Saturday, 26 March 2011

Report into Heathrow Winter Resilience

The recent enquiry report into the response at Heathrow airport to the recent winter snow raised many interesting points about communications in a complex control environment and responding to difficult situations.

The report highlighted the problems in managing real-time communications between different groups and functions all trying to collaborate.  We often see this in our control room design work - the resource required to disseminate information is often too much so only partial information is shared.  We have been looking at a number of projects recently where shared systems automatically enable visibility of information held by other functions so reducing this problem - providing communications in parallel rather than serial.

This kind of information sharing is important for different teams to retain the "big picture" overview of the situation, one which is often changing rapidly.  Good situational awareness is critical for the right decisions to be made at all levels of crisis response.

The report also flagged some interesting issues about the physical location of controls in relation to the events going on (many of the control rooms involved had no visibility of the airfield to give them that important contextual information) and in relation to each other.  Co-location of control rooms has its problems but it can be effective in short-cutting some of the communication flows.

One final point of note was the importance given to managing passenger needs during the crisis. Inevitably the focus of many operations during events like this is to focus on restoring the service as quickly as possible.  But if all resources are directed on this then the operation ignores supporting the passengers during this stressful experience.  It was good to see recommendations covering passenger welfare both in terms of provision of regular, up to date information and in providing temporary facilities in the airport.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

So many uses for glass

Another look into the future...especially around multi-touch interfaces. Although our first reaction was "what a lot of finger prints"!

Although this is clear a promotion for the various uses of glass technology it did raise some interesting questions about do we want access to information and communications technology in so many parts of our lives?

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Are train seats too narrow?

According to an article in the Metro this morning ( MPs are calling for wider seats on South West Trains as the current design is causing "physical damage" to passengers.  However according to the South West Trains website which summarises the conclusions of the report there are issues related to people fitting the seats but this is a "comfort issue not a health risk".
The ergonomics study concludes that 59% of the population will be outside of the seating "envelope" with their elbows - i.e. not very comfortable.

The design of trains is complex.  You need to get the capacity otherwise people are standing or can't get on at all.  Running more services or having longer trains aren't that easy as answers.  However it seems a shame that a comfort issue is seen as almost acceptable - once again it is the passenger that suffers from the compromise. 

Last nights Dispatches programme on C4 made similar points about the passenger experience in the UK

Labels: , , ,

Monday, 21 March 2011

Are you consolidating your control rooms?

The issue
The current economic climate is forcing many organisations to look at the consolidation of control rooms as a way to save money.  This might mean operating with fewer control rooms and moving to a more centralised structure; or it might be mergers / co-locations with related functions or organisations. The challenge is still to get more from less.

There are some very real cost savings that can be made. Fewer control rooms is likely to result in fewer staff controlling the same infrastructure; fewer rooms can reduce the property portfolio of an organisation. Consolidation can also bring about sharing of back-office functions and reduced maintenance costs.

Technology is often the enabling force.  More powerful systems and automation are allowing more infrastructure to be controlled by fewer people. As the nature of "control" changes to increased monitoring and occasional intervention, new technology is changing the way the growing volumes of data can be acceptably presented to operators.  Communications technology is allowing more remote operation and connections to be made between related control functions - this can be a way of providing more resilience in the system.

The challenges
One of the major challenges in delivering control room consolidation is managing the change for the staff. Resistance can risk successful project delivery and acceptance.  One key is to get staff involved in the process.  But it's also important to understand the culture of the organisation and how things get done.

Overcoming the loss of local knowledge is often critical as control moves further away from the infrastructure under control.  It is also often an important issue for the public who may interact with the control room.

There are very human issues around this change in the operator role.  So careful attention has to be paid to workload management, job design, selection and the design of systems interfaces and support tools.

The important factors are first, paying the necessary consideration to the human issues when making this kind of change; and secondly, a joined up design based on operational needs that considers control & comms systems in parallel with the control room itself.

