In our continuing series, we speak about the importance of “Big Data” with Ryan Harshbarger, Fleet-Net and business intelligence specialist at Avail Technologies, an Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) solutions provider for transit operators in the United States.
What exactly is Big Data?
Big Data is a buzzword, and not just in our industry. Traditionally, it refers to data sets so large that there isn’t a computational system to manage and manipulate the data. Currently, there are a lot of definitions for Big Data. The best definition I’ve seen was in a Forbes article in 2014, and they summed it up as a new attitude by businesses, non-profits and government agencies to combine data from multiple sources, leading to better decisions. In the context of what people are trying to do in our industry, that’s exactly what they’re hoping to do. It’s the idea of bringing everything into Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and laying business intelligence across every software system in an agency, to really get insight into what needs to change.
What does Big Data mean for public transit?
Transit has some traditional Big Data sets. AVL systems are now reporting at sub-minute frequencies, maintenance systems are tracking every gallon of fuel and, in some cases, kilowatt of electricity. A single interaction with a passenger across all the systems may have data from their usage of real-time information, subscription to alerts, the fare transaction when they board, passenger-counting data from when they get on and get off the bus, or if they connect to your Wi-Fi. The video systems provide another data set, and riders might also call in with a compliment or complaint afterwards, which is one more data system the agency is dealing with.
Last month we defined ITS, ERP and Enterprise Asset Management, and discussed the differences between them and how they integrate. Why are those systems so important to both producing and analyzing the kind of complex data which you are talking about?
The ITS system is the daily operations of what’s happening – it’s like the digital exhaust of a transportation system. And AVL data is combined with scheduled data to measure how effectively the service is operating. Fare collection systems are also capturing every piece of revenue, which is a grain of data that’s invaluable when you’re trying to figure out your cost recovery on an individual route. The ERP is the back of the house – those are your financial transactions. Your Human Resources systems are collecting data on your human capital and your customer relationship management systems are picking up, complaints, compliments, and how much riders are utilizing the data you’re providing.
What are the pitfalls for agencies that aren’t making proper use of this data or taking into account the kind of systems that they need to analyze it?
There are two things that are challenging with data. The first is validation. The more systems you have, the more data you have coming at you. And the danger is the system and the data in the system are only as good as the effort that the users put into it. So, if you’re not accurately recording odometer miles, let’s say, on a bus, that might lead you to perform a preventative maintenance before you need to, or worse yet, miss a preventative maintenance goal that you need to hit for that capital asset as part of your transit asset management plan. A key consideration with that is making sure you put the right data in front of the right person. A maintenance manager will know, on average, how many miles he runs in a day, or what the fuel economy of his fleet is. That way, when it trends away from the average, they can either explain the problem, or do some analysis and maybe fix some faulty data.
The secondary problem is always interpretation. The hard part about this is identifying the difference between actual factors that are playing into trends you see, and essentially just noise in the data. As far as assets go, for example, you could see a cost per mile increase, but you don’t consider that the cost of fuel is going up. That’s not an actual representation of poor performance of the fleet. That’s a representation of cost increasing with external factors. In the same sense, if you ignore those costs going up, and the cost of consumables isn’t increasing, you might have a failure going through your fleet. This is something that you should campaign to get in front of, rather than waiting for those buses to fail on the road and then having to perform costly road calls.
What is the benefit of complying with the Transit Asset Management (TAM) rule?
There is a value added to your company when complying with TAM. TAM is designed to consider things beyond just how many years the vehicle has operated, or how many miles it has run, and look at the total condition of the vehicle. That could be as simple as a visual analysis; but if we have all the data available to us, and if you have limited funding, it can help guide your agency to replace the right vehicle at the right time and control costs down the road.