Posted by: Deb Henry | 04/08/2010

Transportation, inventory and smart phones

I am interested in helping the maintenance division of the Utah DOT (Department of Transportation) come up with more innovative ways to inventory and manage their assets with new technology … and would like YOUR help. I am going to summarize some of my ideas, and if you could email me, or write to me in the comments, it would be greatly appreciated. I will then aggregate the findings in another post (if anything comes of this) so that other DOTs can take advantage of the sum of our knowledge.

I would like to utilize cloud computing, smart phones and potentially the general public to accomplish a greater picture of the condition and success of various treatments to our infrastructure. The idea is to try to use as many non-proprietary tools as possible taking advantage of new technology instead of paying for something that may work for a very specific goal but will quickly become outdated. Plus, those things take a while to develop and can be very expensive. (They’re great if you know your expectations will not change though.)

Some of my ideas:

Everyone takes photos and pools them to share information — It is now possible to have photos with location data written into background of the file so that they can be mapped. This is done by using cameras (or smart phones) that are GPS-enabled which then writes to the exif header in the jpeg. This is exceptionally useful when you’re dealing with large data sets as the information about the photo such as the date it was taken is housed within the photo itself. I was thinking that if all of our maintenance stations had cameras that could do this, they could take pictures of things that are specific to their station and upload it to a map. We then have a window into what is happening at that point in the state without having to travel there. Photos can be taken over a period of time and we can see if something works the way it is expected to. For example : A new type of paint gets used for pavement markings. The station takes a picture to show us that the lines have faded quicker than expected. Central can then try to figure out why the paint didn’t act as expected in that situation. Maybe it was the contractor, maybe it was applied in bad weather, maybe it was a bad batch of paint, etc. Also, it lets central maintenance know (perhaps earlier than without the photos) that they will have to budget to re-paint this section of road or that we may not want to use that paint again.Are other states already doing this? Is something similar being done in another industry?

Sign Inventory — I was thinking of having our signs made with QR Codes on the back. If something were to happen to that sign, a bystander could capture the QR code and tell us something about the sign instead of us trying to track down the sign they are talking about. Anyone could capture the QR code and tell us things like, “I wish this sign wasn’t blocked by some brush” or “I can’t see this sign at night.”  This is also helpful because the staff at maintenance stations is small and may not know a sign has been hit unless someone reports it. How do other states manage their sign inventory and these sort of customer service events?

Again, any data about any states and their methods would be appreciated. Feel free to just leave me URLs to check out.

Thanks for your help!

I found this video very interesting and thought you might too. It applies to what I discuss in this post.

In a demo that drew gasps at TED2010, Blaise Aguera y Arcas demos new augmented-reality mapping technology from Microsoft.



  1. Would you be able to keep track of maintenance complaints from the public with the map, or have a map like that available to the public so they can see where there are problems or what else people have complained about? That’s where I thought that was going when you wrote about it.

    As for the QR codes on signs—do you think that’s something you’d be able to communicate effectively to the public? To let them know they are there? I also feel like people tend to complain about signs and other maintenance things after driving by them, but often wouldn’t want to take the time to stop and take a picture of the back of the sign.

    From a safety perspective, there might be some pushback in this climate against a policy that would encourage taking pictures while driving. Utah’s joined the no-cell-phones-while-driving bandwagon.

  2. The goal with the photos is more for internal use than a public-relations venue. It would probably be housed within our firewall, but I’m trying to figure out a way to share more information with the people in the field and the handful of us in central. We can’t be everywhere at once, but the sum of all of our field employees *are* everywhere at once. If they can take a photo of something as it starts to deteriorate and then another at an interval, we at central can a better job of deciding if a new treatment is working as designed. Also, we can address things before they’re a large problem and avoid reactionary maintenance (which is much more expensive than preventative treatments). The benefit of the photos is that you can look at a very small area via a map-view and see if you’re having the same problem for only a mile stretch, at one location, or for the entire span of a road. It’s a useful way of visualizing the extent of an issue rather than assigning it ticket number and trying to post-process relationships within the data.

    While I’m sure we could itemize public complaints, that would be very time and labor intensive and probably not cost-effective.

    There tends to be a large population of people who like to babysit roads they frequent or live on. The QR codes would just be an easier way for us to know what they’re talking about when they volunteer information to us. QR Codes are gaining in popularity in the US and soon they will be as easily recognized as a bar code.

    You’re right though, we’d have to let people know how to use them. I saw it happening like this: someone gets in touch with us about an issue, we mention the code to them, they record it and send it to us and we address it. Then when they see one again, they know what it is. It also can help us log work that is being done to a sign with the QR code being a unique identifier. As soon as the issue has been addressed, the QR code can be updated with that information and UDOT is left with a log of the history of the sign.

    The QR code would be on the back of the sign so they’d need to pull over. The MUTCD wouldn’t allow us to alter the reflective portion of the sign anyway.

  3. I would definitely throw SeeClickFixout there as an option. The DC DOT (and I believe NYC DOT as well) has made effective use of SCF and twitter to identify problem spots around the district like potholes, malfunctioning/broken traffic or pedestrian lights, etc. SCF has a very nice iPhone app that allows you to upload pictures, and will geotag the report for you.

    I like the idea of using QR codes, though as Jess already pointed out and you addressed, not a lot of people are familiar with them. I also think that you probably would only want to invest in QR coding infrastructure that is pedestrian based — there is not much point in putting QR codes on highway signs because the chances of someone pulling off to the shoulder, walking back to a broken sign, finding the code on it and reporting a problem, I think, are slim to none.

    • Very nice! I will look into all of this. Thanks for the heads up.

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