Transportation GIS: Promise and Reality

GIS promise and DOT asset management reality

Those of us in the GIS community take it for granted that the incorporation of GIS enriches effective asset management practices, to the point where we find it difficult to understand how good asset management could be practiced without GIS. In reality however, most departments of transportation (DOTs) report only limited success in both good asset management practice and incorporating GIS into their asset management practices. So, why the gap between promise and reality?

First, despite our common beliefs in the power of GIS, I don’t think we have effectively demonstrated the inherent advantages of a GIS-based asset management system. Since the original 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), the promise of better transportation infrastructure management and better capital improvement planning inherent in good asset management practice has been understood. Most DOTs have successfully implemented GIS-based pavement and bridge management systems, but the type of integrated cross-asset capital planning envisioned by the act is rare.

This is certainly not due to a lack of software programs or applications that facilitate such cross-asset modeling. Rather, a recent survey of GIS managers at DOTs pointed to the lack of support for and understanding of GIS-based asset management systems on the part of senior management. These executive managers need to be convinced of what some of their city-level counterparts have found: that the use of GIS allows them to better manage the information about their assets, better visualize the alternative options, and more effectively communicate those options to elected decision makers—all leading to better decisions concerning the allocation of scarce public resources.

Second, while better decision making is certainly a good thing, in today’s environment, we also need to demonstrate to executive managers that the effective use of GIS for asset management will save money. There needs to be a tangible return on investment to justify the expense associated with good asset management practice. The geospatial industry has not been effective at demonstrating how GIS can help asset managers save through better and more cost-effective management of existing assets, and how GIS can save money by allowing asset managers to better coordinate the timing and scheduling of cross-asset activities. Forward-thinking cities and counties have long recognized the ability of GIS to look at the strategic scheduling of maintenance across asset classes to avoid utility repairs on newly resurfaced roadways and other costly noncoordinated maintenance activities.

The promise of GIS-based asset management—an approach that strives to provide the best return on every dollar invested by maximizing system performance and minimizing life cycle costs—is yet to be realized in most state DOTs. We in the GIS community need to do a better job of communicating those benefits, or else this will be unlikely to change. This begs the question:

What can the GIS community do to fill the gap between GIS promise and DOT asset management reality?

Terry Bills

About Terry Bills

Terry Bills is the global transportation industry manager at Esri. He has served as a Principal Planner with a regional transportation planning agency, and as President of a transportation-related GIS consulting services company. He has more than 20 years of experience in transportation planning and policy, information technology and GIS.
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  1. James P. Hall says:

    The gap between promise and reality is an eternal topic in technology management and integration. In my view, what is required is to raise the level of understanding across the agency. Since asset management, by definition, spans information across the organization, I believe personnel involved in enterprise-wide GIS implementation need to make the case for why this is worth the effort.

    In performing cost-benefit analysis for ROI, I believe agencies too often focus on the more tangible benefits of efficiencies resulting from GIS such as more efficient map production or information retrieval. What is missed and requires more in-depth analysis is the estimation of the traditionally intangible benefits of more effective decision making. For example, how does the increased information access and analysis in GIS specifically improve decision making? How do you quantify the results of better decisions in resource allocation?

    For example, say you have X amount of funds annually available for transportation safety improvements. If this level of funding can address only 10 percent of high crash areas in the program, how will GIS enable smarter project selection decisions? Will more informed decisions result in fewer crashes overall? How and to what extent? This level of analysis can be difficult, but I believe agencies have the knowledge and experience to assess and quantifiably estimate these impacts.

    To make the case to executives for resources to increase spatial asset management analysis capabilities, I believe GIS practitioners within agencies need to identify the specifics. They need to outline realistic costs and implementation time frames with specific goals targeting high-benefit objectives. Often, this requires a steering group of knowledgeable midlevel to upper-level GIS champions to help set a clear vision for GIS. This group can raise the level of understanding across the agency and to executives. When the average life span of a state transportation agency CEO is 18 months, it is important that there is a longer-term implementation process to maintain continuity.

  2. The Province of New Brunswick recently released its Climate Action Progress Report where we are on track to meet 2012 targets, and announced its increasing focus on sustainable transportation. We are in the preliminary phases of developing a provincial sustainable transportation forum, as well as exploring tools for encouraging fuel efficiency and sustainable transportation choices at the individual and community levels. This topic is both relevant and timely, hopefully, it can infuse our search for relevant methods and approaches to sustainable transportation in NB, at municipal and provincial levels, with the adoption and use of GIS for asset management, fleet monitoring and optimization, GHG inventorying, and sustainable transportation related applications.

