EMILY KENT CO-FOUNDER AND CHIEF COMMERCIAL OFFICER AT ONE BIG CIRCLE
Emily has a background in marketing and fundraising in the Third Sector. Following a career break for children, she began her entrepreneurial career in 2013 as part of the founding team of My Action Replay, and has taken the lessons from that start-up journey in the sports industry into One Big Circle.
What is your role within One Big Circle?
I am one of the four Co-Founders of One Big Circle. My role has changed quite significantly since we first started. I used to do a bit of everything from sales to HR, demos, support & training and operations to marketing. Now that we’ve grown, my role is to enable the Business Development and Marketing team to do what they are great at – sharing what One Big Circle can do for our current and future clients. I focus now on ensuring we are doing the right things for our customers and users, understanding their challenges, making connections, exploring opportunities. It’s a bit of a cliché but every day is different at OBC and we can be in all sorts of calls, out on site testing, giving demonstrations and taking feedback or having workshops with user groups, being at events, presenting, bid writing and so on.
What was the inspiration behind starting One Big Circle?
As a founding team we had previously worked in Highways, Sports Broadcast and Defence creating technical solutions that made video and optical data more accessible for a variety of purposes. In 2017 four of us decided to look for a new industry in which to deploy our combined skills, and we set up One Big Circle for that purpose. It was a window of opportunity to identify where there were challenges and demand that could be aided by that skillset and experience. Having researched emergency services, local authorities, roads and defence we found the strongest pull from within rail. The drive for innovation and exploring solutions from outside the industry, as well as Network Rail’s interest in working with SMEs gave us confidence to pursue what One Big Circle could achieve. Without knowing anyone in the industry we read articles, attended some events and scoured LinkedIn to find people to talk to, and more importantly to listen to. Whilst we’ve grown our network since then, a good number of those whom we met in the first few meetings, we are still working closely with on an everyday basis which is what makes the progress so exciting.
Tell us about One Big Circle.
We’re specialists in what we call ‘Intelligent Video’, enabling people to see what they need to see, helping protect Critical National Infrastructure in difficult to access environments. We had an early stage product called AIVR, Automated Intelligent Video Review, a system that could capture video whilst on the move then automatically transmit and present that imagery and metadata online in rapid time.
Since our first rail-based trials in late 2019, with both Transport for Wales and Network Rail, One Big Circle has focussed on building that capability to help support the industry’s monitoring and safety requirements. The system and usage has grown hugely and we have progressed each part of that – from the hardware through to the platform and the AI applied to that data. The team is based in Bristol, right next to Temple Meads station which is extremely handy, and we have a full spectrum of capability across hardware and software engineering, machine learning, service, commercial and business development.
What is your Unique Selling Point?
We have a lot of specialists under one roof – from hardware in our dedicated lab, to the edge firmware, software, video and Machine Learning teams through testing, systems, commercial and service – so we’re able to assess and build quickly to make things work end-to-end which brings rapid robust results. That agility and speed is a fantastic USP and one we’re proud to have built. I also think that one of our strengths ironically is that we didn’t really know much about rail before working in the industry. I lose count of the amount of acronyms I have googled and how many times we try and concisely map how different parts of the industry work together!
Therefore, everything we build and develop has had to be a combination of what we have learnt about the challenge from experts in the field, and how we think technology can help them address that. It means we’ve never made an assumption that things should be built in a certain way or for one particular use case or discipline. Ultimately, we now have a very intuitive interface that feels totally user-focussed and is backed up by an extremely robust smart capture and automated processing capability which is ubiquitous across whichever fleet and partners we are working with.
What types of products and services do you offer?
The flagship product we offer is AIVR and this is all about enabling people to get the imagery and data they need, when they need it. This is predominantly through a variety of permanent or portable train borne cameras and sensors that use our unique algorithm to transmit that data and make it securely available online in rapid time. The different sources of data include forward and rear facing cab views, thermal and UV imagery, overhead and line scanning which has a phenomenal level of detail for a huge range of track componentry – we have to know each time the train moves one millimetre to accurately trigger our cameras to scan the rail. Each source has different models of Machine Learning applied to derive more insight – such as thermal hotspots, faulty fishplates or low ballast or is integrated with other data and systems such as a Geometry system we provide or systems such as ultrasonics provided by others. Alongside this our services are predominantly about exploring what’s possible, with a strong focus on R&D that can quickly become operationally viable.
So, we may have a group of users accessing AIVR who then want additional data integrated, such as remote flood cameras, or have some Machine Learning or AI applied by us or other partners. We work very closely with those users to explore what they need and create a technical solution, be that new types of cameras or sensors, features that are specific to their part or discipline of the rail network or building a ML model to identify conditions or assets.
How passionate are you about safety in the rail sector, and how do you go about helping support that?
