State DOTs Leveraging Data to Manage Information

Finding and using the “right” data across a range of different applications is becoming a key focal point for state departments of transportation across the country.

[Above photo by AASHTO]

Several state DOT executives discussed that and other data parameters during a panel discussion at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials 2022 Spring Meeting in New Orleans.

Dustin Parkman, vice president of mobility for Bentley Systems, served as the moderator of that panel, noting that state DOTs are also focusing on developing data that “can cross department barriers and be used across different transportation assets.”

Eric Boyette. Photo by the NCDOT.

Eric Boyette, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Transportation, stressed during the panel that “data literacy and transparency” are critical to transportation decision-making across many levels.

“Data is what allows us to know what is spent where and to calculate unit cost variations,” he said. “And we must ensure data is correct at the source – if you do not, you are perpetuating problems.”

[Editor’s note: AASHTO recently appointed Boyette to a two-year term as chair of its Committee on Data Management and Analytics, known as CDMA, which hosted this panel discussion.]

Victoria Sheehan, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation and AASHTO’s 2020-2021 president, pointed out that two of the most “essential assets” for any state DOT today are its workforce and its data.

Victoria Sheehan. Photo via the New Hampshire DOT.

“Information is power – and if it is not managed correctly, it affects our transportation system,” she said. “We must also remember that data outlives the technology wherein it resides, so we need to put in a lot of effort to ensure data is available for future needs.”

Sheehan also pointed out that while there are expectations “to have information at our fingertips,” state DOT resources are often constrained in terms of purchasing the latest data-management tools.

Anh Selissen, chief information officer for the Texas Department of Transportation, emphasized Sheehan’s point regarding data technology procurement.

“Do not let the technology drive the data strategy – you have to think about the IT [information technology] spread in your organization because licensing issues can be very costly,” she said. “Rather than focus on the technology, focus on what you are trying to accomplish with your data tools. And remember, many small contracting firms do not have a lot of IT expertise in their shops – that can create challenges in their ability to connect and interact with state DOTs.”

That is why William Sharp, senior vice president for consulting firm HDR Inc., said one focus for state DOTs needs to be on development more “open and consistent” data standards.

“Determining the standards and getting clarity around the standards and transportation data requirements is critical for the future,” he pointed out. “Because consistent standards allows you to get more value out of data.”

Tony Kratofil. Photo via the Michigan DOT.

Tony Kratofil, COO and chief engineer for the Michigan Department of Transportation, echoed Sharp’s points – especially regarding data consistency.

“We have over 200 different IT systems producing a lot of different data,” he explained. “That’s why we’re focused on developing ‘data governance,’ which takes a strategic level approach to information management. It ensures we all use of same definitions, which allows us to translate data into simple formulations for non-data experts so they can make better decisions.”

Kratofil said one of the problems many state DOTs face is not whether they have enough data or the right data, but that they have too much data.

“The highest risk for us is using the wrong data or wrong data sets to make wrong decisions,” he stressed. “That’s why we need context around the data – to define what the data is intended for, who is in charge of it, and how we manage its quality.”

Getting data management “tactics” in good order is what then allows a state DOT to unlock the strategic benefits of the data it generates, Kratofil noted.

“Those benefits include real-time reporting and the ability to ‘drill down’ into data so it can be ‘filtered’ to fit specific needs,” he said. “Ultimately, that allows for better performance and drives the implementation of better business processes.”

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