National Treasure: America Maps Its Infrastructure One DOT at a Time

Utah Department of Transportation Leads National Data Sharing and Collaboration Initiative

By Sarah Alban, Esri

The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) seeks to proactively push three strategies to manage its 5,800 miles of roads and highways:

  1. Reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities to zero
  2. Preserve infrastructure through proactive investments
  3. Optimize mobility across the state through innovative designs

This action requires voluminous amounts of data: traffic volumes, accident statistics, pavement conditions, and much, much more. For years, data was housed in silos where only some employees had access. In other words, all the data wasn’t accessible all the time.

“We didn’t know how to get at it,” UDOT Planning Director John Thomas said.

Spatial data didn’t always exist on maps, either. Sometimes meetings consisted of engineers trying to describe spatial information.

“We would spend half the conversation trying to describe a location and issue,” Thomas said, “when a simple map would allow the discussion to address the issues at hand much more effectively.”

To start getting greater access to the data, UDOT built a simple map application, but it didn’t meet their needs. So UDOT continued looking at ways to standardize its data formats and view multiple layers of this data on a map. But of the available solutions, Thomas says, “nothing seemed to fit the bill.” What UDOT was coming up with to view its data wasn’t sufficient. “It was the Department of Transportation trying to be a software company.”

The Utah Department of Transportation uses web services to share webmaps to the public and officials, including information such as pavement management, safety mitigation, and mile posts.

So Thomas asked Esri Transportation Industry Manager Terry Bills if Esri had any solutions. Bills did, but he asked if Thomas could hold out a little longer. This was 2011, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Esri was about to release ArcGIS Online, a browser-based GIS application that fostered organization-wide access to data-driven map viewers published as web services. It was exactly what UDOT needed.

“It was a perfect match,” Thomas said. “UDOT had the business need and Esri had the software. None of UPLAN’s success would have been possible without Bills. Terry took a strong interest in ensuring that what UDOT needed and what Esri was developing were closely aligned. That brought tremendous results.”

Transformed by Maps

UDOT had used Esri GIS before. But the ArcGIS Online solution was transformational.

ArcGIS Online enabled UDOT to publish its maps, tools, and apps to the website. Non-GIS staff across the agency could view and analyze data intuitively on user-friendly maps. Collaboration spread throughout UDOT. Employees began embedding maps in websites and putting them on mobile devices. Anyone who had a need for data could access, query, analyze, and edit the data via ArcGIS.

UDOT was also an early adopter of Esri for MS Office, which let the agency quickly build maps by dragging and dropping existing data within the Excel application. Employees published these MS Office maps as live web maps, which themselves could integrate with other web services. Staff used these in presentations, emails, and SharePoint. The web maps were updated every night, so they knew the information was the most recent it could be.

In a perpetuating cycle, employees began to want more information. UDOT staff easily consumed information — information once previously held and locked in documents few could or knew how to access. They could easily share this information with partners, who themselves could engage the maps. The shift wasn’t slight. The agency increasingly used maps to visualize and analyze its information.

“The dialogue wasn’t around where something was anymore,” Thomas said. “The dialogue was around finding what the issues are with it.”

UDOT featured maps let users access groups of content related to road planning, asset management, and more critical roads and highway information.

Staff become more productive at meetings. Projects cost far less time and money. UDOT used ArcGIS Online to identify potential rail-line corridors in a 200-mile-by-200-mile study area in parts of three states. With ArcGIS Online, the agency developed 26 corridors, totaling more than 4,000 miles. Screening the 26 alternatives for engineering and environmental feasibility took just two months, at a cost of just $400,000.

“If UDOT had done that before ArcGIS Online,” Thomas said, “it would have taken at least three years and several millions of dollars to do the same work.”

Regulatory agencies and UDOT have begun to share more information earlier in the process. UDOT can produce environmental impact reports in minutes, whereas they used to take weeks to months. UDOT’s relationships with federal and state permitting agencies became stronger as information sharing between the agencies created more transparency in reviewing information.

