Big Data: The Roadmap to Better Roadways (and Much More)

From 2009 to 2012, I worked for arguably one of the most important organizations to the global economy. This organization oversees the development and management of trillions of dollars’ worth of assets that, at a minimum, significantly impact every person and company in the United States.

Now, companies like ExxonMobil or Microsoft may be coming to mind; however, the organization I’m referring to is not a household name. It exists in the shadows and I would venture to say most people are probably unaware of the vital services it provides on a daily basis.

HighwayAny guesses? Well, I’m referring to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), which provides funding and oversight for all major modes of transportation (i.e., surface, air and water). To put that into perspective, this equates to roughly 4 million roadway miles, 600,000 bridges [1], 140,000 miles of rail lines [2], 300+ seaports and more than 19,000 airports [3], to name a few!

Prior to joining the Ohio DOT, I would not have characterized a bridge or an airport as an asset; however, these critical infrastructure components are part of an elaborate ecosystem that truly enables life as we know it. And as this year has shown, the “assets” of the world have taken on surprising forms. Think about it for second. Without an efficient and reliable transportation system, commerce and mobility would be negatively impacted, and unfortunately, we have evidence that this is already happening today.

For example, the National Economic Council released a report in July 2014 estimating that “Americans spend approximately 5.5 billion hours in traffic each year, costing families more than $120 billion in extra fuel and lost time. And for businesses—U.S. companies pay $27 billion a year in extra freight transportation costs.” These metrics clearly illustrate a throughput problem that’s taking place on our nation’s interstate system; however, the key question is, “What’s driving these figures?”

One place to look for answers is in the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recent report, which depicts the condition and performance of the nation’s infrastructure in the form of a school report card.

Letter grades were given for infrastructure categories ranging from Roads and Bridges to Inland Waterways and Recreational Parks. The overall grade for the nation’s infrastructure was a D+, with an estimated investment need of $3.6 trillion by 2020.

Now stop for a second and ponder on this question…

If an audit was conducted on the condition and performance of the critical equipment assets and processes within your organization, how would your company fare?

At GE, we believe the Industrial Internet will transform the way companies work by driving new possibilities to extend asset life, reduce costs and mitigate risk. Whether it’s a for-profit firm like an oil and gas or mining organization or a pseudo-government entity like an airport, getting the most out of existing assets and operations is the new priority.

Regardless of the sector or industry, the ability to purchase and/or upgrade critical assets is challenging and often cost-prohibitive in the current macro environment. With depleting funding sources and trillion-dollar repair costs, very tough decisions will need to be made, and I believe Big Data and predictive analytics can help prevent unplanned downtime and prioritize the work that needs to be done.

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that this is the silver bullet solution that will resolve all of these problems; however, the building blocks (i.e., sensors, GPS technology, cloud storage, etc.) exist today, and a better system is needed to help prioritize the needed investments and develop a roadmap for addressing these problems.

[1] An Economic Analysis of Transportation Infrastructure Investment

[2] Highway-Rail Grade Crossing and Trespass Prevention: U.S. DOT Federal Road Administration

[3] U.S. DOT Federal Aviation Administration: General Aviation Airports, a National Asset