Data drives Autostrade out of tragedy

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth October 20, 2021
Italy’s highways provider Autostrade has given its CIO the power to use data to rethink the business and prevent another tragedy like Genoa 2018

An image of some Italian roads
(Image by dendoktoor from Pixabay )

At times CIOs join organizations in response to the very worst kind of events. Francesco del Greco is just such a CIO. The Italian joined Autostrade in April 2020 as the Italian highway operator began putting itself back together again following the darkest day in the organization's history.

In August 2018, the Ponte Morandi motorway bridge, which crossed over parts of the city of Genoa in the Liguria region of Italy, collapsed. As the giant concrete structure tumbled into the valley below, 43 people lost their lives, buildings were damaged, and the A10 motorway which connected Italy and France was severed. The images of a motorway with a 210-metre section missing shocked the world. Poor maintenance was cited by investigators as the cause of the tragic bridge collapse. A state of emergency took place in the Liguria region for over a year, and the collapse was followed by inquiries and political battles.

At the time of the bridge collapse, Autostrade was part of Atlantia, an Italian conglomerate of infrastructure operators with interests in roads and airports. Atlantia is controlled by the Benetton family, famed for its fashion brand.

The remains of Ponte Morandi were destroyed in August 2019 and the new Viadotto Genova-San Giorgio was inaugurated in August 2020. Autostrade was divested from the Atlantia group in June 2021 following a protracted battle with lawmakers. Today, Autostrade is part state-controlled, with additional involvement by investment houses Blackstone of the USA and Macquarie of Australia.

Those that create a catastrophe, whether a bridge collapse, poor decision making or political hubris, are rarely the right people to build back a better response. As a result, Autostrade changed its senior leadership team, with del Greco being hired to completely change the speed and direction of technology in the organisation.

The mandate of the organisation now, when you compare it to the previous organisation, is completely different. We are doubling the maintenance and investing €23 billion of private money. This is not money from the recent European Union fund

Del Greco says of how the new ownership structure is committed to modernising both the roads it operates and how the business runs. Italy has received significant investment from the European Union as the EU looks to return to economic health following the Coronavirus pandemic.

I wanted to give something back to the country where I started and to work with the new leadership team.

Del Greco, speaking to diginomica from the Tibco Now virtual conference, took this CIO role following 15 years with GE Aviation. A career that took him to all corners of the globe. The CIO adds that road transport is undergoing a major change, which technology will be central to:

We have a crisis, and the world is changing ethically - self driving cars, sustainable mobility are all coming - so how do we mesh all of these together?

And only through changing the structure of the organization would Autostrade be able to meet these new demands. He says:

It was a company well known for its slowness and now we want it to be a fast-executing company that is fluid and agile, and able to react to what is happening around us.

Data foundations

Unless we become a data firm, then we won't be able to do the things that we want to do. This firm was not thinking about software and data until the tragedy happened.

To become data-driven was one of the key things that would help the company make decisions.

Yet Autostrade has long been a business rich in data. Information which is highly relevant and valuable to the related industries that rely on the roads that Autostrade operates. On arrival, del Greco paved the way for a data lake to be created on AWS, and with Autostrade having already selected Tibco as a data analytics partner, the Tibco Spotfire application was deployed to create greater visualization and wider access to the data. Del Greco says: 

We wanted to democratize the data and make it visible and easy to understand for everybody, and based on that, you can then inform the decision making process and be more scientific. You can then invent new businesses.

We have years and years of traffic information; every 85 seconds, there is a recording of the traffic going through a 150-metre section of road, which captures the type of vehicle, its size and risk type.

As well as getting the data project moving quickly, del Greco carried out an analysis of the technology landscape at Autostrade. He adds:

When you want to go through such ambitious projects, you have to understand where you are. So we did a self-assessment. We were at the beginner phase in terms of maturity, and there was not a clear understanding of the systems, and there were projects that were not glued together and no cohesive plan.

A new data highway

Autostrade also operates the service stations on its motorway network and is capturing data at these. As del Greco says, a service station is a tiny smart city and therefore an ideal location for smart city experimentation. But in the short term, the CIO says the data will be used to improve the customer experience at both service stations and on the roads.

That customer experience is shaped by how good a journey a driver has. Italy's beauty comes from its diverse landscape, from the verdant plains, the towering peaks of the Dolomite mountains, its Alpine borders with France and Switzerland and the Mediterranean coast, all of which also drives a wide variety of weather, and weather always has an impact on a journey.  

Del Greco plans to use data to keep drivers safe and provide advice on what he calls the best driving style the driver should adopt. Already the data sets are demonstrating that quiet cars are more prone to accidents. Traffic is the constant source of complaint by those that drive a great deal, and again, del Greco says data can help road operators manage traffic more efficiently to improve the consumer experience. He explains: 

Customers hate traffic, and it can be our fault, through poor maintenance planning, so we will be able to control the way we plan maintenance work.

This data orientation is changing the toll process for Italy's motorway network, he adds:

It is very scientific, based on the route you take, and if you get stuck in traffic, you may not want to pay as much. So we want to move from a fixed price to a flexible price. In September we started offering cash back via our App, which correlates the average time, roadworks information and toll usage, so we can determine if you have a credit that should be given back.

Del Greco says this is the first leg of a journey towards informing drivers when to travel and the beginning of a new customer-centric approach by Autostrade:

We are having conversations with entities that we haven't had a dialogue with before, and now our guys are talking a different language.

New destination

Autostrade was at the forefront of Italy's rebirth as an industrial and innovative nation following the Second World War when the nation was led by right-wing Fascists.

But then there was a slow decline that ended with a tragedy.

But from the bridge tragedy, del Greco says there is an ambition to change the culture and services of Autostrade. In IT, he is adopting Agile working methods, and in time he says the entire organization will adopt Agile.

Viadotto Genova-San Giorgio was designed by award-winning architect Renzo Piano, a native of the Liguria region and famed for London's Shard, Paris' Centre Pompidou and the California Academy of Sciences buildings. The new bridge uses sensors to provide structural data to Autostrade, and bring the organization into the realm of the Internet of Things. Del Greco says: 

We are hiring 2,400 engineers and recruiting at schools and universities to get the proper profile of people that we need. The organizational structure is too white, with no women and other ethnicities - that is being changed.

Earlier in 2021, we re-ran the self-assessment again and we have improved by 22 points on the maturity scale, as we now have the governance in place, a clear vision and a road map.

My take

This is not the first time I have interviewed a CIO brought in when an organization is at its lowest point. Whether the operator of a road that has ignored maintenance advice or a water company flouting regulations, these, thankfully rare events require a new senior leadership team. Autostrade, just as with utility firm Severn Trent Water a decade ago, has used these low points to re-route the role of technology in the business. 

Of course, nothing can bring back those tragically lost on that day in August 2018 when the worst form of failure occurred. But technology clearly plays a role in monitoring and identifying risk, but only if the organization has a leadership team that understands this, and empower the right CIO to drive that change.


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