Meet Matt Brownlie, a man whose career has taken him all over the world but now calls Dubai home where he works with one of the largest, and most innovative taxi systems in the world.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got started.
In my final year at uni (university) an opportunity came up for a part-time job with the local taxi company in Townsville, Queensland, Australia. The IT guy who was there was going back to university to do a Master’s degree and he thought it would be a clever idea to share the job advert through the IT community board at the university. The advert actually went to my wife’s class! She sent it to me knowing that I was looking for something to do along with my studies as I was getting a bit bored.
Wait, you were married in university?
Yes, we got married pretty quick. I was 19. It just made sense, right? It was one of those things that just made sense for us. Might think differently now though if you were to ask either one of us… or ask Katherine especially. [Laughs]
So, you got the job and never looked back?
That was my very first introduction to the taxi industry. Funny thing, I went in wearing a suit and all the rest of it not really thinking about how a taxi company operates. I very quickly realized that I was very overdressed for the way they work! [Laughs]
The manager of the business was very innovation focused. And so about two years after I joined, we started looking around at other taxi companies in other cities and how they were, or in most cases, were not using the Internet. This was the very early 2000s.
We saw the Internet taking off from a commercial perspective. Everyone had websites, everyone had email, but it was how the Internet could transform the business that was the opportunity.
Sounds like you were on the right path. What happened?
We realized very quickly that we could start providing services into other cities, where we could partner with the local operators and actually run their business for them.
One of the biggest challenges for a lot of operators is managing ongoing costs. If you’re a 24/7 operation there are a lot of costs involved with that service. So we pitched economies of scale. “Let’s all band together and create a larger network where we all help each other and reduce costs where possible.” That was the pitch.
We ended up spreading out quite large.
So anyway, that kept me busy for a number of years. We were expanding into different cities and it was all very exciting.
Then in 2008, I was offered a role with Sigtec — who was one of our technology providers — in the United Kingdom. So my wife and I left Australia behind and ended up in… Scotland. [Editor’s Note: Sigtec’s taxi business became part of Trapeze in 2011.]
Scotland? Not London?
Well, I was originally meant to be in the office just outside of London but the engineering team was based in Glasgow. I went to Glasgow to connect with them and get to know them more, but the longer I was there, the more I realized I didn’t actually want to move from Glasgow. So Katherine and I ended up staying and really enjoying it. We were there for just over three years.
It was there that I really got to see mass transit. Coming from North Queensland, public transportation outside of the capital cities was quite weak. The UK gave me a new appreciation of public transport more broadly.
So how did you end up in Dubai?
I swapped roles with the company’s general manager in the UAE. [Laughs]. He was getting closer to retirement age and with grandkids on the way, he was keen to go back and spend more time in the UK. So we basically did a job swap. I came to Dubai to look after the UAE business and he went to the UK to run the UK business.
I’ve always looked at opportunities when they come along. It’s up to you to either embrace them or not. I made an agreement with the company that I would give Dubai one year.
And how long have you been there now?
It will be 10 years this November! [Laughs]
Tell us more about what it has been like working in that part of the world.
It’s exciting being in a place where they are very, very focused on innovation. Having clients like Dubai that want to deploy the latest and greatest, and things that no one else has done, is often quite exciting.
We work with the regional transport authority (Dubai RTA) there – they are the system owner – but all of the six taxi operators in the city utilize the one system. So the taxi operator can manage their fleet, while the authority sits at the top and can see everything and access all of the dashboards.
All of that data is then available in real time for the operators to run their businesses. So each of the operators often end up running a little bit more uniquely to each other, even though they’re all running off this shared platform. Which is quite a quite a cool thing. If you look at what is done in London with TfL and how all the operators utilize that one system, well it’s very much the same thing Dubai but in a taxi setting.
There are also opportunities to work on new implementations where no other solution has been used previously, such as the Riyadh Bus project, where our client Royal Commission for Riyadh City is building a world-class bus system (along with the metro system) completely from scratch.
Tell us a little bit about your typical day.
In general, a lot of our customers tend to work earlier in the day and finish a little earlier. So most of our client meetings take place during those times. The RTA on the other hand prefers to reach out to us in the afternoon when they don’t have any other meeting distractions. So the team here is always very busy. We have a really good team here in the UAE and KSA.
A challenge here in the region is documentation and signing authority. There is a lot of original paperwork that passes hands. Digital documents are not really accepted here, although that is starting to change with the pandemic. We spend a lot of time managing processes and original paperwork.
Are there any particular projects that you worked on over the year that you were really excited to be a part of?
In late 2019, we launched what we call Customer Connect with the RTA in Dubai for, the now delayed, World Expo 2020. The idea was to try and help broach the language barrier.
Dubai’s a tourism hub and you can’t expect someone to have roaming on their phone when they visit. It’s also unlikely that someone is going to install an app. So we implemented a hotspot that connects you, via your browser, to a local portal within the vehicle. This allows the customer to then access the meter, see the name of the driver, see the vehicle on the map, etc. It also shows the cost of the trip in the customer’s home currency.
Passengers can pick the destination on the on the map and speak to the driver in their native tongue. So you could have a driver that speaks Arabic and a Chinese customer that speaks Mandarin. The customer speaks in Mandarin to the driver and the driver gets Arabic on his meter. Likewise the driver speaks in Arabic and the customer’s phone speaks back to them in Mandarin!
95% of the trips in Dubai are not based on a booking; they are street hails. I’ve always stressed that if you’re in a very public area and you have to use an app to make a booking, then your system has failed. Taxis should be where they need to be for the people. No one should have to be sitting there making bookings and waiting.
Dubai has largely solved that problem. Now they are looking to make it an easier and richer experience like through Customer Connect.
What do you like about this industry?
People transportation is a very fulfilling area to be in. It’s a key part of every city in the world. You see the impacts of what you do in the in the city and know what’s involved. I’m a very big user of RTA services here in Dubai and very excited with our team in Riyadh to see the launch of the Riyadh Bus service this year. And that first-hand experience helps me bring ideas to the team. It’s great to use the service that you have played a role in helping to shape.