    Itemized below are what I believe are key components to bridging the gap between what is promised (and achievable in GIS) and asset management practices in DOT. I increasingly consider complex issues like sustainable transportation through the lens of GIS and believe that it is an enabler to reach our climate change adaptation and GHG reduction targets, while it meets the standard asset management needs of DOT.

    For further consideration, I wonder if other participants in this forum believe that the gap can be filled through:

    A: System based approaches to Regional and Rural Transportation – i.e. creating economy of scale by solving transportation issues on a regional basis with multiple levels of government, transport authorities…
    B: GIS automation of workflows in DOT and all of government
    C: There’s an App for that too – meet end user needs through ‘specific’ applications that help with decision-making. Engage the public using social media, mobile applications, and fully integrated visualization of real time transportation data in GIS.
    D: Further integration of transportation-related data into GIS – i.e. back-end (database architecture, web processing services, use of standards, privacy/security, etc).
    E: Sustained Engagement and Continued Education of planners, policy makers, elected officials, developers, and commercial enterprise is critical for Sustainable Transportation Planning. Web-based GIS can enable communities of practice to collaborate on sustainable transportation planning.
    I look forward to gleaning useful insights from this forum.

  3. Wenling Chen says:

    In transportation planning, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software packages often have GIS elements integrated, which makes the use of integrated GIS more of a standard practice. In the area of transportation asset management, Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has used GIS for inventory data capturing, displaying, and editing. VDOT has also initiated an effort to use GIS in work management. The extent to which these efforts have been successful is limited by the lack of a maintenance information management system, especially for nonpavement, nonbridge assets, as well as an integrated business process for data sharing among systems, and data management.

    For VDOT, this is not an issue of executive management approving and supporting this effort; it has had executive support for several years. This is an issue of under-funding as well as difficulties with procuring and implementing IT systems and resolving the system and process “ownership” problem. There are technical matters that need to be worked out regarding interfacing with different systems to streamline data operations, and resolving road network data quality issues that limit the ability to fully utilize the linear-referencing system (LRS).

    Difficulties with system interfaces stem from two primary sources:

    1. VDOT has many core line-of-business systems that were developed or procured and configured to meet one business area’s needs over the years. Data field names, formats, and codes for many common data elements differ from system to system. It takes many complicated data translations and “crosswalks” to integrate data from two or more systems. This is a data architecture and management problem.

    2. One of the reasons VDOT has not already resolved this problem and integrated its systems is that some system owners have been hesitant to allow other systems to be integrated with theirs. Some feel that they would no longer be able to control data quality or security or that their system is too unstable and if it were to crash, their business area would no longer be able to perform its work. These are legitimate concerns, but they could be resolved with better data management policies and a better understanding of modern information technology capabilities.

  4. Keith Tubbs says:

    If I understand the question, you are asking what is required for those in upper positions to recognize the value of GIS. I am in the private sector, where if it doesn’t work, they get rid of it. I spent several years proving that GIS is a viable solution to my industry. My suggestion for the transportation sector is to pick a project that will get the most success as quickly as possible, and build from there. It doesn’t matter how small. Success breeds success.

    Routing for efficiency is the core of what we do. We route garbage trucks. For every mile we reduce, we save $. Eliminate enough miles, and we are able to reduce the number of trucks in the fleet. That saves capital investments, cost of insurance, and additional liability (every second a truck is on route is potential liability). We are also able to determine the best truck for certain areas. We balance the work load per week, per route, and sequence the routes for optimum efficiency. It works. Software has changed. We use ESRI 9.3 with a third party extension for much of our work.

    Municipalities would not be limited to routing trucks. There is meter reading, buses, maintenance vehicles etc. Add AVL to routing, and you can begin to visualize the excitement. As for DOT, surely there is a fleet of vehicles, which need monitoring or even work that can be routed for efficiency.

  5. In our DOT, and other State and Federal level agencies that I have worked with, there is general executive support for the GIS concept and its implementation -especially for projects. However, the key issue is that support does not equal commitment, which translates to funding at budget time. There is often an expectation at the executive level that GIS systems exist and will be maintained by the individual projects or departments with their current budgets AND that this data is available to the enterprise.

    The reality, however, is that in many agencies GIS systems are maintained by one to three individuals with the majority of the data work being done by projects in the business areas who do those value added tasks that are often ignored by executives (e.g., metadata preperation, data QA and publication, and system integration). As budgets become tighter the availablility of these resources declines so does the accuracy and timelyness of the information contained in the GIS. Lastily, the project focus of the business areas makes it difficult to transition effectively from a departmental to an enterprise GIS.

