Digital Evolution

An insight into a career of learning taken into Rural development in a bottom up approach that works.

It all started in the mid 1970s when Kenny Higgins joined Post Office Telecommunications and after a few early years working in data communications and Sales functions, Post Office Telecommunications decided to morph into British Telecom. BT quickly decided to set up a wireless radio comms unit and advertised for their first ever Sales Executive, to promote half duplex / “over and out” car phones and Pager “Bleeper” technologies. I became that man, the first Mobile Sales exec to sell Mobile technology in the UK. A new group titled BT Radiopaging quickly followed with me being their first non director recruit.

These were exciting times using raw imagination to find user applications. I recall a Cumbrian farmer that taught the lead cow in his dairy heard to react to the Beep” from a Radiopager to encourage it to head to the milking shed. This worked great and the rest of the herd followed. This was a god-send as it saved the arthritic pain of a long walk each morning to gather in the cattle. We met sales teams, doctors, builders, joiners and every other profession you care to imagine, selling technology in the hundreds each week.

My territory was UK and we quickly realised the potential for this new wireless technology was far too much for one man so after my first year, I was joined by 6 colleagues and ran with a smaller territory of Scotland and N.Ireland.

Tone paging evolved into Numeric then Alpha/Numeric and this was the birth of Text messaging or SMS as we know it today. I was promoted and started the BT Mobile phone sales team selling technology that was the size, weight and shape of a house brick. They were so solid I’m sure you could build houses with them. Technology evolved and I moved into Sales Management, running teams selling Mobiles that became smaller and smaller and more and more popular.

Through time. my heart pulled me towards all the other things that could be done with Sim cards and I set up a team to focus on Mobile Data, M2M – Machine to Machine and the IOT – Internet of Things, Digital applications followed in abundance. This was an exciting area again, driven by imagination and “out of the box thinking”. We developed digital apps, which were compatible with a wide range of different infrastructures. On line / Web based apps integrated into Service Engineers, Scientists, Nursing staff, Academia, Ranger services, delivery drivers and much more.

Applications were wide and varied and perhaps far too many to list. Our teams were very successful and the business grew to mammoth proportions. With success came higher and higher expectations and long hours. BT grew rapidly as did competition and those in Sales over 45 years old like me, became targets for “early release” retirement consideration. Although tempted, my team performance kept me retained for a few more years. In BT I became quite well known for securing Sales recognition awards but I am perhaps more widely and affectionately known as the grandfather of Mobile Communications.

I used this time to consider what to do next – Eventually BT released me and rather than jump into another job with a few headhunters chasing me. I decided on a totally different tack.

Kenny on board Westlin Winds at Ardfern Marina Argyllshire

I left BT and went straight to a yacht Marina and ordered an Ocean going yacht, which we named “Westlin Winds” and my wife and I went exploring our beautiful country’s coastline and islands. This was a great opportunity to chill-out and enjoy some planning time in my new floating office.

Westlin Winds name was representative of the prevailing wind on the West of Scotland and was also one of Robert Burns works, “Now Westlin Winds” indeed the only actual song he ever wrote, all other work being poems. It seemed an appropriate name.

It was during this time I thought about innovation and some new applications were conceived, as was my new company, Island Communications. “Island” represented “Integrated Solutions, Location and Network Derived” Communications.

CraftAlert seemed an appropriate title for my boat tracking and monitoring system, suitable for any marine vessel. The system mixed Intruder monitoring with GPS tracking, integrated with Web based chart based mapping and Mobile alerting offering owners peace of mind, with instant alerts on any intruders entering their boat and being able to covertly track any boat stolen. The system worked very well and one speed boat owner was very grateful that we were able to recover his up market craft, which we tracked doing 70 MPH down the M74 /M6 motorways after being stolen from a mooring near Castle Douglas. The thief was caught by the police just South of Penrith, Cumbria and the boat was thankfully recovered undamaged.

A retired lawyer who was considered missing during a bad storm, was thankfully tracked through his CraftAlert system to a West Coast refuge in a remote area with GPS accuracy. His daughter found him whilst she was on holiday in Italy tracing him on her laptop through the Web based charts, which were an integral part of the application. Digital Cameras could also be integrated into the CraftAlert application to capture the face of any intruder sending the picture to the Mobile phone of the vessel owner.

Island Communications was a vehicle to drive new applications and continued to develop a wide range of Wireless Data apps and integrated digital solutions. In 2006/7, I was awarded a contract to be part of a European Consortium with members in Estonia, Denmark, Italy and Spain. I worked with this team to take a personal Tracking application from concept to working prototype. The target audience was people with advanced dementia where discrete technology in the form of a watch or fob fitted within clothing, could track users down to 10 meter accuracy. Ring fencing could be set around their home or care home and if they travelled away more than an agreed perimeter, alerts could be sent to relatives / care workers, so they could be quickly found. The concept opened up additional options for the safety of children and pets and livestock.

