May 27, 2008 By Adam Stone
Suppose most traffic accidents in town occur on Main Street. The crashes usually are caused by two cars colliding at right angles - one on Main and the other on Elm Street. What on earth would you do?
Put stop signs at the corner of Main and Elm, of course.
That conclusion is easy to reach if you have two things: good data describing local traffic incidents and a system for analyzing and reporting on that data.
Until recently the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) had neither, except a manual data collection system dating back to 1976.
A $9.9 million software implementation is changing all that, making it possible for state planners to re-engineer existing roads and build safer, new ones based on verifiable statistical intelligence.
"From an engineering perspective, you might know you have 10 crashes, but if you don't know where those crashes happened that does not help you fix the problem," said Carol Rawson, deputy director of TxDOT's traffic operations division. "Now we can focus our efforts on the areas where we can save the most lives."
Delving Into Data
The new Crash Records Information System (CRIS) comes from MicroStrategy, a developer whose business intelligence (BI) platforms support federal and state entities, such as the U.S. Postal Service, Ohio Department of Education, Texas Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
At some level, all data-analysis implementations, such as TxDOT's traffic system, share a common starting point, said Mark LaRow, vice president of products for MicroStrategy.
"With all BI systems, the core component is data," he said. "That is almost always the biggest hurdle - just having clean, consistent data in a database."
TxDOT has a high hill to climb in this regard. The state logs approximately 600,000 car crashes each year, and police write-ups aggregate a wide range of incident data, for example: date and time, number of parties involved, injuries, weather conditions, if it's alcohol-related and if seat belts were worn.
In the old manual-entry system, officers had to compress all this information into a maximum of 254 characters, with no standardized data fields. There wasn't methodology to make the data uniform.
Since CRIS was implemented in summer 2006, outsourced data entry workers have been manually inputting traffic data dating back to 2001. Fourteen technical support workers maintain CRIS, including a database professional and a few reporting experts.
At the same time the old data is being re-entered into CRIS, the system is accumulating fresh data based on written reports from police officers in the field. The new reports are scanned and turned into Tagged Image File Format (TIFF) images. While the data must be inputted manually, the fields are uniform, which creates a pool of information that lends itself to meaningful analyses.
Clamoring for Reports
The net result of all this data collection and management is reports generated by CRIS that are based on criteria selected by the system's operators. As the database matures, demand for the reports is increasing, which comes as no surprise to LaRow.
He points to a typical school district as an example. A report on student testing goes to the principal. Soon, the teachers want to see it, and then the parents. "It's not just five analysts who need this information, but the rank and file too. It's the analysts, plus everybody else," LaRow said.
"The prevailing feeling is that, if there is information out there, everybody should be able to get to it. So I show somebody a report, then they show it to someone else and it grows and grows," he said.
Rawson said it's one of the perils of a successful BI implementation and something