Podcast: Meet the woman helping to lead an innovation revolution at BART


Podcast: Meet the woman helping to lead an innovation revolution at BART

Wendy Wheeler


HOST: "From new platform signs to making the most out of millions of pieces of data, BART is going through an innovation revolution that’ll have a big impact on the rider experience.  Welcome to “Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART.”   On this latest edition of Hidden Tracks, we're going into the lab to meet Wendy Wheeler who is BART’s Manager of Computer Systems Engineering.  Wheeler is one of BART’s leading innovators and she’s pushing for some major changes. That’s especially true when it comes to BART’s digital platform signs.  Upgrades have already been made to make it easier to tell if the next train is part of the Fleet of the Future but that’s just the beginning.  Listen as we learn about the technological advancements in the pipeline for BART riders.

I'm now speaking with Wendy Wheeler the Manager of Computer Systems Engineering here at BART. Wendy, first of all it's great to talk to you.”

WHEELER: “Nice to talk with you as well.”

HOST: “We're in the lab specifically this is the Computer Systems Engineering Lab and there's some really cool stuff happening here. Let's just start there. Describe where we're at and what happens here.”

WHEELER: “Okay, we're in our lab and it's filled with computers and destination signs which you would see on the platform, we're doing a lot of innovation in that space. We have a lot of older equipment that we kind of test to make sure that we're, you know, updating and modernizing things so we take the old equipment and compare it to new technologies that are coming up and things like that.”

HOST: “Your job touches on so many important pieces to the BART infrastructure, but perhaps none more important at least in terms of the rider experience when it comes to the platform signs and there's been a lot happening with the platform signs and a lot still to come that I think riders are going to be very excited to learn about.  Let's recap some of the new innovations that have been put into place this year because they've been very noticeable and have been getting a lot of customer feedback.”

WHEELER: “Right so we have just put on canceled trains so they used to call them ghost trains when trains wouldn't appear. So, we've added a way to cancel the trains and provide the passenger information downstream. We have the two-door, three-door signup date which tells you if a new train is coming and you know where to stand on the platform. We're also working on some technology right now to put a delay message out so that you're not sitting there and seeing the five-minute flash forever and the train isn't coming, and we can actually put it's delayed out there so passengers have better experience on the platform. In addition to that we're working on new platform signs, color, either LCD or LED signs and we have those in our lab right now and we're trying to figure out what we're going to put out there for the future.”

HOST: “Yeah, and some of the changes that have already gone into place. They're getting some pretty positive feedback, it sounds like from our riders.”

WHEELER: “Yeah, absolutely, we had really good feedback from the ADA community the Accessibility Task Force, talking about how it really helps them maneuver the system better. That was very positive to hear and as people have been out posting messages, I'm getting far less complaints on things and so I think it's all good.”

HOST: “And if you thought that was something just wait until you see what's next. Now of course this is a podcast so people can't see as they listen but what we're going to do is we're going to post pictures at BART.gov with the transcript of our podcast and show off some of the ideas that are being developed right now. It's exciting. It's eye catching and we're talking about a whole new look really to the platform signs.”


WHEELER: “Heard a lot of complaints from customers about not having the information of when their train is up all the time. And so, we've talked internally about having a split screen where we keep the sign information that passengers care about static full time with the ETA information. Then on the other panel on the other side we would have all of the other information like any advertisings or elevator escalator announcements or just basic BART information that needs to be sent out to the public. And so, then we don't disturb what passengers really care about which is what is coming next, what train is coming next for them.”

HOST: “Yeah and that seems to be the clear message from our riders or at least many of our riders is they really care about those train arrival times and when they look at one of these screens that's the information they really want. And now here's a chance for us to be really consistent with that.”

WHEELER: “Correct and keep the information up there that passengers care about, exactly.”

HOST: “Kind of in the works still at this point, do we have any sort of timeframe for when some of these, maybe a prototype could be implemented?”

WHEELER: “We’re looking in the next year to have a prototype out and so that we can get passenger feedback on the signs and we'll try a couple of different technologies and see what works for the passengers.”


HOST: “And you have some of the prototypes here actually and different options are being considered. One option looks kind of like TV screens, another looks like a kind of a pixelated screen.  Describe what some of the alternatives could be.”

WHEELER: “Right so we are looking at how do we reduce costs for the BART District when we're replacing signs. So, we've looked at just standard, I want to say television monitors or LED screens, and what we're doing there is putting those in the existing enclosures using the same technology that we're using today to reduce costs. We're also looking at new displays as well that are similar to the old ones but with a pixel count that's closer together so that we can actually do more of the advertising quality visuals that we're looking at doing.”

HOST: “This is such a seismic shift in what these platform screens look like. Everybody is so used to that red lettering. I mean we've had it for decades and now we're talking about something that looks entirely different. That's just a huge transition I would think.”