The micro product known as SafetyWatch contained: Sim card, GPS antenna, Equilibrium device to trace falls and calibrated footsteps. The system was capable of tracking someone even without GPS and Mobile triangulation and the data retained until the next data update, all placed onto a web based or cloud platform with mind blowing accuracy on Mapping software. This was an enjoyable taste of EU Collaborative working within an EU FP 6 Framework Programme agreement.

I also worked within the marine environment and developed a tidal monitoring system that was well tested in marinas and harbours on my sailing travels. After early sales, the system was engineered to high accuracy working with a software partner to provide web based graphs to show water levels, with trigger points sending alerts to Mobiles to teams that monitor flood risk. The result was instant success from Local authorities all over Scotland and a a large number in England and Wales. Sales started to build steadily.

Applications were wide and varied and often needed the provision of camera monitoring and power for the technology from Solar or Wind generator sources. The system was customised and calibrated to each location, working in: lochs, lakes, rivers, canals, estuaries, harbours as well as borehole monitoring. We had special devices to monitor sewers or leachate at landfill sites. There was a popular demand to monitor culvert screens – a regular cause of rural and urban flooding if they become blocked.

Digital Evolution

Although predominantly focused on hydrological monitoring, other interesting digital applications were undertaken such as City Rain Net, where we established city wide networks of rain gauges, which gathered data and fed into the met office to in turn, feed into televised weather reports with increased accuracy. One of the Spanish partners from my earlier EU Framework Program, has developed his own city wide air quality monitoring system tested in Barcelona and New York City, we keep in touch and new applications are always on our minds.

Another application contract awarded for the Royal Mail, monitored rural post boxes to see if they actually had mail to uplift. An empty mailbox monitored up to a specific time helped to advise collection teams to better plan uplift routes with much reduced mileage and to significantly reduce the company Carbon Footprint. With a few thousand mail vans, savings could be significant, whilst still maintaining a quality service.

Kenny and Wife Barbara collecting Scottish Software awards in Glasgow 2008

In 2008 I gained award recognition for the Water Level monitoring system in the Best Environment Innovation and Best Environmental Software innovation categories

Around this time, suppliers of materials closed down and my own senior staff members decided to migrate, which made progress on my own challenging. At this time, a much larger organisation with strong links in Hydrology liked my ideas and offered me a position to head up Hydro-Logic’s Sales operations. I agreed to join them in 2009.

I liked the idea of wider experience in all forms of water level and quality monitoring. I continued to develop the river level monitoring and early warning systems, extended to coastal and estuary tidal monitoring, with hundreds of units serving Councils and harbour and port authorities all over the UK and beyond.

By 2011 the thoughts of early retirement returned to allow me to spend a little time with the family and to build initiatives to support our ailing local community. I did this whilst still retaining a part time consultancy interest to help communities on a wide range of applications including: Flood Risk and Emergency Response, Tourism initiatives, Music Festival management and Community Development.

I started Strathyre Outdoors – an outdoor Activity Business to attract Tourism to the Strathyre Area. I served two years as Vice Chairman of LETi (Loch Earn Tourism Initiative) where I created the idea of what became an award winning #BLiSStrail – covering the Villages of Balquhidder, Lochearnhead, Strathyre and St Fillans.The #BLiSStrail features artworks by prominent metal and wood artists, with a wide range of designs. We won two Tourism innovation awards for the success of the BLiSS trail which was recently featured on STV. LETi Chair, Kim Provan works tirelessly on wide promotion of Tourism in our area,

Rural challenges

Higher speed fibre Broadband arrived in tandem with our rural village of Strathyre regaining its MoJo through a number of local tourism initiatives. We started live music sessions, established Strathyre music festival with 2500 – 3000 attendees at the end of May each year. The village runs a National UK championship hill race in early May for up to 500 runners. Micro business ventures set up. The caravan and camping site fills up, All hotels pubs and cafe provide free wifi and are well supported by the small population of only 200.

Rural communities are often at the end of the queue on provided support and funding. So its a bottom up approach needed to almost create the environment that allows technology to follow. Turning a run down community into a thriving village takes hard work but it brings rewards for the local economy. Rewards like Mobile phone coverage and high speed Broadband are taken for granted in cities and suburbia but in the sticks they are hard fought for. But once they come, the once run down community takes on a new persona. Long term empty hotels reopen, properties for sale long term, actually sell, village environs improve, Tourists come in bigger numbers, primary school doubles in size because more people want to live here and there is pride in the community. But still there are challenges, with a bus service every two hours, last bus at 9pm and none on a Sunday, its a stark reminder that we are still rural people living in the sticks. However, the sticks are in Scotland the best country in the world.

In 2016 I set up the Strathyre Emergency Response Team and my former river level monitoring technology with its web-based access, serves our village with two river level monitoring and flood early warning system reporting into our team of 22 volunteer members. My Emergency plan is to be used as a template to help other rural communities to set up their own Emergency teams.

True full time retirement never seems to happen for me.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.