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May 2014

Rail News: Passenger Rail

MARTA revamps information technology department to better serve customers, build employee skill sets

By Angela Cotey, senior associate editor

Officials at the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) have spent the past 15 months working to cut costs and implement recommendations included in an audit report issued in late 2012, as Progressive Railroading reported in its May cover story. As part of those efforts, MARTA officials have revamped the information technology (IT) department to make it more efficient, pare back expenses and hold employees more accountable.

In mid-2013, the agency hired Shyam Dunna, a former MARTA IT department head who now owns a technology services consulting firm, to serve as the contract chief information officer on an interim basis. His directives: reduce costs, improve service delivery, build more core competencies in-house and provide better support for customers.

After assessing the department, Dunna determined first and foremost that MARTA was relying too much on outside consultants. The department had outsourced some of the basic IT functions, such as network and infrastructure security, network engineering operations, fare collection system management and service desk operations.

“As a result, there was a lot of knowledge that did not reside internally,” he says. “We need to have certain core competencies in-house, and then supplement as needed with consultants for certain projects.”

Dunna analyzed the skill sets of the IT employees. Workers were assigned new responsibilities based on the skills they had, “rather than allowing them to be generalized throughout,” says Dunna.

As a result, Dunna and other IT department managers “right-sized” the department, consolidated functions and reduced the number of consultants “tremendously,” Dunna says. They also bundled some software, equipment and maintenance contracts. The efforts saved MARTA about $14 million last year.

Insourcing more of MARTA’s IT functions also made employees more accountable.

“When we brought some of these functions in-house, it had a tremendous impact on how people delivered,” says Dunna. “You have to give somebody the ownership and accountability and they have the drive to shine, and that’s a prime example of what happened.”

In the months since employees were realigned, the IT department has taken steps to improve network infrastructure, upgrade various systems to improve their reliability, such as fare collection, and develop standard operating procedures. In addition, employees have been working to upgrade electronic signage and passenger information displays.

The department also developed in house MARTA On the Go, a GPS-enabled app that riders can use to find real-time information on rail and bus schedules, as well as station locations.

In March, agency officials appointed Ming Hsi — a 12-year MARTA veteran who began her career at the agency as a database administrator and worked her way through the department ranks — to the permanent CIO post. Dunna continues to work with MARTA during the transition.

As CIO, Hsi plans to continue to encourage employee innovation. Employees will have an opportunity to help develop a mobile payment system, as well as revamp MARTA’s website to make it more customer friendly, she says. The department also is developing a trip planning system that will have a “Google Maps” look and feel to it, using features such as street views, says Hsi. And, the agency plans eventually plans to begin using Short Message Service and Quick Response Codes to send trip information to customers who have smart phones, Hsi says.

In the meantime, IT officials will be on the lookout for ways to keep their department and employees up to speed, given the constantly evolving nature of the technology business, says Dunna. Employees are being sent to vendor classes to learn more about the IT equipment MARTA has. They also will attend conferences and seminars about fare-collection technology and operating systems. And, department officials are looking into hosting project management courses in-house to train workers to better manage and deliver projects.

The additional training will provide employees with the skills and knowledge they need to ensure MARTA’s IT department is as efficient and effective as it can be.

“If used correctly, technology can automate important functions, improve customer service and reduce costs, and that’s what we’re on track to do,” says Dunna.


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