    One of the reasons that GIS has taken root in many City and County organizations is that high staff turnover and city growth required a method to store institutional knowledge. Secondly, they are centrally organized with only one headquarters office.

    In contrast, in many State and Federal organizations employees often stay from first higher at age 21 to retirement. As a result, large agencies often rely on employee memory vs. a information system. Thus building a GIS enabled inventory management system for the roadway runs into the common road block -why spend money to map the location of something when I already know where it is. Secondly, large agencies such as DOTs often have regional divisions much like an Army has Divisions and Brigades have Battalions. This means that you may have support at HQ, but how will you get the semiautonomous Region Manager (i.e., Commander) 300 miles away to change their budget allocation to support GIS, and if they do, how will this intrgrate into the agency GIS.

    On closing, there is one more issue that is often overlooked in the GIS implementation discussion. That is the simple fact that in our effort to streamline costs and simply implementation we often underestimate the true cost. This a good route when trying to get a project level GIS project off the ground. However, this backfires when attempting to implement a true departmental or enterprise system.

    Why? Do to the simple fact that the total cost of implementing GIS at the statewide level is less the visibility threshold for many executives. In the DOT’s case, they talk in terms of millions and billions and often run into construction overruns of millions of dollars. Thus, at the State or Federal level even to get on the radar your project implementation cost will need to approach $1 million in NEW money (i.e., which equates to 4-6 FTE’s plus 200K for software).

  6. Recent mandates by the Federal Aviation Administration, specifically their ‘Airports GIS Program’ have changed the face of the National Air Transportation System. The guiding principles of the NEXTGEN, or Next Generation Air Transportation System leverages the capabilities of National Geodetic Survey to host the complete data set and schema published by FAA for the creation of a highly-accurate nation-wide Aerodrome model. Up to thirty US airports have been selected via the FAA Airport Improvement Program (AIP Grant Program) to receive public funding to create what is now known as the “Electronic Airport Layout Plan – or e-ALP”.
    I am proposing to this group that most airports, no matter what size, are not ready to implement such a program. Even though FAA has published a data schema and a ‘Yellow Brick Road’ to follow via the FAA Advisory Circular A/C 150-5300 Series, the ramp up time for our consultants and in-house staff might exceed the timeline for implementation. The FAA GIS Program’s ‘IDLE’ training system is also very new for us. Who is the true Airport Sponsor for Leadership and Guidance during this transition? Is it the State DOT; the Regional Planning Commission; or the Airport Planning & Engineering Group?
    How can we that are involved in the ‘Aerotropolis’ business concept or those understanding the ‘Intermodal Transportation Model’ and Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) prepare for the transition? I appreciate those involved in this new business thread and the recently published GIS standards to provide folks like me the path as we ‘Crawl, Walk, and Run’ towards success!
    Thank you all for the creation of this group. Please follow us at

  7. Steve Palmer says:

    GIS is a critical component of an appropriate approach to data, providing location-based, structured data management and access to information about all assets. As Terry Bills mentioned, most DOTs have implemented GIS to store vital information, but examples of effective leverage, such as optimization of this data, have been limited.

    A portfolio of aging transportation assets requires planning, and planning depends on two key elements: data that describes the assets, along with a method of predicting future outcomes, and a solution for evaluating alternative strategies and choosing the best one.

    With existing, asset-class-specific tools, it is possible to effectively prioritize activities, such as maintenance, to generate an optimal schedule. But because these tools operate independently of other asset classes, at best they reflect what is known in the operations research realm as “local optima” rather than the “global optimum” solution across all asset classes. An obvious example of a globally suboptimum decision is when a critical maintenance project is not implemented due to budget constraints while a less critical project, funded by a different budget, goes forward. Within their respective budget realms, the prioritization may have been optimal in a narrow, short-term sense, but overall, the maintenance program is suboptimal. This problem associated with narrow, priority-based optimization can be addressed.

    What is needed and is generally lacking in most DOTs is a solution that considers all asset classes simultaneously, considers existing conditions, predicts future conditions, and allows evaluation of different budget scenarios and resource constraints.

    One compelling example of successful global optimization that allows cross-asset trade-offs has been accomplished by New Brunswick DOT. This success includes spatial optimization that works directly with GIS data to group maintenance activities into more spatially logical projects for implementation.