Utah dubbed its web-GIS initiative UPLAN (global). Simply put, UPLAN skyrocketed internal collaborations. UDOT became more transparent. Leaders at UDOT can use UPLAN to inform their decisions with hard facts through easily consumed as web maps. From planning to delivery, more information from UPLAN and other systems now support decision making. With UPLAN identifying the potential of organizing data, data collection efforts are helping UDOT understand where and what assets are over the 5800 mile system. Asset management has leveraged a variety of technologies and applications to better manage rumble strips, pavement markings, signs, guardrails and many other features.

“There’s just such a different level of discussion,” Thomas said. “UDOT is more efficient.”

GIS is spreading out through the organization. UDOT leadership bookmark UPLAN to pull up their most-referenced maps. There is seldom a meeting without a live web map, which can be pulled up on any employee’s device. Gone are the spreadsheets the GIS department used to supply for meetings and the poster-board prints. Now, everyone expects a web map.

UPLAN uses a single webmap to serve out its phase-based long term planning for Utah’s roads and highways.

“As our organization slowly became aware of the volumes of information and that there’s a pretty reasonable way to introduce and distribute it, ArcGIS Online gets support,” Thomas said. “Esri is turning into a pretty useful platform.”

Thomas quickly realized UPLAN was unique — but it shouldn’t be. He contacted the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), which circulates technological best practices among DOTs through its AASHTO Innovation Initiative.

Before long, Thomas started forming a passionate team with a goal to share Utah’s experiences with other states and to learn best practices from these states.

A National View

“Transportation doesn’t stop at the border,” Thomas said.

The United States has never had a federally supported, collaborative framework to view and interpret its entire national road system.

“How do we share information within our state? How do states collaborate with each other?” Thomas said. “Does a tool like UPLAN help with a national view that supports the U.S. DOT goals?’

Yet transportation is critical infrastructure. Nationally, roads and highways enable economics. Optimizing the transportation system improves quality of life. DOTs often get asked for information related to the federal highway system at Congressional hearings — but the data didn’t exist easily. Most state DOTs were not equipped with a system like UPLAN, which shocked some officials.

“Everybody assumes we live in a data age, and that you would have your information at your fingertips,” AASHTO Innovation Initiative Consultant Monica Worth said.

With AASHTO’s help promoting cutting-edge technology, best practices, and implementation tools, Worth, Thomas, Bills, and others set out to get each state on board with developing its own ArcGIS Online system. Esri supported the AASHTO Innovation Initiative by providing a one-year free license of ArcGIS Online to participating states.

They did three states a week. The team deployed ArcGIS Online at each state’s DOT until late hours, returned to their hotel, and rose in the morning to complete the process or move on to the next state DOT. In twelve weeks, twelve states began assessing and acting on implementing their versions of UPLAN.

By the end of 2014, thirty DOTs had started implementing their own versions of UPLAN.

“There has been a lot of interest by states to implement a tool that helps use their information to learn more about their transportation systems.” Thomas said.

The initiative is rolling out across the United States state-by-state, in four phases. Phase one saw the rollout of fourteen Western states in three months. Three ambassador states have risen to keep Thomas’s momentum going across further geographies: Minnesota, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania are leading three-phase rollouts in their regions.

They estimate the project, and the first national view will be complete at the end of 2015.

A Public View

Utah residents can access UPLAN on the UDOT website. They can find live, mapped access to weather conditions, safety information, and planned road construction projects. UDOT transparently shows the justifications of its transportation investments with considerations taken for historical, cultural, and architectural resources.

“ArcGIS Online is helping UDOT be transparent to the public,” Thomas said.

The maps foster a greater level of engagement, trust, and involvement between UDOT and the public as well as regulators.

“It’s just kind of everybody talking to each other and understanding each other better,” Worth said. “That’s a demonstration of a really good use of the taxpayers’ dollar to bring information to the public.