Scotland’s roads form a vital network of veins and arteries across the country. But this critical infrastructure, so central to development, business, and tourism, is constantly threatened by innumerable variables – ranging from population trends to the weather.
The answer? Enacting data driven solutions with fluid collaboration.
Road Expo 2017 kicked off at the Royal Highland Centre in Edinburgh this week, and played host to a number of leaders in infrastructure, business and analytics. Co-hosted by exhibition body Traffex, Transport Scotland and SCOTS (the Society of Chief Officers of Transportation in Scotland), the first day of the event explored how smarter data could be enacted by collaboration between local bodies to ensure Scotland’s roads keep the country running smoothly.
The opening day was prefaced by a message in absentia from Transport Minister Humza Yousaf, who established many of the coming themes of later speakers. For example, MSP Yousaf noted that Scotland’s Future Intelligent Transport System (ITS) Strategy – which sets the goals for the country’s future road network – is a fluid document ready for up-to-the-minute tech integration.
MSP Yousaf said: “Scotland has been at the forefront of the use of intelligent transport systems and motorway services for thirty years since our first traffic control centre. We’ve used ITS to make a positive contribution to the safe and efficient movement of people, goods and services across the country. The Strategy will provide the strategic framework for the introduction and management of new services that will put the customers at heart.
“Some of the initiatives and innovations of the new Strategy are already being developed. Two examples of these are the Queensferry Crossing Smart Motorway Corridor and the new Traffic Scotland website. The Queensferry Crossing Smart Motorway Corridor represents a very concealed application of ITS – it’s a fine example of technologies with an ability to monitor and control a network and [deliver] accurate and up to date information to customers safely and efficiently.”
Data as an engine for innovation
One of the largest advocates of data driven solutions for transport variables was Alex Croston, Senior Asset Manager Advocate for Yotta. Alex hypothesised how ultimately we could create smart cities using the information we gather from transport and related infrastructures – primarily through sensors – leading to faster identification of areas of congestion, zones liable to be flooded, and new ways to save energy.
Croston said: “If you think about it, local authorities are managing a whole host of services across their network – drainage, waste, structures. The first thing we need to do if we’re going to manage this information is understand what we have and where it is. We also need a system that is flexible to allow users to find the assets that they want to manage in exactly the way they want, and for certain assets where appropriate, we need to prioritise them. If you think for example about a street light, different parts of that street light will deteriorate in different ways, they will require different types of inspections and different maintenance.
“Sensors are increasing their impact. They think that by 2020 there will be about 20 billion sensors in the world, eclipsing the growth of smartphones, tablets and PCs. If they’re not available today, they will be available soon. If you look at the cityscape, we’ve got drainage, street lighting, waste, flood risk management, structures, rail, carbon dioxide, temperature sensors, [and] the car.”
Croston continued: “Connected autonomous vehicles are pushing closer and closer and the information that they collect might be available to us in a few years’ time. If you imagine cars reading road surfaces sending that information to your system, [that’s] really handy stuff. You’ve always got to keep an eye on the future and what technologies are developing – when you’ve got an asset management system it needs to plug into that stuff and hit the ground running.”
The importance of collaboration
This sounds all very well and good, but how can we kick-start this data collection, and ensure that the information is being used optimally? Ewan Wallace, Head of Transportation for Aberdeenshire Council, conceded that his council serves as both an industry leader in forward-thinking transport ideas, but also a reminder about how hard progress can stall without proper collaboration. Wallace said: “In 2016, Audit Scotland was quite clear that we [Aberdeenshire Council] were ‘too slow’ at collaborating. Positively, they said that the work that we’ve done since 2011 has been very good.”
He noted that three challenges need to be overcome before meaningful collaboration between disparate authorities is possible, namely: getting the relevant authorities to agree; coping with changes in politics; and coping with changes in office. As a side, he also noted that finance was an influencer that needed to be considered in a realistic scenario also.
These challenges can be surmounted through a ‘Governance First’ approach to infrastructure development and advancement. According to Wallace, this model has four components, as follows: setting up governance as a first step; sharing information as a ‘default’ for all the authorities on board; operating from a legally accountable body; and agreeing on a vision and operational decisions.
Wallace stressed that Aberdeenshire Council’s model was not a ‘Big Bang’ delivering results from day one, but it has built momentum, and is positively demonstrating the benefits of sharing.
“For those going forward on serious collaborative activities, the ‘governance model’ is absolutely crucial. We also have to make clear that there is a middle of the road sometimes, people can’t be in charge of everything. When a committee makes a decision on a policy of the future, it might not be 100% of the floor. As mature collective neighbours we should be able to deal with that.”
It is becoming increasingly clear that data holds the future to transportation infrastructure – like many other aspects of our society – and has the potential to eliminate congestion, divert from obstacles, and monitor wider road trends. But whether those in power will effectively act on this information remains uncertain. Collaboration, achieved through using conscious models which enforce compromise, could offer some solutions as to these increasingly urgent questions.
Road Expo 2017 concludes today. The next event from Traffex is slated for 2019, and information can be found on the website here.