    Over its first three years of operation, the NBDOT Asset Management System has saved taxpayers over $70 million annually. That is a savings that no agency executive can afford to ignore.

  8. Complex issue organizational factors aside (as mentioned by Richard Daniels). Having been involved in GIS Systems projects with FDOT for some years now I agree with Oldfield that his items B, C and D are critical factors to close the gap. In particular D (Integration of Transportation related data) is like high blood pressure, a “silent killer”; … and it has no quick fix also. It is the wall against which GIS efforts ultimately crush when trying to achieve results in support of DOTs critical business process needs. Work Program Maintenance without “integrated” Pavement and Bridge information?
    Sure, most DOTs have “gotten into” GIS, crankedup Geodatabases, pump basemap and route data to allow for some neat map, reports and point and click interactions. Two stumbling blocks remain to be dealt with in order to address this issue:
    1. Data suitability: how do you integrate Survey and Mapping information that is not only in CAD+ (read: proprietary additional format) but was not conceived to be integrated with the rest of spatial data DOT manages? Are current data processes geared for data that could be integrated with the Enterprise Spatial data assets?
    2. Data Custody and Service Level Agreements: With ETL and SOA solutions availability; technology is certainly not the issue with DOTs data integration dilemma. Data ownership, custody and Service level agreements are at the core of the problem. How to adapt DOT organizations to embrace these required roles? How to get DOT Business areas to move from traditional “silos” mentality to Enterprise cooperation roles?
    I would also like to comment on Oldfield’s item B (GIS automation of workflows) and what I see as an “implementation” problem with it. As most complex Enterprise DOTs suffers from the classic GIS adoption problem: isolated Business Areas implementations that are now trying to kind-of talk to each other and obtain some type of synergy. Further, each Business Area GIS implementation is most likely “hard-wired” to address specific requirements (or none at all…). How to effectively use them for Business Process workflow automation is to say the least, a challenge.
    I submit that in order to address this issue DOTs need to re-think their current use of GIs technology within their Enterprises with a “Framework” perspective (a layered and Service oriented architecture). One that would also enable them to face the challenge of continuously evolving technology, and therefore decrease the cost of disruptive “technology upgrade/refresh” they are currently exposed to. Some forward thinking DOTs (Like FDOT) have already started in this path.
    The state of GIS and supporting technology makes this type of effort not only feasible but a sensible one in today’s budget constrained business environment.

  9. David Loukes says:

    I’ve reviewed the Roundtable discussion surrounding GIS-T and its support for asset management with much interest, as this is an area in which Opus has been actively involved for many years in Canada, NZ, Australia and the UK.

    Firstly, to reinforce and elaborate upon some of the many good points raised by previous contributors to this forum:

    1) GIS is not a panacea for the lack of corporate asset management programs within DOTs. Rather, it is an enabling technology that will facilitate the organization and analysis of asset information based upon location. Its role is to support the corporate location framework that will enable data integration across disparate applications and databases through consistent location references. A key requirement for this is to define corporate location referencing standards that will permit this to happen.

    2) One fundamental reason why DOTs have lagged behind municipalities in implementing corporate asset management frameworks is that of scope and complexity. DOTs have far larger networks to manage in most cases, decentralized maintenance operations, and legacy linear location referencing systems (and business applications that incorporate these linear location references) to support that predate GIS in almost all DOTs. The management of these locations (and the changes to them over time as networks change) is significantly complex and robust GIS based application solutions / tools that truly support this integration have only recently become available. In contrast, the municipal situation is in most cases much simpler. Most municipalities locate assets against road segments in lieu of using linear referencing systems. As well, most do not have as many old legacy systems to support. This has enabled municipalities to more quickly implement frameworks and supporting technology solutions. Finally, it’s usually simpler to get political buy-in at the municipal level.

    3) The implementation of a corporate asset management framework requires a significant effort and change in corporate mindset and business practices. Geospatial technologies support the asset management framework – they don’t drive it. Corporate executive management leadership and political commitment are required, with supporting budgets.

    Secondly, with respect to the question “What can the GIS community do …?”:

    From a DOT perspective:

    a) Ensure that your GIS technologies are integrated into your overall corporate IT architecture to enable spatial analysis, inquiry and reporting.
    b) Develop and maintain corporate location referencing standards to ensure that asset data can be integrated across applications.
    c) Promote “spatial thinking” to ensure that business processes and new applications leverage geospatial technologies to their fullest extent.

