Nearly 18 months ago, Fehr & Peers launched the ASAP Initiative to help our clients leverage Big Data to make better decisions about their transportation investments. Since then, we have investigated numerous new data sources, collaborated with dozens of Big Data providers, explored a wide range of technologies, and applied Big Data to dozens of real-world projects. Through this experience, we have gained valuable insight into the challenges and opportunities of using Big Data in transportation planning and design decisions.

Three of the most important insights are:Binary puzzle

  • Big Data is Still an Emerging Trend in Transportation – Big Data sources such as cellular, GPS, and Bluetooth have only been applied to transportation decisions in the past few years.  New companies are entering the field all the time, offering data from many different sources.  However, we have learned that most of these companies have little or no background in the transportation industry, and therefore have limited understanding of the questions that transportation professionals are really trying to answer.t
  • Not All Big Data is Truly Applicable to Transportation Decisions – While the amount of data available is already massive, with more coming online all the time, we have learned that not all of it is truly applicable to the tools and methods used to make transportation investment decisions. In fact, using inappropriate data can lead to poor decisions about how scarce resources are invested.t
  • Big Data Cannot be Used Off-the-Shelf – One of the major benefits of Big Data is that it is so vast in quantity. One of the challenges is that it must be processed before it can be applied, which takes time and effort beyond what is necessary for traditional “small” data sources. We have found that none of the data currently available is suitable for use directly from the vendor, and processing it requires multiple steps: evaluating the data for quality and suitability, making logical inferences with the data, checking it for reasonableness. And of course, the more data, the more time this takes.

We firmly believe that Big Data is transforming the way transportation planning and engineering decisions are made, but the process for applying it is still in the early stages. It is not the answer to all questions.   Practitioners must have extensive hands-on experience and strong working relationships with data providers to ensure that the right data is being used, that it is being processed appropriately, and that it meets expectations for quality and reasonableness. At Fehr & Peers, we are working very hard through our ASAP Initiative to bring our clients the benefits of our experience in understanding the challenges and capitalizing on the opportunities Big Data offers to help make better transportation decisions.