How blockchain could support road asset management

Within Flanders, there are a multitude of road managers and dozens of other parties, who rely for their daily operations on accurate information about roads, road amenities, electro-mechanic and telematic installations, or road assets in short. There is a need for information about ownership and management of the assets, but also about specific properties of the assets. However, the multitude of parties, the necessary exchanges and the absence of one overall responsible make the situation very complex. In this blog post, we try to explain how blockchain technology could help alleviate these problems. This initial investigation was done by TheLedger in close collaboration with Agentschap Wegen en Verkeer (AWV), and in assignment of Agentschap Informatie Vlaanderen.

Current road asset management

There are a number of road managers within Flanders, each responsible for a set of roads and their associated assets. These road managers include the road and traffic agency (AWV), several public-private partnerships, and the different cities and municipalities. Other parties, such as utility companies, public transport companies, and water road managers are impacted by the status of the road assets as well. They typically also have their own assets, which might be impacted in case of changes to the roads or the assets.

Many parties are involved in the management of roads and road assets or are impacted by them.

For the various road assets, it is important to know who the owner, the manager, and possible contractor are, because maintenance is required for these assets in order to ensure smooth traffic and to guarantee safety. Additionally, the correct party must take responsibility if a problem arises or in case an accident occurs due to poor maintenance. Due to the multitude of parties owning road assets, however, there often is a lack of clarity about who is the manager or owner. Each party has its own overview of assets and thus its own view on the truth. There is thus a need for a single version of the truth regarding the ownership of the road assets.

Furthermore, a lot of information about the assets is exchanged between the various road managers, but also with contractors and utility companies that carry out road works and maintain their assets. However, information threatens to leak away. For example, it happens that contractors have a lot of information about the assets, but that this information does not reach the managers or owners. Inefficient data exchange can lead to extra costs due to product failure, wrong deliveries or the human intervention that is needed to obtain the information. There is a need for an easy way to share asset information. In order to achieve this, several measures are already being taken. First of all, the use of BIM standards will facilitate the exchange of information, since this way everybody speaks the same “language”. The AWV also focusses on the controlled delivery of data via their application DAVIE (Data Acceptance, Validation and Information Extraction), via which contractors submit data to the agency. An additional aspect that could help, is to actually share the road asset data, as compared to throwing it over the wall, as is the case in some situations.

Blockchain-based road asset management

Blockchain is a technology that offers transparency and trust, and that allows data and logic — for example as an interpretation of agreements made — to be shared directly between different parties. These aspects of blockchain could help road managers to exchange information about road assets across different stakeholders and to determine who is the owner or manager of an asset. As such, this “road asset blockchain” would form a shared platform between the various road authorities, which provides an unambiguous version of the truth and ensures smooth and transparent information exchange. For this solution, we assume that a standard for roadside asset information has already been agreed upon.

Within this “road asset blockchain”, different road authorities together form the blockchain consortium, and each consortium partner shares its asset information on the network. This way, we can easily obtain a single version of the truth regarding the ownership of road assets. Road authorities thus each register their assets, and with the help of geospatial queries, it is possible to detect and remove assets that are registered twice. With such a system it is also easier to exchange other asset information. All information is already in the network, and ownership is simply transferred. Furthermore, logic could enforce for example that every asset must have an owner and a manager, that a certain agreed-upon asset standard is followed, or that maintenance must be done at a specific frequency. The transfer of ownership can also be handled using the shared logic. Additionally, logic could determine who may see which data. Keep in mind however that each party participating in the blockchain network has a copy of the data.

Blockchain as a piece of the puzzle

The consortium members own and manage the “road asset blockchain” together, and together they decide on the data and the rules in the network. The blockchain should, however, be seen as only a piece of the puzzle: it forms the common layer where road asset data, logic and functionalities are shared. This common layer can be addressed by each of the consortium parties from their own systems, whereby an interface or front-end is provided for the users. This interface can be a new application or can be an existing application that is extended with the new functionalities. The users can also be internal employees as well as external parties, such as contractors with whom the road manager cooperates. It is possible that the data is first enriched with additional information from its own systems, or that additional rules are applied within the own systems. The consortium parties are also free to make certain functionalities available to users or not, and they can also do this in different ways: either via API or via an application with screens.

In principle, the consortium can also build an application jointly — as a kind of central party — that can, for example, be used by citizens to report defects of road assets. A notification can then automatically be sent to the owner or manager. Note that in such a system, we would not have to waste time looking for the one responsible.

Advantages of a blockchain solution

A “road asset blockchain” has certain advantages. It forms a single vision of the truth, without the need for a third party or central administrator. After all, there is currently no central authority that could take up this role, nor is there currently a distributed system which the different parties could join. The proposed system enables the various parties to share the data and logic as equals and also stimulates the reuse of data. The distributed nature of blockchain also ensures that the blockchain consortium can continue to exist in the long term and could survive institutional changes.

Blockchain offers transparency and traceability. This could strengthen confidence in contractors. In addition, the timestamp of the information becomes increasingly important.

Finally, a blockchain network also allows automation between different companies by means of its smart contracts and imposes rules on the network.

A typical alternative to a blockchain solution is to create a central database where all data (in this case concerning all road assets) is gathered and managed by a central authority. The big question here is who should fulfill this role, and to what extent data with this party is trusted with this data. As stated above, the decentralized and transparent character of blockchain also has certain advantages.

Next steps

With this blogpost, we explained how blockchain could support road asset management, creating a shared single version of the truth on asset ownership across different road managers and smoothening information exchange. This post was a result of a preliminary investigation on the possibilities and advantages of using blockchain for road asset management. Next steps will be discussed internally. The further working out, development and roll-out of a solution is however a joined task for all partners and stakeholders.