    From a GIS Vendor perspective:

    a) Continue the development and enhancement of GIS applications, functionality and tools that effectively support asset management within DOTs. Specifically:
    1. Support for multiple linear referencing methods against one spatial network representation.
    2. Support for effective network and asset history management, analysis and reporting.
    3. Support for robust transformation between coordinate systems and linear referencing systems.
    4. Improved tools for spatial / logical network maintenance that will streamline workflows.
    5. More robust and integrated mobile solutions that support field maintenance activities and improve associated workflows.
    6. Improved web access to corporate linearly referenced asset information for inquiry, analysis, reporting and integration with business asset systems.

    I see ESRI’s decision to develop a Highway Data Management application solution as a strategic initiative that will support DOTs in asset management implementation.

    Happy to have further discussion on this.

  10. Dr. Omar Smadi says:

    The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words,” rings so true when it comes to the use of GIS as a communication tool in asset management. Asset management (AM) is defined as a set of tools and processes that incorporate business and engineering principles in resource allocation decisions with the objective of better decision making based on quality information.

    One of the main purposes of AM is to use its data and results to impact decision making. I believe it is the lack of communication between asset managers and decision makers where AM falls short. That’s where GIS can fill a very big gap. The capabilities of GIS can help asset managers package data from AM systems into information, such as pictures that tell a story. That information can be used by decision makers when project selection and resource allocation decisions need to be made to meet the goals set by their agencies.

    In April 2010, the Transportation Research Board (TRB), supported by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), hosted a peer exchange to discuss the use of GIS in asset management in West Virginia. State departments of transportations (DOTs) representing a range of expertise in AM and GIS participated in the peer exchange. It was determined that best practices in GIS-based AM needed to be identified. Once identified, it would allow other agencies to learn from those who have effectively utilized GIS in an AM environment to communicate results and impact decision making at the highest levels.

    What can you do now to get started? There are lots of examples online about how GIS is used to better communicate information, integrate data from different sources, and market products. So, for asset managers looking for a way to make your decision makers listen to you, look no further than the Web. The answer is to make effective use of your existing GIS tools, and if your GIS tools don’t exist, make the case for creating them.

  11. Sean Tucker says:

    The answer is addressing the human factors though effective communication. Remove intimidation from Asset Management discussions.

    I must not only have what you want and need, I must make you see it and desire it, not fear it. You should see it as useful and achievable. If you don’t, no logic, no figures and pie charts will make you act on it.
    This means that as we articulate the great power of GIS Asset Management Systems to decision influencers and makers we must – Filter and Focus.

    Filtering (Is this for ME? Are you sure?)
    - “Less is more”.
    Specifically, less of what fascinates us.
    Filtering is the process of the choosing words, phrases and examples that say to the client – “GIS thinks like Asset Management” instead of saying “Asset Management must bend and twist to learn to think like GIS”. We know GIS is a facilitating technology, but we often communicate that it is something they are “switching to” not plugging into. The decision makers will only buy into GIS’ intrusion if they see and feel clearly that “i’m not changing, I’m just growing”. Syntax and semantics you say? Matters not.
    Let them see that their asset management, however manual or archaic is being facilitated (pun intended) not relegated. Remember – Filtering Fights Fear.

    Focus (What is MY Target? Can I get to it? How?)
    - “Looking at everything is seeing nothing”.
    Many decision makers leave GIS Asset Management Presentations in mental anguish, not anticipation. The target is the client’s immediate need. Speaking to the full capabilities of a system will impress them, but it will also suppress their vision of how this GIS stuff makes asset management – simpler, quicker and more profitable per their current needs. Purposely suppress that person in the room wanting to know if the asset management system can solve global warming too. Asset Management is a big monster, then we introduce another big monster, GIS, what fears result? – fear of failure? fear of choking from biting off too much? logic has been known to lose out to fear. Promote Pilot Projects and Phased implementations. Focus Feeds Forward Movement.

    GIS has a reputation for talking big and delivering small. Decision makers are slow to trust. Pilot Pilot Pilot. Phase Phase Phase. Prove then progress.
    Let them see and feel that they can nibble at an implementation instead of gulping.
    - Maybe then, they’ll bite.

  12. Nazib Faizal says:

    The concept of the government in every country is to manage and rule anything for the prosperity of citizen.
    I would say:
    1. Make an web application to bridge the gap between DOT and GIS promises. let say: people can report, spatially, if there are ‘thing’ bother them. for example : can sms/texting where the road is damage.
    2. More research and publication that GIS in Transportation can reduce the cost.