WHEELER: “It's a huge transition. It also helps us put more information on the screens because we're very limited with the pixel counts that we have on our current signs to be able to put a lot of information and to make it readable. We do a lot of truncating of information which we probably won't have to do as much with the future signs.”

HOST: “From a technical standpoint what are some of the challenges with making this transition?”

prototype sign

WHEELER: “We are going to have to update our sign software in the back end to accommodate for the new technology and various feeds that are going to be coming into the signs. So that's the shift there.”

HOST: “We've talked a lot about the platform signs, but also it's getting easier for folks to listen to what we're trying to say in the system. We've been working on the public address system. Tell me about that effort.”

WHEELER: “Right, we just installed a new product called IED, and we have new technology in our Operations Control Center that allows our communications people to send messages more efficiently out into the field. And so that's very exciting, the clarity of the messages. We're also working with the marketing team to do canned and recorded messages so that people can hear things better out in the public.”

HOST: “That is something we certainly get a lot of feedback on and historically have heard a lot from our riders about that it's just, it's hard to hear on BART it's hard to hear that PA system and this is a way that we're trying to address that.”

WHEELER: “Absolutely. And we're hoping that the new customer experience will be good for them.”

HOST: “And of course this is a project that though it's been rolled out, you guys are still working on it. In other words, you're always looking for innovation and improvements here there's always a chance to improve.”

WHEELER: “What we're working on right now is now that we have the system rolled out, we can improve upon it.  So, the mics that we had we're not as good so now we've got the Comm Specs new mics so that the clarity is better. We're working with our marketing teams to do more canned recordings so that those are crisper for the public. We are automating the system on the back end so that it's more robust for our Comm Specs (Communications Specialists) so that they can get messages out faster.”

HOST: “I'm speaking with Wendy Wheeler she's the Manager of Computer Systems Engineering here at BART.  You talk about the back end of things when it comes to technology a lot of your job has to deal with that and one of the things we consistently say in terms of public messaging at BART is that we're rebuilding the system.  You hear a lot about Measure RR, we’re replacing track, we're replacing electrical equipment all sorts of things throughout the system that have been around for nearly 50 years and have really outlived their useful lives. But a lot of times we're not talking about that back end that people never see.  The infrastructure that our computer systems rely upon.  What condition is that in, and how old is it?”

WHEELER: “So we have technology from the beginning of BART, all the way up to current technology and everything in between. But with this influx of money we're able to modernize our technologies. We're going from systems that didn't have a lot of information in the past to now providing us a wealth of data that now we're doing data analytics, data mining, and being able to respond faster to incidences in the system.  That's where our focus is right now as we're buying new technology and modernizing to think about where we want to head with our maintenance and operations folks, what do they need to see what have they always wanted to see and how we can do jobs better. I mean we manage, and I think we manage a small city, and a small city needs a lot of things. Fire life safety, elevator escalators, all the lighting, the ventilation.  It's complicated and so when we run SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) equipment that provides us information we're upgrading all of that SCADA equipment so that we can do controls better and improve our ability to maintain the plants so that we have less outages for customers. We're building a new train control system. We have an in-house system that does our train control right now, we're in the process of doing what we call CBTC (Communications-Based Train Control). That project will allow us to run trains closer together.  Passengers want more trains. Well, our current system doesn't allow us to run trains closer together because that would be dangerous. The new system would allow that. And I think passengers will really appreciate that as the population grows in this area, we need more capacity. Those are the types of innovation and things that we're working on.”

HOST: “You mentioned data analytics. What is that, and why is it so important for the customer experience?”

WHEELER: “So right now we get about 15 million data elements a day.”

HOST: “Wow.”

WHEELER: “And with that, before we kind of thought about how to use data. We weren't doing much with it. We were posting up alarms sending things to some people, and when we had incidents we go back and mine the data. It was very time consuming. So, we've added new technologies with Splunk, and we've started pumping our data feeds into there. We've created dashboards, alarms.  When we have caught like things that are kind of going wrong in the District that we can put a focus on those and we can say, ‘Okay, how can we respond to those types of incidents faster?’ For example, something like switch throws. We should maintain our switches after 3,000 throws. Well, before we'd say okay the PM for track throws is once a month. And that's if the track switches once or 4,000 times or whatever. Now we can actually schedule it exactly when the manufacturer says we should schedule it, that's an example of what we do.  For fire life safety, we are looking at responding faster. A sump pump leaks or sump pump has a problem because of a leak in the District because there's a lot of rain right now. We can tell really quickly on these dashboards where our issues are and actually provide that data to the team that needs it. Before we had a lot of focus on the OCC, which is our Operations Control Center, and we spend a lot of time building systems for them. Now, what we're doing is saying, ‘wait a minute, the OCC doesn't really, they need to know this data, but the people that need to fix this data need to see this data, and they shouldn't have to wait for a phone call from somebody we can actually provide them the views, so that they can oh, I need to send a maintenance guy out right now,’ and that's a game changer for us. We're building these little mini NOC (Network Operations Center) in our various different maintenance facilities, and it's making us more responsive.”

