Future Highways goes to Open Data Camp

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With the 2016 Future Highways conference being hosted at Innovation Birmingham. and supported by several Open Data Institute Nodes including Birmingham and Devon, I was curious to explore the thoughts of the open data community on local highways.

This weekend’s Open Data Camp in Bristol seemed the ideal opportunity, where nearly 100 open data supporters from public, private and third sector organisations met to share ideas, perspectives and experiences in the popular unconference style.

After proposing this session on the Open Data Camp blog, and a 30 second (ish!) pitch this morning, around 20 of us had a very informed discussion this afternoon, captured brilliantly by Drawnalism in both pictures and words.

Talking local highways open data

TOpen data camp session on local highways summarised by Drawnalismhere were no representatives from the highways sector present, but this didn’t deter from the depth of knowledge in the discussion. Some had direct experience of working with highways asset management software (Confirm, Exor, Symology, WDM, Yotta), others from local government departments (like IT) or other open data activities like OpenStreetMap who interact with local highways teams, and other with experience in the rail sector, as well of course all of us as citizens and road users.

Very quickly, we were able to pick on on the key threads/challenges that I hear being discussed in the technical and engineering teams within local highways.  Albeit, the terminology used might be different, but to me its clear that the highways engineering and open data worlds are more aligned in their core understanding than many might initially assume.

Open data can help local highways, but we do need to focus on the economic benefits of doing so, rather than the demand for evidencing transparency.  As I learnt in a recent Open Data in a Day training session, the Open Data Institute are now looking to identify and share the economic benefits of open data, a target which is less affected by changes in political motivation than the initial need for transparency.

The highways public asset

Highways asset data is a public asset, but it is currently not managed as such.  With no consistent standards across local highways authorities for capturing, storing and analysing asset condition data, the sector is reliant on the capabilities of the big five highways asset management data / software providers.  As each are  invested in their own software products, we need to be raising the value of creating and maintaining a licensed open dataset of highways assets to drive creation of standards.

Another really useful aspect raised in today’s discussion was the fact that much traditional highways data is not geo-located, but rather is defined by chainage position.   This is one of several challenges the local highways sector shares with the rail sector, as I learnt in a discussion with the Permanent Way Institution a few weeks ago.

Mass capture of highways condition data

With the accessibility and use of mobile phones and other handheld sensing devices being able to capture a whole host of road condition / roughness related data, we need to be exploring how this can be co-ordinated, accessed and augmented by/with condition data captured by annual surveys.  The Roadee project by Leeds City Council / Leeds Beckett University is an example of an open data project that captured road roughness data from mobile phones stored in authority vehicles over a defined period.

To prioritise user needs, and engage others in the process, we need to be thinking much more holistically about what local highways data is captured, how it is captured, stored, categorised and accessed.  Very little local highways data currently meets the definition of open data – data that anyone can access, use and share.  Devon County Council are I believe one of the first local authorities to be publishing highways asset condition data as open data, but there is a long way to go.

Removing licensing and reuse restrictions

Many of the challenges surround licensing restrictions / considerations with Ordnance Survey.  I learnt today that the successful application to exempt Public Rights of Way (PROW) data from the Ordnance Survey licensing, many councils have experience a positive, win-win benefit from providing these datasets as open data.

Rise to the opportunities, rather than fearing the change

Of course this will be a challenge to the current highways data surveying, software and licensing monopoly, but we must evolve beyond finding value (and charging for services) in collecting and accessing data.  Instead, we have a fantastic opportunity to create new skills and services that interpret and assess this data to give greater insights into users needs and priorities, and engaging them in the decision-making process.

Bjorn Birgisson reveals secret roads knowledge

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Why Aston Uni’s Pro-Vice Chancellor is speaking at Future Highways 2016 conference

Bjorn Birgisson, Pro Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean, Aston University
Bjorn Birgisson, Pro Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean, Aston University

For his inaugural public lecture in November 2014, Bjorn Birgisson, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Executive Dean for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Aston University chose the curious title: “Roads, Love Them or Hate Them”? (video below)

A friend suggested I go along, for some liveblogging experience. I was open minded, but with a niggling assumption this might be an attempt to bring academic activities together in a futuristic, utopian way with no real understanding of the day to day challenges the local highways sector were dealing with. I was wrong. Very wrong!

