July 9, 2004 By Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor
Texas law enforcement, transportation officials and highway engineers will unwrap a big gift from the state Legislature this Christmas that could well solve the problem and save lives -- a built-from-the-ground-up Crash Records Information System (CRIS) to capture, manage and deliver timely and accurate crash data so law enforcement can target areas to patrol, transportation officials can determine the state's most dangerous roadways and engineers can fix them.
Two years worth of written crash data currently sits in a basement at the Texas Department of Public Safety. The backlog built up because department staff must sift through the paper documents by hand.
"In many cases, the data didn't exist electronically at all. If it did, it was in disparate databases, not one common location where it could be accessed and analyzed," said Amy Thomas-Gerling, an associate partner at IBM Business Consulting Services. "Timely and accurate information is needed to address a lot of the issues Texas and other states are looking at, such as where to put their money for highway improvement projects."
The new system, scheduled to go live in December, will feature electronic data collection, GIS mapping of accidents and a new Web portal to make the information available to officials and citizens immediately. The system will also use a "microstrategy tool" to make sense of all the data, and help officials and engineers develop strategies to make roadways safer.
CRIS should be a vast improvement from the way the data is currently handled. Now, an officer at an accident scene creates a handwritten report that includes time of day, type of vehicle and number of occupants, among other details, and mails it to the Department of Public Safety headquarters -- along with the other 850,000 reports the department receives annually.
One of 96 employees in charge of handling incoming reports processes the report manually and sends it to another group of employees who key the data into the system. The current system is a flat file system, which lacks the hierarchical organization used by most operating systems today, so for instance, there is no "folder" for 2003 crash data. All the crash data that has built up for decades is stored in one repository without categorization.
"You walk in and it's like something from the 1960s," said Catherine Cioffi, CRIS project manager for the Texas Department of Public Safety. "It's really a result of aging technology, the increase in population in Texas, the changes in the roads over the years and the changes in technology that finally got us to the point where we had to upgrade."
Other states have similar problems with crash data and have implemented some of the functions that will be included in this system.
"The crash data is used for a variety of things," Cioffi said. "In the Department of Public Safety, it's used for defining target areas for enhanced law enforcement and the Department of Transportation uses the crash data for prioritization and identification of road projects."
CRIS will be unique in that it will be a complete, enterprisewide system built largely with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products, according to IBM's Thomas-Gerling.
"We looked at everything from when you received a crash report from the officer, to when it was needed for federal reports to determine areas that needed specific attention," she said. "We looked at the entire process from the onset and the best way to configure COTS products to address those needs.