HOST: “Responsive and is it almost predictive? In other words, we know a problem’s coming up based upon the data.  We can anticipate that and plan ahead.”

WHEELER: “Correct and we can get people out there before it fully fails, and that's really great for us because that means that we have less impact to customers.”

HOST: “Is it challenging to work with that mix of technology? In other words, some of it is really state-of -the-art brand new, right off the shelf and some of it is so old. Is it hard to maintain that balance and what are some of the challenges with that?”

WHEELER “I think one of our biggest challenges is because it's all new to everybody is getting people to think outside of the box of what's possible. We provide a little bit of data to a group and they're like, ‘Oh, you have all that oh do you also have,’ and we start to get people to question about what would be useful. How do we combine the data, what is a common scenario, what are our biggest problems? And as we're having those conversations, we're actually able to build things better. That's been our biggest challenge. It's not really the data, it's about coming up with how we display it and how we want to use it.”

HOST: “I would think also getting people to buy into the importance of it too because it is kind of new for BART or at least I would think it is. This is a railroad, it's been around since the early 70s people are used to doing things a certain way and now here's an opportunity to take advantage of technology and the data it provides and get better at what we do.”

WHEELER: “Yeah it is definitely a shift. But I think as people start using the data, they realize it really is helping their jobs, and that putting those processes in place to actually utilize the data and move this forward is helping them do their jobs better.”

HOST: “I'm speaking with Wendy Wheeler the Manager of Computer Systems Engineering here at BART. Wendy, you come to this job working again for a railroad from the area, from the world of high technology.  Talk about some of the experience you bring to the table and what that transition has been like for you.”

WHEELER: “I worked for Hewlett Packard Enterprises before this as an R&D Manager. I had very modern skill sets in a development group. When I came over to BART, they had been doing things a certain way for a very long time and so we moved towards agile methodology so that we can deliver things faster. It’s an approach to development. Not waterfall but agile. And so, thinking that way, having the group come together and think about how we want to innovate differently, and giving our engineers more power to make change. And that's really important. That's how innovation happens out in the industry where you give your teams the power to develop new technologies and new things where in BART things have been, ‘oh there's a project.’ I think it's important to allow people to say, ‘yeah there is this project’ but there's also these five things that are actually going to help us reduce time, staff, money, all these things and allowing the staff the time to do those types of projects has really saved us a lot of money in the District in my area. Because we can do things faster, better, and cheaper it's just a different way of approaching development and technology from the outside.

I also think coming into a government agency, there's a lot of politics and a lot of challenges of the constant things are breaking, things are changing. So, getting people to stop a little bit and saying, wait a minute, we need to be less reactive and we need to start thinking, be forward thinking. Yes, we do need to keep the railroad running but at the same time we need to innovate.”

HOST: “It must be exciting in the sense that you're in a way, bringing a cultural change to BART where things are really different and it's that Silicon Valley mindset of approaching things not just from a project-by-project basis but really from going in and breaking things sometimes because it's for the greater good.”

WHEELER: “Right, and I also think that right now is such an amazing time to work for BART. We have all of this money and all this new technology coming in, and so we need to be innovative and we need to have really out-of-the-box thinkers to take us to the future. We need to build teams within BART that are going to make that happen and I think that is the most critical thing for us. I also think that people don't realize how much technology is at BART. We are doing amazing projects that most people wouldn't even think we would be developing or designing, and we have our own in-house engineers, our own programmers, our own QA staff and we even have our own mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, I mean we have every engineering discipline under one roof. So, if you have something that you want to do you have everybody at your fingertips to do it very few organizations that I've ever worked at have this breadth of knowledge that you can tap into. I really think that's quite impressive and I don't think people fully understand that outside of BART.”

HOST: “Wendy, you've been here for three years now in this role. How far has BART come in terms of adapting to this new technology a new way of doing things and how far do we still have to go?”

WHEELER: “I think we've come a long way in the last three years. In the approaches in which we've doing thing and the innovation that we're doing, because we have so much old stuff within BART, we have a long way to go but we're taking it day-by-day and we're fixing things and making BART better.”

HOST: “What do you see as some of the biggest challenges going forward?”

WHEELER: “I think a lot of people have the impression with BART that, why isn't it better or why isn't something, why isn't this working faster you have all these people why isn't all this stuff just magically happening right now? Every single thing we do takes time. When you have a system that is so old and has so much to change in it everything from the track, to the electrical, to the old conduit, old networking equipment, old systems. That is a lot of change and it is not something that can just happen overnight. I think people in the public need to understand that we are working many hours every day to move the needle on progressing us, and the public out there needs to know that we're not just sitting around idly. Patience I think is what people need to have as we progress forward.”