Bjorn’s style of presentation was a beguiling mix of openness, curiosity, academic excellence, fun and a deep desire to put his academic activities to use for the practical advancement of transport, roads, and the environment. A very engaging and adept storyteller, weaving experiences together to inform inspire, it was a pleasure to observe.

When he revealed his favourite project was development of the world’s most accurate pavement deterioration model, trialled in US and Sweden, I knew I had to speak with him!

Eighteen months on, I’ve just had the pleasure of catching up with Bjorn again, to explore his presentation for this year’s Future of Local Highways Delivery conference, Birmingham, 5th July 2016. The focus for the conference is exploring the challenges and opportunities in prioritising user needs for local roads, and many of Bjorn’s activities and interests relate directly to this.

Balancing user and engineering needs (related blog, discussion topic)

The local highways sector has traditionally relied on expertise and capabilities of highways engineering teams in local authorities and private sector suppliers to manage our local road network.

The drive to identify, understand and prioritise user needs is shifting the way local highways services are designed and delivered. The role of asset management in this process is key (Local Highways in New Ways), providing a tool to model real world conditions and forecast more accurately to plan an effective balance between competing objectives like cost, condition, user needs and climate.

To achieve this, Highways teams are looking to partner their skillsets with the insights and experience of others outside the traditional highways sector. This partnering and collaboration can be for:
• software tools that can deliver this complexity of modelling in an understandable way,
• identifying the variables, or unknown unknowns, we need to be considering in the modelling to make it more accurate and reflective of real life
• technology that will make it easier and cheaper to capture condition, inventory and use data to feed the model (sensors, use of mobile technology, apps etc)
• ways of working and cultural shifts that makes highways asset data accessible and intelligible to a wider audience, through GIS, API’s and publishing as open data.

Connections that bridge worlds

For highways connecting with the academia and research world, it can be challenging. It’s difficult to identify where common ground might exist, and it is easy to assume that ‘outsiders’ don’t understand enough about the way local highways works and operates, which creates fear and uncertainty in exploring these options.

Just as I experienced when I heard Bjorn speak in November 2014, we can all recall that sense of relief when you find someone who understands your perspective, and has other complementary skills and capabilities that open your eyes to new ideas and opportunities.

Aston University has a fine reputation for research, and an established reputation in Transport and Logistics. Yet, without the chance to meet and discuss with Bjorn through his public inaugural lecture, I wouldn’t have any awareness that asset management, highways and roads is something they are exploring.

Aston in Midlands Innovation

Aston University is one of 6 Midlands universities to have come together to form Midlands Innovation, a collaboration of 6 leading universities across the Midlands to fuel growth across the region. The universities included are Aston University, The University of Birmingham, Leicester University, Loughborough University, the University of Nottingham and the University of Warwick.

The Energy Research Accelerator (ERA) is the first project to be delivered by the Midlands Innovation initiative. The ERA will receive £60 million of public money to unlock £120 million of private sector co-investment.

World-class highways asset management prediction and forecasting models

Bjorn led the Energy Research Accelerator initiative on behalf of Aston University and is currently working with the other university partners on transport and infrastructure-related activities within Midlands Innovation.

His particular interest is in pulling together prediction capabilities, management of risk and financial management research into a usable decision support system for asset management. With previous experience in pavement deterioration modelling in the US and Sweden, his speciality is in the assessment of technical and economic risk, and combining these with advanced modelling capabilities to provide real time user support that meets different needs user needs at community, local authority, SME and enterprise level.

Within the Energy Research Accelerator, there is exploration of new and more efficient forms of energy, which includes transport and power for vehicles. There is exploration of electric and real time charging of vehicles, and the connectivity of vehicles to infrastructure and the environment.

Highways, modelling and smart cities

Closer to home, Bjorn is part of the Birmingham Smart City and Green City commissions, in the former leading on Information Marketplaces, Open and Big Data.  Although named as Birmingham City commissions, both these projects are working across the Midlands region, helping to identify and put citizens needs first in the design and delivery of public services.

Chatting with Bjorn it seems he has the rare ability to co-ordinate and deliver significant collaborative research and academic ventures on a local, regional, national and international level, and relate with clarity and understanding of the real life challenges that these projects will help business, public services, and society address.

Whilst clearly capable across many disciplines, with Bjorn’s passion lying in our area of local roads and society, his expertise, passion and support is something we can’t afford to miss.

Meet Bjorn at Future of Local Highways Delivery, 5th July 2016 at Innovation Birmingham, where we’ll be exploring how to adapt highways delivery models to prioritise user needs.

