Gaist | Utilising technology to deliver change
Accurate, quality data will be needed more than ever to help the highways and transport sectors to develop, an audience attending a recent webinar supported by Gaist and hosted by the Local Road Innovation Group (LCRIG) has heard.
This was one conclusion from the ‘Utilising technology to deliver change’ webinar, outlining the importance of accurate data that can be used to ensure roads are safe and perform well. It was highlighted that although different types of technology to help support them is advancing all the time, further thought must be given to the types of the practical suggestions that can improve digital infrastructure and services across the highways network.
To back this up, the Government continues to set out ambitious plans for the UK to be at the forefront of digital technology and innovation. This vision, agreed participants speaking on the webinar, needs to be delivered locally and across all regions of the country. This requires, they said, local highway authorities to be enthusiastic champions and advocates of change. To support all of this, the need for accurate data has never been more important to help councils plan, install, design and maintain the roads they are responsible for.
Some local authorities have started to implement Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems which can be used to survey a network, and identify not just assets but the condition the assets are in. But is AI as reliable as humans yet, participants were asked.
Speaking at the webinar, Matt Coleman, Head of Data Policy, Analytics and Data Vision at the Department for Transport (DfT) said that Government still sees data as a key priority and it was committed to supporting the highways and transport industry to encourage the production and use of rich data to help drive insights that gives the sector valuable data. “Our priority is to encourage the unlocking and sharing of valuable data that will provide data that will support operational insights at a local, national and regional level that help us to nudge people’s behaviour so we can meet our strategic objectives.”
Mr Coleman said there were still barriers to overcome with regards to stakeholders in the sector providing access so that data was more ‘open’. He added that transport data was both ‘rich and complex’. He said the Government’s National Data Strategy was well progressed before the start of Covid-19 but he said he was positive that it would still be able to lay the foundations for improvements in data sharing and collaboration in the industry so that all stakeholders could ‘share the art of the possible’ when it comes to data. “Covid-19 has reinforced the importance of data and technology and I believe the emphasis could increase further as we look to create better journeys as
well as the role decarbonisation will play in the recovery from covid and beyond and we cannot do that without the support of local authorities. We understand that it also comes down to money and we will look to develop further our business case to support further investment for data,” said Mr Coleman.
On AI, he said: “AI is both interesting and misunderstood and quite a risky word to use. The machine learning element provides the ‘grunt work’ for what we want to achieve and that helps boost productivity and intelligence so we can make better decisions. It has been really empowering for people but there is certainly a risk element and the building of people’s trust around it.”
Steve Birdsall, Chief Executive of Gaist, also spoke about the importance of creating accurate data. “Accuracy is key,” he said, “When we look at the job local authorities have to do, the more accurate the detail the more accuracy they will get in their decision making. With less money in general, councils are relying more and more on putting what they have got to good use in exactly the right place at the right time to get maximum value from that data.”
He described data as ‘an energy we can use’ to not only make better decisions but to embrace change. “And local authorities are doing that,” he said. “In the past things were very traditional, but the Department for Transport (DfT) has been funding a number of innovative initiatives such as Live Labs that is taking the industry forward. Councils have really embraced change to. We have had some customers for over a decade that have transformed the way they work and seen real benefits. Accurate data has enabled them not only to make better decisions but easier ones. That level of insight can help inform the value treatments needed and where the key information sits within data to help compare with what was done before.”
But he warned that AI needed to be treated with ‘respect’. “There are no limits to its use but its outputs are not as accurate as humans and we can’t put complete trust in it to make crucial decisions about our road network just like we don’t let it fly aircraft or drive trains and cars yet without some form of human interaction. But it is very exciting to see how its considerable intelligence gathering can help support us now and in the future.”
Simon Navin, Head of Roadside Asset Data Services at Ordnance Survey agreed. He said AI has become one of the biggest technology ‘game changers’ of this generation but also said it could not be used as a replacement for humans. “Without human interaction of some form it could be providing meaningless information. It cannot be used as a replacement for humans but will be brilliant at enhancing what we are already doing, allowing people to focus on what really matters.” Ordanance Survey has been working with Gaist to provide roadside data services. “It is important that data that is used for decision making on our networks, is trusted and offers value, especially in this fast moving and competitive space. It has been interesting working closely with our customers to see how advanced geospatial data can be combined with other data sources to develop roadside data that provides real insight.”
Speaking from a local authority perspective on the subject, Sean Rooney, Head of Service – Highway Maintenance at Oxfordshire County Council said that for councils, finding real value from the number of different data sources local authorities have available to them is key. “The change over the last decade has been significant but I would say in general most local authorities are massively open to change, as we are at Oxfordshire. It is important that we engage with new technology and ideas and learn from that. The challenge for us has been how do we make best use of all of the data we now have available to us? On the operation side, use of technology has grown. We have used it well to pre-empt challenges and have tried were possible to move away from what we would have done using the ‘grey-haired filling cabinets’ approach. Now it is about how we best use data to better inform and build strategies using sensors, vehicle data and indeed AI to support the ‘grunt work’ as described before.”
Angus Bodie, former lead of the Scottish Roads Collaboration Programme, told participants that there a willingness from not only industry but the communities they serve for ‘things to happen differently’. He told participants: “Our industry is dealing with thousands of people every day who are looking for things to happen differently and for us to make better use of data and information to meet what they need to do in their everyday lives. People want to understand more about what we do and how we do it and that is an opportunity for us to communicate in different ways using data to help us.”
Participants in the webinar were:
– Angus Bodie, former lead of the Scottish Roads Collaboration Programme
– Sean Rooney, Head of Service – Highway Maintenance at Oxfordshire County Council
– Steve Birdsall, CEO, Gaist
– Matt Coleman, Head of Data Policy, Analytics and Data Division, DfT
– Simon Navin, Head of Roadside Asset Data Services at Ordnance Survey.