Big data to improve transparency and performance of our infrastructure

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ImageInfrastructure requires a lot of coordination throughout the development, construction, maintenance and day-to-day operations of projects and the systems they operate in. Yet, with all of that sophisticated organization, the easiest and often most overlooked issue is communication and the real-time flow of management information.

October 21st, 2015 was “Back to the Future Day” – the date when time-travelling protagonist Marty McFly from the film "Back to the Future Part II” journeys 30 years from 1985 to 2015 in a souped-up flying DeLorean powered by an environmentally sound waste-to-energy system.

Apart from making me feel old for having arrived in 2015 the traditional way (waiting out the passage of time), the media circus around this unusual anniversary of a future temporarily made present -- which has now passed -- got me thinking about how technology might impact my working life in the coming years. What I envisioned is not revolutionary – you can read about it in a separate blog that I published on LinkedInIn fact, everything I described as occurring in 2020 is currently possible by simply applying existing technologies, coordinating information, and communicating efficiently.

These are exciting if not daunting times for governments, planners, asset managers, and infrastructure developers. The confluence of information technology and a complex web of infrastructure unlocks a wealth of opportunity. The data that flows from this convergence should improve performance as well as transparency and save everyone money. People are slowly waking up to what is possible when you connect big data and big projects. In terms of public-private partnerships (PPPs), data-driven outcomes are essential when value-for-money, disclosure, innovation, and operational efficiency are at the core of a project’s objectives.

This can also be seen through an increased awareness in PPPs of asset management standards, and the ongoing need for project data to be collected and performance reported. It’s good governance, but it’s not easy. The millennium development goals (MDGs), for example, were established by the United Nations in 2000 to address global issues such as poverty, poor education, and inadequate healthcare. However, implementing the goals and tracking progress proved difficult as it exposed huge gaps in the consistency, availability and collection of data needed to accurately monitor progress against investment.

To address this issue, the UN recently introduced a global partnership to improve the collection of data needed to achieve its sustainable development goals (SDGs) – a follow-up initiative to the MDGs launched in January in order to frame agendas and political policies over the next 15 years.

PPPs operate in a similar context. Risks and responsibilities are carefully mapped out in watertight contracts pre-financial close, but the practice of monitoring those contracts and measuring performance post-construction is often rigid and inconsistent. Technology is rapidly evolving to address this, creating potential new data points and industry standards that need be applied to existing as well as future contracts to ensure fair and balanced assessment.

As noted by a 2011 U.S. Department of Transportation study on Key Performance Indicators in Public-Private Partnerships: “It is important to collect performance data during the concession period in a manner consistent with the [U.S. highway] agency’s network management approach. This implies that the data will also be used to verify PPP performance. The alignment of these measures is challenging. As these systems evolve, PPP project data collection formats and reporting structures will also need to evolve to be consistent with the overall network management approach.”

Beyond offering transparency and measuring performance, data will also have a direct impact on day-to-day operations and dictate reactions to unexpected events. To illustrate this point, I’ve enlisted Andreas Zachariah (known as “Zac”) from technology developer TravelAi to reflect how real-time data management could have been applied to a recent transport crisis in the United Kingdom on the opening night the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

The first match in September saw 80,000 spectators gather at Twickenham Stadium to watch England play Fuji. Royalty attended, thousands cheered, and the scoreline wavered. The kick-off to the tournament was a great success until a single fan fell onto the tracks at Twickenham Rail Station and was injured shortly after the match ended. Immediately, trains were stopped as emergency personal attended to the man for more than 30 minutes while the British Transport Police, train operator, local council, and event officials tried to decide how to deal with more than 50,000 fans stranded between the stadium and station. All told, staff spent an extra four hours that evening dealing with the consequences, and thousands of fans were inconvenienced when they missed their last services home.

Using real-time data and existing technology, the evening could have gone much differently according to Zachariah (sans his own flying DeLorean). On match day, the Rugby World Cup smartphone application – which has been downloaded almost a million times – could have had TravelAi trip detection and crowd messaging software embedded within the app to capture individual journeys to Twickenham. At near real time, each fan’s position would be uploaded to TravelAi servers and the company would relay aggregate information to important stakeholders – such as event organizers, transport providers, and local authorities. This would inform them of the flow of people headed towards the stadium in the ensuing hours to kick off, identifying the method of travel, and providing some valuable insight as to likely homeward journeys for fans after the match.

When the system was disrupted by the incident at Twickenham Rail Station, authorities could have immediately communicated instructions to those stranded between the match grounds and the rail station. TravelAi, working closely with Rugby World Cup sponsors IBM and Steer Davies Gleave – providers of the event’s dedicated journey planner – would then work out the best way to disperse the crowds based on their current location and data gathered from their earlier journeys to the stadium. This would focus on directing people to less utilized, and less affected nearby train and tube stations.

Having run the data and worked with all the stakeholders, semi-personalized messages would be sent to fans with the Rugby World Cup application on their phones advising them to take certain routes to alternate stations. Those who didn't volunteer to have their travel tracked would still be kept informed, but are required to run a few extra steps via the app to access the journey planner, which has been adjusted to take into account the disruption.

Organizing staff and essential services still have a long day, but it’s now only an extra hour or two instead of four. More importantly, crowds are left feeling like they were part of the solution, their expectations were managed, and most importantly they were kept informed. Even the stadium owners benefit. Happy spectators know the next time they come to an event that the randomness of unforeseen events can be managed effectively in real-time and their journey home will unlikely be a disaster.

In this new world of Big Data, infrastructure, and asset management – no organization is an island. Cities are assets that need to be managed with multiple independent, yet interconnected, systems designed to deliver essential services. Public-Private Partnerships will attract companies like TravelAi to join in consortium with other experts from across the project spectrum to provide essential information and optimal performance that cuts across the gaps between systems. The client is ultimately the citizen, and they will get the best possible service as well as value-for-money.

Infrastructure projects – and PPPs – are hard work. We need Big Data, engaged customers, asset owners and companies like TravelAi to step up and make it easier. That is the future we should get back to.

This article first ran on Handshake, the World Bank Group’s journal on public-private partnerships. For more columns and stories on data, disclosure, and PPPs:



John Kjorstad

KPMG Global Services

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