One of the main things that has always stood out to me since those first few conversations with people in the industry is the passion everyone has for all parts of the railway and all their colleagues that work within that. From an infrastructure perspective we learnt a lot about the challenges and risks of being trackside and the phenomenal progress that has been made in keeping people safer, whilst still complying with monitoring and maintenance requirements.
We’re driven by the fact that the more data and insight that can be provided to those that are responsible for this maintenance, the more they can monitor it remotely and be safer and more informed when they are then trackside. We also see that the combination of different sources of data and monitoring adds to that big picture so we work in close collaboration with other platforms, suppliers and technologists to bring together even greater insight.
One of the most motivating things for us internally is when users across infrastructure or operations share how AIVR has helped them see more, solve issues, save time, save journeys, or helped them respond faster and stay safer. We have a shared space where all our team can read those responses and feel inspired that whatever their role is at OBC they are contributing to that increased safety across the railway.
What kind of challenges did you face in the early days?
As we’ve said previously one of the main hurdles was not knowing what was what in the early days – there’s a whole new language and world to learn so whilst that was a challenge it was one we have rapidly overcome thanks to the brilliant people and partners we have worked with across Network Rail, Operators and the supply chain. Our early days happened to be during the pandemic too so that in itself was a huge challenge. It did however accelerate a lot of conversations and, because data was never needed more than when people were forced to work remotely, then the demand grew rapidly. As things returned to ‘normal’ post lockdowns the uptake was still growing and the requirement for the frequency and types of data was very much aligned with the Track Worker Safety programme. Our challenge was to continue to capture and deliver those different types of data, from whatever trains we could access working with NR and operators, and also scale the platform for more users, all the time continuing to provide the high standard we set at the outset.
How do you work with the supply chain within this sector?
In the early days we worked directly with Network Rail and Transport for Wales and more operators such as Avanti and GWR and focussed on making the data and AIVR Dashboard work for them. As the volume and coverage grew it was clear that by enabling the supply chain to securely access that data they could also derive the same safety benefits of reducing time on site and increasing remote infrastructure monitoring. We now have agreements in place with a number of supply chain companies such as Storey, Siemens and many more who use various parts of AIVR to assist with works planning, signal sighting, site and plant planning, surveying, route familiarisation and more.
Another aspect of the supply chain is working with other SMEs where we can combine our capabilities and expertise to deliver joined up solutions for our mutual clients. Aggregating track geometry, lidar or other sensor data with imagery provides a holistic picture and provide more insight. Any integrations and collaborations achieved always seem to be very well received by mutual end users and we will always continue to explore those partnership opportunities.
How have you seen the industry change over the years?
Despite only being newcomers to the rail industry, we have witnessed the massive change enforced by the pandemic. Whilst obviously a challenging time for so many reasons it did force a certain level of digital literacy on everyone. This provided opportunities not only to provide digital tools like AIVR but also to communicate much faster with experts whom we would not have previously been able to. Everyday our teams are screen-sharing and discussing with end users and experts from all over the rail industry at a scale and detail that would not have been possible before. We think this has also enabled a new level of collaboration between companies even when sometimes their services overlap. It seems there is an appetite for companies to be willing to do this as part of a bigger goal more so than we have witnessed in other industries.
What are your hopes for the new regulatory bodies, such as Great British Railways?
The concept and aspiration of GBR makes huge sense to us and we hope that that mindset continues to prevail, whatever the political landscape as this year progresses. When we have been involved with ‘whole railway system thinking’ projects, with Network Rail, ROSCO, Operator and OEMs as well as technical experts from the supply chain, we see problems being solved, costs being saved, outcomes being accelerated and, most importantly, benefits then being realised by passengers and freight users.
From our work in other industries we also think there is huge opportunity to start sharing data more widely between different parties to start to solve the existing challenges and tackle new challenges such as Climate Resilience. We see more and more projects and opportunities adopting this mindset which is fantastic and we hope that the regulation can emulate that practice – the benefits of removing some of the siloed targets and priorities would derive benefit for the industry as a whole, and its customers.
What are your views on collaborative working?
We wouldn’t have achieved what we have without collaborative working and that is both internally and with our clients and other suppliers. We are always greater than the sum of our parts and no single entity can deliver everything, particularly in the complex rail world, so it’s fundamental to success to bring together all those key people and listen to all. We used the analogy of the Avengers a while back (my kids are big fans so by default I’ve watched the films multiple times!).
It really feels like with each challenge raised and project delivered there’s an ‘Avengers Assemble’ moment when all the strengths come to the fore – from the invaluable deep rail industry experience, to new ways of technical thinking that can change an outcome for the better. We are also frequently amazed by the level of knowledge and experience people within the industry have in understanding an increasingly complex and layered railway. Working collaboratively to ensure this knowledge is understood, passed on and not forgotten is absolutely essential in our opinion for a successful railway into the future.
One thing that has always inspired us is the amount of innovators and collaborators that we meet, not only from fellow SMEs but many within large organisations such as Network Rail who want to evolve and push on and make the industry they are so passionate about safer and better.