How data is being used to improve the transport industry

16 Feb 2023

From left: Alan Farrelly and Brian O'Rourke, CitySwift. Image: Michael Dillon Photography

Brian O’Rourke speaks to about his role as CEO and co-founder of public transport tech company CitySwift, and the digitalisation of the transport industry.

Click here to view the full AI and Analytics Week series.

Brian O’Rourke is the CEO and co-founder of CitySwift, an Irish-based big data technology company that gives public transport networks the intelligence to deliver dynamic services. This is achieved by using data analytics and machine learning to improve public transport with predictions on journey times and passenger demand, and responsive timetables.

CitySwift has worked with some of the world’s largest public transportation operators and authorities including the MTA in New York, Transport for London and National Express PLC.

Over the years, my role as CEO has evolved along with the company’s growth, starting off as a small company with fewer than 10 employees to a company with now almost 60 team members.”

According to O’Rourke, his role as CEO revolves around five key pillars. These consist of working on the strategy and direction of the company, ensuring the collaboration of the organisation towards their targets, working on beneficial recruitment and networking strategies, maintaining strong client relations, and overseeing the processes and structures within the company.

‘For me, it’s just about making sure there is a roadmap for everyone to grow and develop, both personally and professionally’

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

In the public transport industry, the biggest challenge has been regaining passenger numbers post-Covid, which ultimately means a loss in revenue for transport providers across the world. While we’ve seen between 70pc and 90pc of passengers return, it still leaves a shortfall of anywhere between 10pc and 30pc of farebox revenue.

Closing that gap to get passengers back on public transport has been something our clients and I have been working on tirelessly by making sure operations are as smooth and efficient as possible, buses are reliable and punctual and ensuring services are of the highest quality to encourage people to use public transport over cars.

Another challenge we’ve seen is the change in demand due to shifting mobility patterns since Covid. We’re now rolling out Monday and Friday only schedules with our clients due to the change in commuting patterns with many people now working from home or on a hybrid basis.

We’ve helped our clients to adapt to this change by making sure they are balancing supply and demand and getting the best use out of their resources and assets as possible.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

The movement towards electric vehicles is a massive opportunity because we are seeing government policies, initiatives and funding in place to make this transition happen.

Where we’re getting very involved in this area is that partnership between local authorities, public transport operators and city councils around the roll-out of zero-emission buses while also implementing bus priority measures which can have a monetary benefit to bus companies by subsidising the costs of running buses in cities and towns.

Another opportunity is the move towards the digitalisation of the public transport industry. Historically, going back five to 10 years ago, there was no real-time information, contactless ticketing or smart cars but now as the industry has become a lot more digitalised, buses are now connected to the ecosystem and infrastructure which has allowed a massive surge of data to be generated from these vehicles.

This data is now being used to improve internal processes and operational excellence as our clients can use these insights to understand passenger demand and vehicle journeys to make better decisions and run more dynamic services.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

The biggest influence on the creation of CitySwift started back in the 1980s when Alan Farrelly’s (CCO and co-founder) parents bought their first bus for their family-run business, Farrelly Coaches in Longford. Alan was born into a public transport business, which instilled the deep domain knowledge of the bus industry into him from a young age.

Alan and I then went to school together in Ballymahon where we became childhood friends.

When I finished college after studying information systems, we saw the opportunity for optimisation and improvement within the transport industry, primarily looking through the lens of Alan’s family business, but also seeing what was happening in the taxi industry where MyTaxi, FreeNow, Lyft and Uber all began to scale up where they were making operational efficiencies and improving the passenger experience.

We felt that through using technology, there were similar opportunities in public transportation and that’s where the idea of CitySwift was born.

From there, we were lucky enough to get mentorship from Robert Montgomery, who is a former managing director of the largest bus company in the UK and gave us deep insights into how PLCs within the UK were run and the various challenges they faced.

On top of that, we were also given the opportunity to work with Irlandia, who were the founders of Ryanair and understood the benefits of making operational efficiency gains in the transportation industry, and ultimately invested in our business.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

I think the biggest risk we’ve taken was turning down seed funding or investment that wasn’t the right fit for the business. In the early stages of starting a business, a lot of first-time entrepreneurs will get their investments from seed funding, but I think as a business we decided to be strategic instead by trying to find the best possible investors for the business to support our growth ambitions and vision.

At the time, it was definitely a massive risk, but we’ve been lucky enough to get some fantastic investors who have supported CitySwift’s journey to where we are now.

How do you get the best out of your team?

At CitySwift, we have a trust-first mentality. Everyone in the business trusts in each other’s skills and abilities.

We’re incredibly lucky to have a very talented team who I get the opportunity to work with on a daily basis. For me, it’s just about making sure there is a roadmap for everyone to grow and develop, both personally and professionally, and ensuring they get recognition and rewarded for their high performance.

We set out clear expectations of what high performance looks like, find a way to measure it and give our people the autonomy to go and deliver without the need to micromanage.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

Historically, there has definitely been a diversity problem in both the transport and technology industry. However, in recent years we’ve seen more and more clients and colleagues coming from diverse backgrounds and I think both industries have hit a turning point and evolved along with the world, which has to be supported and recognised.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

One tool I use everyday and would recommend is TickTick. It’s a task list and calendar management app and I’ve found it has been invaluable to my daily, weekly and monthly planning, prioritisation and time management – both in my work and personal life.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.