HOST: “I'm speaking with Wendy Wheeler the manager of computer systems Engineering at BART and we are in the Computer Systems Engineering Lab. Wendy, we already talked about the innovation happening here when it comes to our platform signs but even beyond that tell us some of the other cool stuff that's being worked on here. I know there are a lot of projects in the works. What are some of the most exciting ones for you?”

WHEELER: “Right now we're working on the extension down past Fremont, and that has been a lot of work.  We're actually not building the stations they're being built by the Valley Transportation Authority, but a lot of the testing and systems integration work is done by my team for both the control systems and the computerized systems that are down there so that's very interesting. CBTC is one of our biggest projects of modernizing the train control equipment, modernizing the train systems and doing an automated train system that will allow us to have higher capacity on the trains. That is one of the biggest projects in the computer systems engineering space right now at BART, and I think one of the most exciting. Where do you get an opportunity to upgrade an entire train control system for automated train control operations and do it from start to finish, right and actually do it from, not a greenfield situation but do it at the same time and run parallel with the old system and new? Everything has to work; the signs need to work; the external facing applications need to work; the data analytics stuff needs to work so that we're feeding that out.

We need to run seamlessly for the next 10 years as we're implementing this new system and there's a lot of technology happening to make that happen. We're building data warehouses, with Kafka so that we can do more with our data feeds and standardizing the way that the data can be used by everybody, the patrons and internally within BART. We're upgrading all of our, we call it a data lake, we're updating all of that as well. We're doing a lot of stuff with earthquakes and cathodic protection. You know, we live in an earthquake region, so we have something called ShakeCast. We're looking at the models to see if, when we stop trains today is the right timing so we're doing stuff in that space I think a lot of people don't think we stopped the trains automatically, but we do.

We're doing a lot in the security space to make sure, from a cyber perspective that BART is safe, and patrons can feel safe that we are controlling our infrastructure. We're replacing all of our control systems with SCADA so we're upgrading our SCADA infrastructure, which is a huge initiative. We're focusing right now on upgrading the stations so that's fire life safety, lighting, ventilation just anything basically that runs in a station. We're doing a lot with Measure RR for substations. We're replacing all the substations with new modern substations and so with that comes all sorts of new alarms and alerts and ways that we can manage that.  In addition to that, in that space we're also upgrading UPSs and batteries.  Those are all smart too so this whole thing of Internet of Things we can now take more out of those devices and provide our maintenance partners and people who do recoveries and things for all these PG&E outages, to be able to provide them real-time data as we move forward.”

HOST: “That is just a whole lot of stuff and it's a lot to get excited about. As we talked to riders and explain where we're headed as an agency over the next year or two as we continue to advance when it comes to technology and take better advantage of the data that's out there that can be so useful for BART, where's the rider going to see that? What kind of changes, what kind of impact in terms of the quality of the service do you think they'll notice?”

WHEELER: “As we modernize and replace all of this old equipment, we are going to see less delays for our riders. We're going to be able to respond faster to incidences.  We're going to be more proactive in our approach to things, and I think that patrons will see an improvement.  Anytime that you replace so many old things with new technology, it can only get better. That's kind of how I feel about it.”

HOST: “What's your favorite part of your job?”

WHEELER: “The innovation. It's the fact that we are constantly doing new cool things every single day. From inventing a beacon so that we know when people are getting on and off over in Pittsburg, to just cool things that we're working on. What I like about it and what I find amazing is that, seeing the joy that my team has every day coming into work, because they are getting to work to modernize the system. I wake up every day and I come here, and people are just excited about what they're doing. They're working in very cutting-edge space from a technology perspective and we are providing them the toys and the tools to make BART better and improve the customer experience. Everybody comes to work every day thinking, ‘this is a great place to work and we're helping the community and we're doing things better for the public.”

HOST: “You're literally creating things in here. I think that's one of the most fascinating things is you're really just starting from scratch and coming up with cool and important stuff.”

HOST: “Yeah, cool and important stuff that's going to make the passenger experience better. So, we're working on a passenger information and passenger experience group, there's a group within BART. We want to improve, from the time you come into BART until the time you leave BART how your experience was.  Either the signage, or the announcements, or the way you pay for things making it more seamless for the patron, and you know the flow of that, and how do we do that is through technology through design of our stations. I think that is a really interesting project that we're working on right now and modernizing our stations and the technologies that we're using there.”

HOST: “Wendy Wheeler. BART's Manager of Computer Systems Engineering thank you so much for joining us.”

WHEELER: “Thank you for having me.”

HOST: “And thank you for listening to ‘Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART.’  You can listen to our podcasts on SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, and of course at our website BART.gov/podcasts.”