Local Highways in New Ways

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The 153 Local highways authorities across England are collectively responsible for 183,000 miles of road, that’s 98% of the English road network. Of this, 113,000 miles are unclassified (C or U roads).

With guidance and support from the Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme (HMEP) since 2011, English local authorities are committing to a proactive, asset management-based approach to maintaining the local highways network.

Traditionally, highways maintenance activities were paid for from the revenue budget, with the largest contributor to that being funding from Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). Changes in funding patterns over the past few years mean local authorities are having to look elsewhere for different sources of income to deliver highways maintenance.

Funding from the Department for Transport (DfT), visible for the first time over a 6 year timeframe from 2015-2021 is enabling local authorities to plan maintenance activities, rather than just reacting to the biggest urgencies each year.

The potential to acquire additional funds from the DfT using the self assessment toolkit from HMEP does provide a financial incentive.  But, there are many other tangible and intangible benefits of committing to an integrated highways asset management approach.

Understanding user needs is a priority, as well as finding ways to integrate these needs into modelling and decision making processes.

Traditionally, maintenance decisions for local highways were based predominantly on engineering standards and professional judgement.

Local highways are an integral part of our society and enabler for our economy.  We do need to balance engineering needs with other competing objectives, and sophisticated modelling software is an essential tool for this process.

Its exciting to find people outside of the ‘traditional’ highways sector with skills and passion to contribute to this process.  Bringing people from these different worlds together with a shared goal of prioritising user needs is the intention of the Future Highways conference, 5th July 2016, Innovation Birmingham.

Old ways New ways
Asset inventory data ·Not all information collected

·Paper-based records,

·Knowledge in people’s heads,

·Separate electronic / digital systems for different assets / different local authorities


· Collecting inventory and condition data where it previously didn’t exist (e.g., drainage assets)

· Restructuring existing data into standard, accessible, resuable formats

· Capturing/updating  data more cost effectively using mobile apps, crowdsourcing, sensors/monitoring equipment

· Publishing asset condition data for access and use by others to encourage creation of new tools and services that meet users needs  e.g. , Devon County Council

Asset condition data
Lifecycle/deterioration modelling tools Simple models, relying on input of existing condition data rather than more complex information


e.g., Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme (HMEP) Carriageway deterioration model in Excel format, relying on existing condition indices like Carriageway Condition Index (CCI) and Road Condition Indicator (RCI), not individual defects such as rutting, cracking and fretting

· Availability of more sophisticated models either as standalone models, e.g, Bjorn Birgisson Pavement Deterioration Model trialled in US and Sweden or part of Asset inventory and condition software packages from e.g., Yotta (Horizons/Mayrise/Marchpms), WDM

· Developers from outside transport/highways sector to collaborate on these projects, e.g., ODI Leeds collaborating with Leeds City Council and Leeds Beckett University in Roadee project, capturing road roughness data from mobile phones to explore ability to predict formation of potholes

Level of service/

performance required

Performance specification traditionally relied heavily on technical standards, codes of practice and design guidance.



·Need to balance technical specification with user needs / requirements

·Capturing users needs through surveys / engagement sessions/ design guides for different user needs (e.g., cycling, disability, etc)

·Engaging users/stakeholders in work priorities/decision making process through use of map-based visualisation tools

Costs / value ·Working within funding supplied by central government,

·traditionally DfT funding for Capital (new) works and DCLG funding for maintenance

·Some revenue services charged for, such as car parking

·knowing the asset value of all parts of the network

·full lifecycle/whole life costing taken into account

·charging for use of specific parts of the asset, on a needs basis, and calculated to accommodate whole life costs

·reducing costs by designing for multiple use where user needs dictate

Balancing road engineering with user needs

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Can open data help us balance user needs with other competing objectives and deliver proactive highways maintenance?

Prioritising user needs

It seems obvious we need to prioritise users needs for our local roads. One challenge is how to understand and capture these needs.  The other is how to balance them against other competing objectives such as financial, political, and engineering requirements.

Asking people what they need seems obvious, but as I heard from Nic Cary, Head of Digital Transformation and Open Data at the Department for Transport, this doesn’t deliver the best results.

Speaking at the Smart Internet of Things event at London ExCeL 12th April 2016, Nic quoted Professor Peter Ayton, Professor of Psychology at City University, London, explaining that:

“To understand user need, the last thing you should do is ask them. Focus groups don’t get the best results. Opinion married to behaviour is more reliable.”

