Everywhere you look people are talking about the transformative nature of big data. The increasing sophistication of technology and the nearly ubiquitous connections between these systems provides a virtually bottomless pit of data to analyze correlations and what causes what. Besides the obvious correlation is not causation problem, how should transportation managers think about these developments? What are the practical realities associated with trying to use these systems and data for transportation managers? My opinion is that big data is a nice idea but analysis of small data is where transportation departments are likely to have much more of an impact on their ability to provide safe, reliable, and cost-effective services.
What is small data? Small data is the kind of data that comes out of your routing software, GPS systems, training programs, and other quantitative and qualitative systems you have in your operation. It is the data that you can extract, analyze, and generally comprehend the results without a graduate degree in statistics. Most transportation departments will always be understaffed and unlikely to be overwhelmed with Ph.D. statisticians. As a result, finding a way to set yourself up for success and conduct meaningful analysis is a necessary and immediate concern for transportation professionals.
The First Step in a Journey of a Thousand Miles
Ensuring the completeness and accuracy of data available in key systems has to be the first concern of every manager. On the assumption we are generating reasonably clean data, one of the next most important aspects of any analytics process is the ability to integrate the various products you have purchased. The development of application programming interfaces (APIs) to pass data between the programs has greatly facilitated data aggregation and transfer but work is still needed to simplify the access to this data.
Integrating the data from multiple systems is a big data idea that can be implemented effectively at the small data level. The simplest and most common example is the assessment of planned versus actual routing that takes GPS data and matches it to data from the routing software. Thinking about how to integrate data across your systems and working with vendors to make this process easy, even if it is just developing a properly formatted excel file you can export, is a key component of setting yourself up to benefit from big and small data. What other benefits can integration provide?
- Analyzing maintenance records and GPS data to evaluate how driver performance impacts maintenance costs
- Assessing routing data and GPS data to see stops that are frequently skipped that could help improve routing efficiency
- Assessing financial data and parts transactions to evaluate shop performance and inventory management practices
The wide range of activities that these analyses address with a relatively limited data sets and easy math skills demonstrates how small data analysis can still have high-value impacts.
Thinking beyond just the data available in your transportation systems is also important to more fully understand how well your organization is performing. Gathering qualitative data through parent and principal surveys, for example, can provide very useful insights and support for the quantitative analysis of your system data.
Data is Not Just 1’s and 0’s
One of the most valuable small data sources that transportation staff can integrate the volumes of quantitative data from routing and software systems with is qualitative data from surveys of parents, drivers, and principals. Designing surveys to assess things like the service impacts of late arrivals (identified from GPS data) is a great way to gather big data insights from small data analysis. This small data effort can help transportation managers directly associate concerns like cost reductions to service quality and educational impacts. An additional benefit is that these types of big data insights come without having to do a significant amount of statistical wizardry.
The combination of qualitative and quantitative data greatly expands the range of analysis and knowledge that transportation managers can gain about their operation. The technical systems that are available to districts continue to expand and vendors continue to increase the functionality of their systems in a way that will fundamentally change the job of transportation manager in the future. Understanding how the technology works, how systems can be connected, and how other information can be connected to the system data is necessary, to be able to wholly understand what is happening in the department.
Big data is an interesting and likely transformative aspect of our current and future lives. However, a proper context for the Internet of Things and all of these devices is our ability to actually use the information generated to improve our ability to provide services. As a result, transportation managers should not get lost in the complications of big data. A focus on small data will lead to big benefits in cost savings, safety improvements and service enhancements.