Gateway to better decisions

October 2007 » Feature Articles
A GIS-based, integrated management system provides real-time access to distributed information.
Todd Anderson

A GIS-based, integrated management system provides real-time access to distributed information.

The combination of ever-increasing traffic and road congestion poses significant challenges for transportation agencies. To alleviate these issues, agencies are searching for tools that will help them better manage assets and get the absolute most out of current infrastructure. Better management of roadways can begin with a more accurate and precise understanding of existing assets and their condition. Hence, inquiries for access to this critical information on a daily basis are growing exponentially.

The opening ITMS screen features the South Carolina state map, with search features to the left of the map.

The federal government, elected officials, citizens, and the news media are just a few of the entities requiring answers from transportation agencies regarding any number of transportation related issues. With this increasing demand for project, traffic, and financial information, executives in state departments of transportation (DOTs) are expected to respond quickly to questions regarding on-going projects, the conditions of the roadway, and the assets associated with the roadway.

Historically, state DOTs have maintained and administered enormous volumes of roadway information from daily traffic counts to the construction of billions of dollars worth of assets and infrastructure. Given this massive amount of data, it is easy to understand how DOTs struggle to organize and distribute just the right bits of information to those who need it, when they need it. Access to this crucial information must be simple, fast, and easy. Unfortunately, this data and information is often in various disjointed systems, rendering it difficult to compile and not easily accessible by everyone.

The South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) has made strides toward better information management as part of its mission to provide a safe and efficient transportation system for the movement of people and goods in South Carolina. SCDOT builds and maintains roads and bridges as well as provides mass transit services consistent with the needs and desires of the public. With more than 41,000 miles of roadway and 8,300 bridges, SCDOT has one of the largest state highway systems in the United States.

With timely and accurate information distribution a key to better decision making, SCDOT implemented an Integrated Transportation Management System (ITMS) to address this critical function. Users of this web-based system are able to tap quickly into the volumes of existing DOT data, in real time, finding answers to questions needed to accomplish their task or assignment. Daily queries can include locating a particular road on an interactive map, analyzing budget expenditures for a delayed construction project, or reviewing information about projects in the design phase. Created and implemented with the aid of Intergraph Corporation, headquartered in Huntsville, Ala., ITMS pieces together otherwise disjointed information so that it is easily comprehensible, making both problems and solutions more manageable.

The ability to create thematic queries gives this user the ability quickly to view higher volume South Carolina routes in Spartanburg County, which are shown in bright red.

SCDOT is similar to any large transportation agency in that its detailed roadway and asset information is kept and maintained in countless databases, managed by countless software applications across all DOT divisions. Needed pieces and fragments of information can be obtained, but often seeing the "big picture" is difficult because viewing all of the information together in one place is impossible.

ITMS alleviates this issue by being the hub to the spokes. Over the years, each functional area of the agency developed its own specific systems and databases to address the needs of its particular area. This mountain of data now is within reach and at the disposal of ITMS, as designated by the SCDOT. Users can view and analyze in one place at one time—regardless of its origin or current location—all the information necessary to make decisions. Additionally, ITMS has the capability to reach beyond the boundaries of the SCDOT to other agencies and organizations. This type of collaboration enables and encourages data and information exchange, greatly increasing efficiency.

Because information gathered and collated from its many data sources is shown to users in real-time, the information viewed from ITMS is always as up to date as the SCDOT possesses.

Perhaps one of the biggest advantages to ITMS is that it accomplishes its mission without dictating changes to current data workflows and practices. ITMS adapts and changes to the source data instead of the other way around. Source data that is used by ITMS can stay in its current database, maintained in the same way by the same people. This has helped gain acceptance of and participation in the system across the agency.

"The combination of real-time access and the ability to run queries across multiple enterprise systems is as good as it gets," said Doug Harper, chief information officer for SCDOT. "We are delivering an unprecedented level of data access so that users may take advantage of combing our business and spatial data for the information they need. ITMS turns complex data into information that can be viewed in a completely new way. The data are always current and available through a very user-friendly interface regardless of the system in which they are stored."

Another substantial strength of the system is its interactive map. The map serves not only to graphically display the results of a search or query, but also to locate specific areas of interest or to initiate searches. People relate more easily to graphics or pictures than to lines of text, so using a map is an intuitive way for users to communicate with the system. Seeing information spatially—relevant to its surroundings and other assets—goes a long way toward gaining insight and understanding of a complete operational picture. The map is fully integrated with the system, and many of its capabilities can be used by clicking on the map rather than typing in information.

Powered by Intergraph’s GIS product, GeoMedia WebMap, the map is totally interactive and customizable. Map feature display such as color and line thickness is under user control through the interactive legend, as well as turning features on or off for precise presentation. Using map-based technology to display data is nothing new. But using GIS to show information relationships across multiple databases with differing reference keys in real-time is incredibly advantageous and beneficial.

ITMS goes beyond collating and distributing live information from many data sources. Once the information is gathered appropriately into the ITMS environment, users have many reporting capabilities at their fingertips. From creating custom maps for use at a public hearing to thematic presentations of traffic patterns in legislative districts, ITMS is capable of intelligent investigation.

One particularly useful capability called Photolog enables users to perform virtual drives down South Carolina roads. This may occur when a project is being planned, or perhaps to see what an intersection looks like where an unacceptable number of accidents have occurred.

The Photlog viewer is an often-used feature of ITMS. Here, a user is viewing recent photos taken on SC 302 in Lexington County.

ITMS can best be thought of as a gateway to information. It is the key that unlocks the treasure chest, and SCDOT is making the most of it. Future plans include incorporating aerial imagery to make the map even more intuitive. ITMS is currently available to persons within the SCDOT enterprise, but plans are being considered for making portions of ITMS available to the public.

Todd Anderson is CADD manager with the South Carolina Department of Transportation in Columbia, S.C. He can be contacted at andersonrt@scdot.org.


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