DART streamlines its data
Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority uses TransTrack Manager to collect and analyze its wealth of data
By Richard Tackett
Despite a wealth of information coming in from various “smart” transit solutions, Elizabeth Presutti, chief executive officer of the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART), says her agency was having a difficult time managing the resulting disparate data points in 2014.
“We implemented computer-aided dispatch and automatic vehicle location (CAD/AVL), enterprise asset management (EAM) and a new fare collection system – all from different vendors,” she says. “The CAD/AVL provides on-time performance and automatic passenger counter (APC) data and the fare collection system provides detailed reports about revenue. We had a lot of information but weren’t able to, given our staffing levels, effectively utilize the data from a decision-making standpoint. We couldn’t fully manage the system the way it needed to be managed.”
Managing that data was becoming increasingly important. Since its creation in 2006, DART has been the largest public transit agency in Iowa. In addition to the city of Des Moines proper, DART serves 17 other cities in and around Polk County: Alleman, Altoona, Ankeny, Bondurant, Carlisle, Clive, Elkhart, Granger, Grimes, Johnston, Mitchellville, Pleasant Hill, Polk City, Runnells, Urbandale, West Des Moines and Windsor Heights.
Furthermore, DART was a member agency of the American Bus Benchmarking Group (ABBG), a consortium of agencies that shares performance data and best practices in a confidential environment. With data collection and analysis being such a crucial part of agency performance and National Transit Database (NTD) reporting, Presutti and her team knew that Excel spreadsheets and manual data entry were too work intensive and time consuming – and no longer viable options.
Laying the groundwork
DART put out an RFP for a new data management system later in 2014, and received proposals from a number of potential suitor vendors. They ultimately settled on the best fit for their needs – TransTrack Systems.
TransTrack Systems, Long Beach, CA, provides a business intelligence solution called TransTrack Manager, which turns volumes of transit data into meaningful operational and management information for optimal transit performance. TransTrack says its solution uncovers opportunities for operational improvements and greater efficiencies normally hidden within rich data sources, providing the missing link between operational systems information and management reporting.
“Their experience with transit data was important, because we saw that they knew how to illuminate the relationships between disparate data points,” Presutti says. “Their system is also incredibly user- friendly, even providing ease-of-use for staffers who aren’t very computer-savvy.”
TransTrack made initial visits to DART in November 2014 to meet with the executive team and list the agency’s expectations and issues. These continued into “baseline” interviews, where TransTrack’s team began gathering information about all of the agency’s data sources – where is the data coming from, who’s using it, and where does it need to go? From there, TransTrack’s team proposed a plan for the system’s deployment and the two teams set to work on implementation.
Initially, TransTrack provided a week of onsite training. It involved the basics of using the program – system administration, user security, data updating and route change implementation. From there, different departments, such as maintenance, finance and planning, received specialized training.
TransTrack didn’t need to visit Des Moines more than once, as DART elected for continued online training sessions through WebEx. These sessions allowed DART to ask questions and troubleshoot after having used the system.
“It’s crucial for our reporting system to align with the agency’s strategic initiatives,” says Mary Sue O’Melia, president of TransTrack Systems. “The data that we gather and analyze is useless if it’s not working to help DART meet its long-term goals.”
DART’s Operations Supervisory Program
The most prominent DART initiative that immediately benefitted from the TransTrack Manager implementation was the agency’s Operations Supervisory Program.
The Operations Supervisory Program was devised as a way of connecting DART’s operations supervisors with the agency’s goals of improving safety, customer service and reliability.
“We were looking for a way to tie the day-to-day tasks of our supervisors to those goals,” says Tim Sanderson, chief operating officer at DART.
The system is a bit like fantasy football draft, where all the supervisors pick their team of bus operators in a draft order. It’s confidential, so the operator who’s picked last isn’t singled out. After every quarter-year, the bus operators’ “points” are tallied. Operators lose points from preventable accidents, lost-time injuries, customer complaints and other negative events. Conversely, they can gain points by adhering to their schedule and performing safely.
“At the end of every quarter, each operations supervisory team has a score – and then the operations supervisor gets a modest budget in order to provide an incentive to their team,” Sanderson says. “It instills a level of healthy competition, and gets our operators and supervisors thinking about our three goals of safety, service and reliability.”
Sanderson says that DART would have no reasonable way of enacting the Operations Supervisory Program without TransTrack. The quarterly tallying of points is all thanks to a system that can easily organize and present data like preventable accidents and on-time performance in a meaningful way.
“Without TransTrack, we’d have spreadsheets and reports from all over the system,” he says. “It would probably be at least half of someone’s job just to compile and track all the data for the program. Now, it’s as easy as the flick of a switch – everything is compiled in the TransTrack Manager.”
Improved service planning
DART’s schedule adherence has greatly benefitted from TransTrack implementation – not only for supervisors who can easily use the system to check in on their assigned team of operators, but also for DART’s schedule adherence committee. Every few months, the committee runs a massive TransTrack report and is able to see anomalies from a macro level.
“Agencies don’t notice schedule anomalies, whether they’re caused by a driver or the system, unless they’re routinely analyzing reports in a conscientious manner,” Sanderson says. “The passengers, however, see them immediately.”
“One of the best values of TransTrack is that it easily allows us to slice and dice data in different ways,” Presutti adds. “Rather than just looking at it based on true, on-time performance, we can also drill down to the operator level to get a better understanding of what the data is telling us. It’s a full-picture view, as opposed to surface level.”
Ridership analysis has become incredibly streamlined, as well. Previously, multiple spreadsheets were required to track ridership by route. With TransTrack, DART is automatically importing data from multiple sources. Managers still see daily ridership, but it no longer requires someone to type in numbers for every route, every day.
DART also conducts manual passenger boarding and lighting checks, utilizing “ride checkers” in the field. TransTrack provided a handheld app for DART’s ride checkers, to further automate their business processes.
“The app makes it so that ride checkers no longer have to re-key all of their information,” O’Melia says. “Previously, they’d record information on paper and then re-key it into the master system when they returned to an office. This is important, because those manual surveys are needed to validate with the federal government.”
DART’s required NTD reporting has transformed from a painstaking process of manual calculation, to the press of a button with TransTrack Manager. The system has also helped ensure that the data found in these reports is valid, and is validated consistently throughout the year.
“We had a tendency in past history to leave NTD reporting for the end of the year, which always took much more time,” says Tim Ruggles, staff accountant at DART. “If there was a discrepancy in the data, we’d have to return to months-old data records to solve it. Now we make sure the data is accurate at various times throughout the year so we do not have to validate it all at one time.”
A bright future
“DART, to their credit, has taken total ownership of the system,” O’Melia says. “They’ve made it their job to understand how it works, and it’s doing wonders to improve safety, service and reliability at the agency.”
Presutti and Sanderson say that DART’s future outlook is very optimistic, thanks to the critical data reporting and analysis capabilities they’ve gained through TransTrack.
“We have data that comes from a variety of different sources, and being able to use it effectively to make decisions is only going to become more and more critical as we look to the future,” Presutti notes. “Greater Des Moines is a growing area, and we will continue to focus on mobility throughout the region. Having the data to back up our initiatives, and demonstrate the full story of the organization, is so important.”
“You can’t improve what you don’t measure,” Sanderson adds. “TransTrack Manager allows us to tell that story of what we’re doing to improve. It’s become a big part of our dialogue when talking to our community and stakeholders.”