© Tim Pannell/Getty Images

Interview on databox

Platform for promoting Group-wide data exchange

06/2016 - May 11 marks the go-live date of the intragroup data exchange portal known as databox, which represents the first big success of DB Systel's internal start-up "ZERO.ONE.DATA" (ZOD) in conjunction with the "Infrastructure 4.0" innovation initiative. In an interview, ZOD team leader Dr Lars Freund highlights the opportunities the new portal brings for big data applications.

digital spirit: Mr Freund, what exactly is the databox project?

Lars Freund: Databox is an intragroup data exchange platform that we want to use to make data from different DB Group companies available for shared use. This can then give rise to exciting collaborative ventures and interface points that subsequently utilise this data to create added value for the companies and ultimately for the entire Group.

digital spirit: An open data platform maintained by DB – Open Data Portal ─ already exists. What is the reasoning behind this next platform?

Lars Freund: That is, in fact, correct. Data.deutschebahn.com is an exciting project in which data is made freely available to everyone, including those outside the Group. It goes without saying that this sort of data is not critical in nature. DB Group companies also maintain data that they do not want to share with the rest of the world. It is exactly this data, however, that can lead to exceptional added value. This is where databox enters the picture, which houses data that only Group employees can access.

The databox‘ website, currently in German only.

© Deutsche Bahn AG

digital spirit: That sounds quite exclusive. What does all of this cost to those looking to use databox?

Lars Freund: That depends entirely on how the individual intends to use the platform. Viewing and downloading data are always completely free of charge. If a data provider wants to actively make data available by publishing it on databox, this can also be done at no cost. With databox, we want to create a level of transparency for Group data that we can leverage to create synergetic effects across all DB Group companies. This is why the data exchange policy is set up specifically from a cost-free perspective.

Only when the next step is taken are expenses incurred – the step in which we at ZERO.ONE.DATA prepare the data and analyse it based on defined criteria. We offer this service in different packages that we coordinate separately with the customer. To this end, we start out by conducting a mini data evaluation to gain an initial overview. This is then followed by subsequent analysis steps and value-added services that are arranged together with the customer.

digital spirit: Databox therefore needs data provided by DB Group companies to work. Why should these companies do such a thing?

Lars Freund: The entire project was designed at the outset with a collaborative spirit in mind. Those who actively contribute to the data pool should also get something out of it. One example of this would be for us to prepare the relevant data on a current problem area for a particular supplier. If any solutions arise on this basis, they can save the companies real money at the end of the day. We could also decide to incorporate external Group data such as weather forecasts and event calendars to communicate to DB Fuhrpark at an early point where a large number of Flinkster vehicles or DB bicycles will presumably be required. Such planning leads to more efficient use of resources and higher levels of customer satisfaction. Customers may also be interested in accessing other, previously inaccessible or unprocessed data. can be used completely free of charge as it is not profit oriented.

digital spirit: With such a relentless drive to collect data, it is easy to become sceptical when data protection aspects are considered.

Lars Freund: We are very well aware of this, which is why there will be no maniacal data collection quest of any kind. We are not Google, which first collects data so that it may or may not find any real purpose for it later on. The data that we are interested in is case-related and is therefore categorised by us in advance as being potentially valuable.

© DB Systel

The entire project was designed at the outset with a collaborative spirit in mind. Those who actively contribute to the data pool should also get something out of it.

Dr. Lars Freund (DB Systel GmbH)

On the road toward digitalisation, it only makes sense that ever greater amounts of data will be classified and categorised in this manner. Another thing we do not do is save personal information, and it goes without saying that the data protection guidelines defined by Deutsche Bahn also apply to our start-up venture. To this end, we are constantly interfacing with the Group’s data protection officers and never abuse the freedoms that have been assigned to us. We therefore make a habit out of reflecting on the data that we ourselves would disclose. One of the outcomes of this has been discussion on whether we would use public Facebook profiles for personnel-related topics. Ultimately, this turned out to not be a good idea, since we would also expect that a clear line be drawn to steer clear of strictly private matters. We of course also talk about these and other issues with our HR colleagues in the Group.

digital spirit: Will ZERO.ONE.DATA be responsible for creativity in analysis in the future as DB Group companies supply data, or are plans in place to also incorporate ideas external to Systel?

Lars Freund: We are very open-minded in this regard and coordinate activities with the 4.0 initiatives of the Group. Competitions and DB-internal hackathons will definitely take place. For example, we can simply provide interested parties with raw data records and ask the teams to analyse this data on the clock and draw practical or meaningful conclusions, which have frequently proven to be quite surprising. This, in turn, could lead to new, innovative ideas. We haven’t gotten quite this far yet. (laughs) One thing is clear, however: Without close collaboration with the relevant experts, we will never be able to come even close to exploiting the potential the data stock has in store.

digital spirit: What could be the specific benefits of databox for companies that do not normally place a great deal of importance on maintaining data?

Lars Freund: One example might be to engage in communication with the restaurants in train stations. If we could tell them at what time a large number of people will need to wait to switch trains, they could put a few more sausages on the grill in anticipation of the increased business. There is almost no area or aspect of the Bahn Group that cannot profit from this type of data sharing.

Even if we cannot always ensure a real, tangible benefit, we consider various different possibilities. For this purpose, we offer consulting and data analysis services as well as cost-effective data visualisation to graphically depict complex correlations in order to facilitate comprehension. Databox is therefore something of a display window, and the job of ZERO.ONE.DATA is to leverage the data on display together with the data owner in a profit-promoting manner.

digital spirit: So the entire Group could therefore profit from databox in future?

Lars Freund: Exactly. We must now determine how we can use the data to also make travelling as comfortable as possible for Deutsche Bahn customers. The more I know about the customer, the better and more effectively I can achieve this goal. Would the customer be interested in being provided with information and a cup of coffee at his seat, or does he just want some peace and quiet and will go to the on-board restaurant if he wants a coffee? These are important questions to answer. When the day of autonomous driving finally comes, we will still have a need for customers who continue to decide in favour of travelling with Deutsche Bahn because we do everything we can to make their journey as pleasant and comfortable as possible. All of this can be promoted when the right data is used, provided that it can be interpreted correctly.

digital spirit: Thank you for the interview.