Home People How MARTA’s Former CIO is Tackling One Non-Profit’s Data Challenges

How MARTA’s Former CIO is Tackling One Non-Profit’s Data Challenges

by Eric Goldschein

When Sarah Ming Hsi retired from her position as CIO of Atlanta transit authority MARTA to take up the same role at the non-profit United Way of Greater Atlanta (UWGA), she was at the top of her game.

In her 15 years at one of the largest public transportation systems in the country, she helped kickstart a number of mission-critical and customer-facing projects, from automated fare collection to outfitting all MARTA train stations with WiFi. In 2016 she was named Non-Profit CIO of the Year by the Georgia CIO Leadership Association.

So what’s next? For Hsi, it’s helping the UWGA complete a digital transformation to better serve their mission of ensuring child well-being and ending homelessness throughout the region. She’ll tackle converting the organization’s data to actionable intelligence, leveraging technology to improve stakeholder experience, and system and processes oversight for the non-profit that coordinates volunteers and projects across the city.

And even for an experienced CIO, she’ll have the challenge of transitioning to different missions, different terminology, and different kinds of data to mine.

Hsi was still in the early stages of her transition when she spoke to Hypepotamus, but she already had an idea of how her IT and leadership experience would be put to use.  

How has the transition been from MARTA to United Way of Greater Atlanta? What, besides the main missions of the organizations, has been the biggest change for you?

I think it’s understanding the United Way’s mission and whole business model, and making a change from operation-centric IT to more towards data, data analytics, their CRM — that’s the biggest change for me. And also understanding all the terminology, and to be able to understand how the organization works. I thought that IT was IT, but it’s a completely different industry. So lot of things were quite different—understanding the lingo, understanding how IT can be beneficial for this organization.

One of the really interesting things to me about this position here was that my boss, Tim Pakenham, the COO, wanted to start a digital transformation for the company, using information and analytics to actually accomplish the mission which is child well-being.

You’re coming into this situation where you thought ‘IT is IT,’ but as you said, it’s much different in this role. What are some of the ways you think a robust IT sector can help transform the organization?

I operated 8-9 different call centers within MARTA; it ranged from police to operations to facility. The call center is a part of the business. When I came over here, I found out they have a huge call center — and that caught me by surprise — called 211. It’s all done by volunteers. It’s a phone number people can use when they need some help with their electricity bills, their utility bills, and this call center connects them with the resources, finding shelters, everything like that. When I first went to talk to the call center manager, and she had me listen to some of the phone calls, I thought ‘Oh my God, this is amazing.’ They’ve had the call center for 20-something years, it started in Atlanta, and then it’s become nationwide.

My first project is trying to get them onto a cloud platform so they have better availability of the system, better reporting, and more flexible workflow design. The meat is the same — you’re talking about cloud computing, having technology to help them out — but it’s such a good story.

What did you learn in your time at MARTA that will help you in your new role?

I think it’s the overall IT strategy. MARTA is actually a pretty unique transportation agency, where all IT investment goes through a very formal IT governance structure. That piece… will definitely help. In a non-profit, everybody has a need, so there are pockets of technology, and there may be some overlapping, and that’s something where I can help develop a strategy and utilize the resource more efficiently — having a system that can cover the whole organization.

Also the mobile strategy: At MARTA for the last several years we did a lot of customer-facing and mobile applications. Donations and philanthropy are going through the mobile world, so having a solid mobile strategy and different building blocks on top of it is something I can really help.

How do you feel you left MARTA at the end of your tenure? What are you most proud of regarding your work there and what will your replacement need to focus on?

I’ve been with MARTA for 15 years, and literally worked my way up, so when I took over the position I knew where all the problems were and how we could fix them. We did a lot of work with asset management and inventory, so the first thing is literally going through — before we know where we can move forward, we need to know what we have. Then we developed the strategy of making improvements, but we always tied the internal updates like the fundamental technology upgrades with customer technology. So we moved a lot on that end — getting a better website, mobile app, WiFi capability, and a customer information system. Just a lot of customer related application systems to really make the MARTA more appealing to riders.

I kicked off a lot of projects, and most of them are already in progress. Unfortunately it’s a big system and it takes time, but I think it’s on the right track: By the end of 2018 all cellular communication backbone is going to be built out, WiFi is going to be at all stations, and buses already have WiFi. 

I think as far as what’s important for the next few years, it’s going to be quite busy, migrating more into the cloud, consolidating the network, having a robust data center strategy, all these are in motion for the next 3-4 years. But also to refresh the customer-facing applications. Under the leadership of Keith [Parker, former MARTA CEO] and myself, we really changed the direction of our team, put it on a good path.

When you think of United Way you don’t necessarily think of data. What’s the first step in building that roadmap?

You’d be surprised actually. Before I even got here, I realized they have more data than even MARTA. Their data is more to do with donations, community outreach, projects, all these different data points. There’s a lot of volunteer information, and what they call ‘the customer journey.’ People get excited with first engagement just by being a volunteer, then they become engaged and they become an advocate. So there’s so many opportunities and touch points around that whole journey.

This is a whole new language for me, so the data right now is somewhat in silo. Every group is using a different system, so it’s hard to have a holistic view — it takes the staff a lot of time to consolidate it, to produce reports. So the first step is putting everything together and having intelligence on top of it, then later on moving to a more predictive kind of analysis platform, and down the road we may be able to expose the data to some of the community, so they can know what the opportunities are out there. There are all these opportunities using the data to actually help the community here.

You’re already a decorated and admired CIO. How will you top yourself going forward at UWGA?

I actually do think about that. For me, I’m retired from MARTA, I took an early retirement, and I’ve always wanted to do philanthropy, non-profit. I want to contribute back. This is my opportunity to do that. If I can make a difference to the families, the community, the children, that in itself is a reward to me.

Inline photo via UWGA

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