The Past, Present, and Future of Transportation Data – Part Two

October 21, 2021
Theo Agelopoulos & John MacAdam & Eric Rensel, FLTA & Brendan Wesdock, MCP, GISP &

A Conversation with Ohio Transportation Engineering Conference Panel Members

Recently, Gannett Fleming’s VP and National Transportation Planning Leader Eric Rensel gathered the members of a panel scheduled to present at the Ohio Transportation Engineering Conference (OTEC) on October 26 in Columbus, OH. In advance of their OTEC roundtable, they met for an insightful discussion of data’s past, present, and future uses in transportation.

Eric was joined by scheduled panel guests:

  • Theo Agelopoulos, Senior Director, Architecture & Engineering Design Strategy, Autodesk
  • John MacAdam, Administrator and Web Developer, Ohio DOT
  • Brendan Wesdock, President, GeoDecisions

The group was also joined by Tracy Riedel of Autodesk and Craig Hoffman of Gannett Fleming. The conversation has been edited and condensed. Below is part two of a two-part series leading up to OTEC. Read part one now if you haven’t had a chance to do so.


Eric

I think we’re at a pivot point here where if we continue to focus on plan, design, build, operate, maintain, replace, we really won’t be made progress. If we look at the whole of infrastructure management, data is what the future holds. So, if we all agree this is a noble cause, what decisions, specifically, with data can we make now to start progressing the industry in a positive direction?

John

We must start circling back to assumptions that we made at the beginning of scoping in project development, and once we open it, we can very quickly see, are those benefits realized or not? So that starting point is making sure we put these things into operations, running before and after analysis, and seeing whether our assumptions were correct and then fine tuning those models. That’s a no brainer and should be done on every major project.

Theo

One of the things we’re going to have to solve is intellectual property rights. Who owns the data and who can use the data? We still have, I would say a lot of legacy and limitations on that. I think even just between the design company and a construction company; ultimately you could argue the owner thinks they own the data. There are some IP challenges we must work through as an industry as well.

Brendan

Yeah, I would agree with that, too. IP issues and data ownership. I deal with that all the time. There’s always a discussion of who owns what and what’s in the agreement? It’s not managed in a consistent way. So that’s something that needs to be addressed.

John

We could also talk to the actual data itself, the ability for different sets of data to easily integrate. I’m thinking of our different sources of data. They don’t always play nice together. We may need some sort of standardization of how we define roadway segments. They’re trying to standardize data sets so that they can integrate and talk to each other.

Eric

So, with these crucial decisions that you’re all saying we should make, what is your version of the utopian future, where data underpins this idea of whole infrastructure management?

Brendan

You have data that is clean, that is free-flowing, and that is accessible to people that need to have it. There’s lots of information out there, even some that isn’t shared currently, that should be shared. There are opportunities to get data not only inside the agency but also out of the public as well and share that information in a responsible way. That’s the utopia because then people can make their own decisions.

John

Knowledge and predictive decisions need to be made hand-in-hand with the philosophy or the approach. Having the data available is half the battle. Convincing folks to trust the data and to update our procedures and our policies is the other half of the battle. They should both be worked on simultaneously.

Brendan

Transparency is key to that. So, there’s transparency both ways that are going to develop trust on either end as well.

Theo

How do you create this open data environment where regardless of whether it’s a private or public entity, they can get access to that data to make better decisions? And one of the things we must overcome is the security of data. How do we make sure people don’t get the data that they shouldn’t be able to get access to?

How do you assemble this data in a way that is accessible, that is protective based on certain criteria? We need different types of business models that make that data affordable as well. We’ve been talking about pay-per-use of roads, and in some cases, you’re seeing certain countries making big moves to do that. But do we need a similar kind of model around data? I think there’s a business model aspect to this that’s going to have to kind of shake out as well. I think it’s the platforms, it’s the IP rights, it’s the security, it’s the business models.

Eric

Let’s segment this utopia into three different groups that I think will be a good takeaway to leave our readers with is I’m going to ask you why that’s important to infrastructure users, why that’s important to attracting and retaining a workforce in our part of the industry, and why that’s important for funding considerations in the future?

Theo

For me at the end of the day, it’s about how we provide a positive outcome for whether it’s moving products or whether it’s moving people. We want to do it more efficiently at a lower cost, and more safely. When you think about all the key metric sets, we need to hit all of them.

Brendan

I think transparency as well and being able to make informed decisions. System users need to have that information at their fingertips and to make decisions on how to proceed, whether you’re in the supply chain business or as a user of the infrastructure, or you’re just a homeowner who is wondering when their streets are going to be plowed. It’s that type of information and that free flow of information that can help inform those decisions and make better decisions.

Eric

We talk a lot about the workforce these days in transportation because there’s more competition for talent than ever before. How will the utopia you described be important in attracting in retaining the workforce?

Theo

The biggest problem we have is attracting people to go into engineering. And the reason is because people don’t want to do tedious and mundane things. They want to have a bigger impact on the world.

When we can give them tasks that they can more directly connect with versus tedious engineering tasks, the more likely we are to attract talent. Because today what we’re competing with is the gaming world and we’re competing with the media world and the social media world.

But I think understanding that the next generation of engineers, there’s likely going to be fewer of them. And the ones that are going to be in the industry are going to have a bigger impact on the world, whether it’s from sustainability, or people, or whatever. So, connecting those things together, in my opinion, is really going to be the difference in our ability to retain and attract new talent.

Eric

And they’re not always going to be engineers, right?

Theo

When we think about the future of work, we’re likely going to be attracting data scientists and computer programmers with different types of skills because a lot of the repetitive tasks we’re going to automate. When you think about an outcome-based design process and AI machine learning, if I have all the geotech data, if I know what the price of steel and concrete is, if I know what all the environmental conditions are, if I know what kind of skilled labor force I have, the computer should be able to figure out how to best get on the road from point A to point B or whether it should be above ground, below ground, or at grade.

Engineering is going to be more data and more analysis, and it connects to the discussion we’ve been having. It’s about making better decisions earlier on in the capital project as a life cycle and those are the skill sets that we’re going to look for in new hires.

Brendan

I would say I spend a lot more time now than I did 15 years ago talking about the why. Why are we doing this? How does this impact things? For younger workers, it’s about the impact. How is this impacting environment? How is this impacting society? I have a specific task to do, but what is the bigger picture?

There’s always been that old saying about how to talk to one worker and say, I’m laying this brick. I’m building this wall, or I’m building this door. And then the third guy says I’m building this gorgeous cathedral that’ll be here for a thousand years. That’s the vision that folks want to see now. They want to see the thousand-year vision of what they’re doing.

John

The younger workforce cares about their impact. The younger generation is much more comfortable playing with data, much more comfortable with lightweight software development, writing a little bit of Python, doing a little bit of web development that doesn’t scare them as much as it might have previous generations. It’s just taking advantage of the skill sets they’re coming in with. They’re more familiar with all these technologies.

Eric

Thank you to John, Theo, and Brendan for their thoughtful insights into the past, present, and future of data in transportation. I look forward to continuing our conversation at OTEC on October 26.