Three Ideas That Are Likely to Change the Way DOTs Work
It has been 100 years since the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, or AASHTO, was conceived by visionary leaders. In this significant anniversary year, we acknowledge innovations and achievements that have changed the way transportation projects are planned, designed, built and managed. More change is on the way and many people would say we are on the brink of technological and process changes that will transform the industry.
While civil engineers may not like the term ‘transform’, they most likely feel change is looming and understand that real change is needed to keep our country competitive. Change is coming in a number of ways, but I want to focus on how technology is likely to be a significant driver of the needed change.
Investment and Innovation
I started my civil engineering career in the 1980’s, and since that time, technology serving civil engineering markets has gone through little cultural or process change. The result is highway engineering has been traditionally underserved by technology. The perception is that the industry is change averse, when in fact they are quick to pay for and adopt technology when proven beneficial. For example, technologies taking advantage of global positioning systems (GPS) such as machine control grading and LiDAR are widely used by highway engineering professionals. On the flip side, there are means and methods in place today that, for the most part, haven’t kept up with advancements in technology. This includes CAD and common analysis tools in use today that were introduced more than 15 years ago.
I had the privilege to attend a number of AASHTO regional events in 2014. Whether it was in the West, the Midwest or the South, the stories that were told all revolved around investment and innovation. With ever shrinking transportation funding sources, we need to start thinking about our transportation systems the same way we think about the things we own personally. How do we make decisions on when home or car maintenance is needed? If we take it personally, it becomes clear that we need to start focusing on what the country needs and maximize what we can do with what we have. Since we are no longer in a time when money falls from the skies to complete transportation projects, it is time to get serious about taking advantage of the technological advancements that can help provide greater efficiency in project delivery.
Innovation is the key to doing more with less. Here are three things that are likely to change the way Departments of Transportation work.
1. Data, data, data.
No, data is not the three things, but most people would agree that changing the way data is used could dramatically change the way transportation projects are delivered. The fact is most government agencies maintain an abundance of data and have access to even more. The problem with all that data is that it is difficult to bring together so that it can be used in a way that will ultimately save taxpayers money.
The key to solving the ‘Big Data’ problem is figuring out a way to take advantage of using it for work that is performed day in and day out. Data should be accessible by everyone who needs it and provide value at every stage of a project, from early stage planning, concept definition, design, construction and into operations and asset management.
Poised to change the way DOTs work with Big Data is technology that achieves spatial awareness within a 3D modeling environment, where all that robust data can be used for virtually anything and by anyone. Think about how the processes would change if a single aggregated infrastructure model was used to view, interrogate, search, analyze and extract data. It might come as a surprise to some that this technology already exists.
2. Contextual design.
Most people understand what conceptual design is, but what’s contextual design? Creating in context can have a significant impact on the way transportation systems are planned, designed and managed. I’m not talking about creating a rendered, static visualization of a project proposal that can be used to communicate design options, but using a true contextual model to create alternatives, analyze options and convey design intent in real time, in a real-world environment.
A presentation that I found particularly interesting at WASHTO this year focused on the fact that DOTs have become what the speaker called ‘Project Factories’. They are imposing upon themselves policies to meet standards that are not always in the best interest of the public when funds are limited. It got me thinking that contextual design could really change and improve the way DOTs work, shifting the focus from following strict design standards to letting engineers engineer. Contextual design changes things by giving you the ability to consider factors outside a single project. Contextual design lets you consider impacts to the entire system because you are placing yourself in a model of the real-world that is not restricted to a small area. The ability to create in context means you can now evaluate and envision project outcomes as part of the bigger system, evaluating the pros and cons of different alternatives based on project goals and budgets that are defined.
3. Web and mobile.
This one likely seems obvious, as the internet and mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets have already disrupted our personal lives, so it was only a matter of time before they started to disrupt our professional lives. What this means to a DOT is new opportunities for communicating and collecting feedback from the public with techniques such as crowdsourcing and social media. New ways to access information in the field so crews always have accurate information in order to make better decisions. Mobile technologies provide new ways to connect to data, not only for viewing, but also for updating, which will likely result in changes to the way assets are managed.
The US was the country that modernized air traffic, built the intercontinental railroad and built the interstate system. With advancing technologies and new ideas, the next big thing could be just around the corner.