. “There is some stuff we won’t want to change, but we will want to do some things more digitally and take advantage of data.”

She says her role at Highways England puts her in a good position to facilitate the breaking down of silos and connecting parts of the organisations together to enable end-to-end data flows and services. “I can see right across the organisation, end-to-end. The executives listen to each other to make changes, and look to me [for recommendations].

“We are information providers,” she says. “The work around data is impressive. We have a team accountable for delivering data as a service and connecting the dots across the organisation.”

The role of data

One of the opportunities Highways England is looking at is the ability to use roadside signage to deliver data directly to cars, providing in-vehicle signage. It is working with vehicle manufacturers to access data from cars. “We are looking at what we can provide, security, how cars talk to our infrastructure and what we can do with the data,” says Higgin. 

Highways England is also exploring how data can be used to optimise journeys, such as monitoring traffic flow and dealing with roadworks and accidents. “We have data that is unique to us to optimise road journeys,” says Higgin. Externally, data is mainly shared with local authorities, but she feels that more needs to be done to share data with other transport organisations such as Network Rail and HS2.

Optimisation is also a key part of any major road project. Major work on motorways is planned and rehearsed using digital twin simulations

Discussions on data inevitably lead on to artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). When asked about where Highways England sees AI being deployed, Higgin says: “There is potential to use AI to assist our control room operators.” For instance, AI could be deployed to provide predictive analytics for maintaining roadside assets. “There would be no need to schedule in visits to assets when it is not needed,” says Higgin. Not only does this improve efficiency, but it also helps to improve safety, since predictive maintenance reduces the number of visits engineers need to make to the roadside to check signage.

But while the agency is exploring application areas, Higgin says she wants to “get the ethical part right before we dive in”. This means assessing what Highways England wants to get out of AI, ensuring it is not biased, and understanding how it will impact customers and employees.

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