Correlating engineering standards with user needs

The Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) Highways Service Levels report, Project Report 251, published in 2007 (authors Vijay Ramdas, Craig Thomas (TRL) and Carole Lehman, Dan Young (Ipsos MORI)) explored the relationship between user survey results and engineering standards. The study was designed, on behalf of the Department for Transport, to ascertain the likely levels of service the public expected for the surface of local carriageways, cycle tracks and footways, and to explore correlation between this and the results of condition surveys and engineering standards.

There was overall consistency in the general expectations of users, but user responses based on recalled attitudes were different to more considered views. The initial response at the start of the discussions tended to be more negative than the views expressed later in the discussion. e.g., regards levels of satisfaction, initial response of “poor” and “unsatisfactory”, changed to “fair” and “ok”.

The study concludes: “This has implications for routine customer satisfaction surveys, carried out by local authorities and the Highways Agency (now Highways England), where only initial responses are captured. This suggests there is a need to re-examine the design of questionnaires for future surveys.”

In terms of correlation between user experiences and engineering standards, the findings in the West Sussex study area were mixed:

    • locations of bumps and jolts aligned well with high values of 3m and 10m LPV, and the bump measure
    • No rutting present, so not possible to correlate with user perceptions
    • Lack of grip was an issue of concern for all road users (drivers, cyclists and pedestrians), with some alignment between user experience and lengths where the measured texture was low
    • Transverse unevenness, and Edge Deterioration Index did not align with user perceptions, and may be appropriate only as engineering parameters.

So, if asking users directly what they need doesn’t give us what we’re after, and there isn’t a clear correlation to engineering standards we can rely on, what should we do?

Use open data to understand behaviours

As Nic Cary pointed out, we already have quite a sophisticated series of monitoring and sensoring equipment within our local road networks. If user needs are best understood by monitoring and observing behaviours,  can we not make more effective use of sensors and monitors to capture, model and understand user needs?

The data from asset based sensors and monitors could give congestion and traffic flows, whilst anonymised data from users could give behavioural context/experiences e.g., mobile phones, vehicles, sat nav’s, social media, personal monitoring equipment etc, when mapped to specific geographic locations.

Highways open data?

Instead of data on road condition and engineering standards being separate from user and behavourial experiences, bringing these different datasets together in new ways enables a much deeper understanding of how local highways networks work. This in turn enables easier forecasting and planning of highways maintenance works, increasing resilience to change.

Open  data is, quite simply,  “Data that anyone can access, use and share” (Open Data Institute).   Much of our highways asset and condition data does not yet meet this criteria.

But, with the advances in software modelling capabilities such as Yotta’s Horizons product, where we can see the benefits of bringing different datasets together, the benefits of publishing our highways data as licensed open data will eventually outweigh the obstacles.

Devon County Council have started publishing highways open data, and as this blog from Switch Systems shows, it’s already being explored and put to use.

Open data for engineering and user needs

Balancing engineering needs and user priorities is achievable, but requires:

    1) advanced, and usable, modelling software to explore multiple diverse datasets
    2) data available in accessible, usable and shareable formats, licesnsed as open data
    3) people with skills and capabilities to bring this data together in new ways to solve real life challenges

Local highways authorities and their suppliers are already compiling highways asset condition and inventory data into virtual models to help prioritise, plan and fund highways maintenance activities.

The natural evolution is to make highways asset condition and inventory data available in accessible, usable and shareable formats (see also Local Highways In New Ways post).

Then, it can be combined with behavioural and use data to provide intelligence on user needs. Of course this needs to be supplemented with user opinion data and be correlated with behavioural data to give reliable insights. But this is more robust and evidence-based approach to understanding and utilising user priorities and needs.

Technical and cultural challenges

Yes there are technological challenges achieving this, but there are also cultural ones, in particular, as summarised by Nic Cary:

    • shifting from our traditional hierarchical organisational structures and behaviours to a flatter, collaborative open approach within, across and between businesses and sectors
    • working from an evidence base rather than business need, and being mindful of using business need as a substitute for user need, when we really need to be working directly with users

Those working in the local highways sector are rising to this challenge.  It requires a new set of skills and capabilities, and engaging with others to achieve. The Future of Local Highways Delivery conference 5th July 2016 brings together expertise from road engineering, open data and academia around the common these of prioritising user needs.

The collaborative highways community prioritising user needs