For more detail, download our white paper from


Thursday, 10 March 2011

Sunset Chapel - human architecture

Whilst lots of the entries on this blog are serious, sometimes its nice to post things we just like.  The Sunset Chapel in Acapulco, Mexico is one of those.

This memorial chapel looks to be an amazing place.  The bare concrete structure with its elevation, location and orientation creates an atmosphere and an incredible light.

It seems to be a place that perfectly meets the human need for contemplation and reflection.  A wonderful marriage of design and human factors but in a surprising way.

Design by Esteban and Sebastián Suárez of Mexico City-based BNKR Arquitectura


Thursday, 3 March 2011

Rail fares advice "inadequate" - are there design solutions?

According to Which?, the advice that passengers receive on selecting the right train fare is inadquate -

Why is this and what could be done to fix the problem?  Well we've tried to give the problem some thought and come up with some ideas.

1) The train companies need to start thinking more like passengers and how they plan their journeys.
How do we think about a journey when we travel? We know where we want to start, where we want to go, what time we want to leave or arrive, whether we need to go via somewhere or stop off and whether we want to go with the shortest journey time or lowest cost.  We might know when we want to travel one way but not be sure of when we are going to return; or I might want to return to or from a different station.

So why can't the ticket machines, websites and the staff in the ticket offices get our travel requirements in a similar way? Ticket machines and websites could be designed to help you with this kind of route planning based around asking questions and allowing more freedom of potential responses.  Staff in ticket offices could be given intelligent support systems to help them diagnose what the customer wants.

2) Simplify the ticket options.
Some efforts have been made in the last few years to reduce the complexity of the ticket structures but its still not that simple.  For example, who really understands the range of what peak vs off peak really means on different lines?  Do you know when off-peak starts?  How do you find out?

So why don't ticket machines, offices and websites give you this information?  If you specify a departure time towards the end of the peak, why can't you be given the clear option of delaying slightly and getting a cheaper ticket?  The information on restrictions (and opportunities) needs to be pushed visibly at the passenger so they can make better decisions.

3) Ease the complex regulations
Whilst the railway industry clearly has to run as a business, some of the regulations that operate and restrict are arcane and impenitrable. For example, rules about breaking journeys or how you can't easily buy a ticket to extend a journey beyond the reach of your Oyster card in London.  None of this is passenger focused.

The industry is clearly poorly set up for this.  The structure makes it difficult to buy tickets that use services from different train operating companies.  But as passengers we take a "train", we don't take a Virgin train or a FCC train.  The distinction between companies should be invisible.  One thing this does is push you towards using the train company websites individually.  What a pain to maintain different logons for each website!  Why can't we have one single website (like the Trainline offers on a commercial basis)?

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

7/7 inquest - control room design failings?

Recently at the 7/7 inquest we saw evidence given that shows up failings in how the ambulance control room operated at a time of high stress and pressure.

See some of the press coverage:

Some examples from the evidence given:
  • There was only one person logging calls and vital information was written on scraps of paper (the inference being that some of these were lost or the information not utilised)
  • The whiteboard that was being used to log the events was positioned too high for the person acting as scribe such that they could only write on the bottom half.
  • Two people allocated key roles in the management of the incident hadn't been trained in the "gold command" procedures
  • The transfer of staff from normal operations to the Gold command room was delayed as the system required staff to logout of one workstation before logging in elsewhere; presumably they weren't aware of this.  This caused a backlog in calls.

In our experience, these kinds of problems are not as rare as one might hope but can be designed out with the right approach.

Often not enough focus is placed on how control rooms deal with these major events as they are so rare - but doing so increases the risk of failings such as those identified at the inquest.

At the very least, events such as this are prominent reminders to other services to re-examine how they do things and that lessons can be learnt to improve systems and processes and get the design of these control rooms right. 

The right approach is to integrate the design of the processes & procedures with the control room design and the development of the control & communication systems.  All too often they are dealt with seperately which leaves these kinds of chinks in the overall incident management system.

Labels: , ,