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Mark Powell, Baggage operational architect, Heathrow Airport

Path to power

 

I started my career on a graduate scheme at a transport consultancy, mainly working on projects modelling and monitoring traffic and public transport flows in and around London. This gave me an appreciation of the varied skills and work that goes in to accurate data for decision-making on a variety of scales. After a few years, I moved to an operational performance analysis role at Heathrow and absolutely loved it - the direct contact with the operation, variety of stakeholders and the freedom I was given to go use data. From that, I’ve developed and progressed through the organisation, getting increasingly involved and bringing a data perspective to a wider range of problems, making the most of the projects and opportunities that came my way. That’s included the delivery of new business intelligence systems; developing our planning and forecasting capability; answering business investment questions about how to deliver appropriate capacity; specifying the situational awareness and information requirements from our operational systems; and developing our front-line teams to be able to understand better the data available to them on the day.

 

What has been the highlight of your career in the industry to date?

 

Working at Heathrow. The airport is an amazing, fascinating place, particularly for those of a slightly nerdy disposition - and every part of it has the data to go with it. There are so many great things we’ve done and I’m proud looking back at how far we have come. But for me, the best bits have been the small things, the instant insights that have enabled the right operationally-critical decisions to be made and helped our frontline teams.

 

If you could give your younger self some advice about how to progress in this industry, what would it be?

 

Two things: Figure out what you do and why you do it, then do it well - reputation for quality and authenticity will serve you well; make sure you understand the world behind your data - this will open up your understanding and help you relate to business users.

 

Did 2018 turn out the way you expected? If not, in what ways was it different?

 

The hype (and myths!) around GDPR at the start of the year wasn’t unexpected and we have seen the profile of analytics growing as predicted. However, the end of 2018 saw me covering the role of baggage operations director for a couple of months, which was not what I expected! A fantastic experience and great that data is no longer on the periphery, but central enough to deputise for a core leader. As well as strengthening my belief in the value of data, it has highlighted to me the biggest opportunities are in areas that aren’t yet on the data radar.

 

What do you expect 2019 to be like for the industry?

 

I see the hype around analytics, machine learning and AI dying down and we will move on to more specific value-add applications. A lot of these will be in non-glamourous ways, focusing on the right data rather than big data. As a result, we may not hear so much about these, but they will be going on behind the scenes. I also think we will see a growing acceptance of data quality as a business issue, not just a data issue.

 

Talent and skills are always a challenge to find - how are you tackling this in your organisation?

 

We have some great hidden talent in our frontline teams, security, control rooms and technicians. Digital workplace tools are opening up accessibility to these and enabling home-grown talent to make connections and succeed, making the most of their domain expertise. We’re also looking at creating the right work environment for our analytical teams, developing their data science skills, encouraging collaboration to combine talent in different areas. There are also basic things to get right, like career paths and skills definitions. An airport is also a fantastic asset for attracting the data and analytical mind!

 

What aspect of data, analytics or their use are you most optimistic about and why?

 

Anomaly detection applied in the right way is a huge opportunity area. Moving from a drill down world to “alert up” offers the potential to streamline business processes, such as performance monitoring, at the same time as increasing accuracy, coverage and speed.

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