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Infrastructure Technology Institute

Director Joseph Schofer discusses
“Making Data Matter” at the U.S. Department
of Transportation


ITI Director Joseph Schofer presented an invited lecture, “Making Data Matter for Transportation Decision Making”, at US Department of Transportation headquarters in Washington, DC, on July 20, 2011. The lecture, part of the US DOT Research and Innovative Technology Administration’s Transportation Innovation Series, focused on describing the factors affecting the role of data – among subjective influences such as vision and ideology – in transportation decisions.

Schofer’s presentation first outlined some of the challenges with using data in decision making. In spite of the vast amount of data now available, decisions seem to be less data-driven than they have been in the past. Paradoxically, ubiquitous access to data via the Internet has led to the attitude in some circles that because transportation problems persist in an era when large amounts of data are readily available, data must not be valuable – so why not ignore data entirely? Schofer countered by noting that while vision and ideology play important roles in transportation decisions, the impacts of data – while sometime subtle and often complex – are nonetheless critical.

Using the construction of the Panama Canal by the United States as an example, Schofer explained the key role played by data and quantitative analysis in mega-projects that were first based by a vision. The vision for a water route across the isthmus of Panama began with Spanish explorers in 1534, but reached fruition in large part due to strategic initiatives of Theodore Roosevelt while he was serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President McKinley. The US effort succeeded where others – most notably the French attempt at a sea level canal in 1880 – had failed because the key decisions of the canal were made with data and quantitative analysis. For example, good data and quantitative analysis of cost, construction time, and vulnerabilities informed the choice of a canal design with locks over a sea-level canal and showed the necessity of aggressively fighting tropical diseases during canal construction. Thus, once a vision is articulated, then, data can guide the vision by refining, adjusting, and correcting the vision as the project moves ahead.

Schofer emphasized the importance of the “stories” that can be written from data, and contrasted this approach with instances in which stories themselves (often of unknown source and questionable validity) are treated as data. High quality case studies are an ideal way to understand cause-and-effect relationships, but only if the case studies are systematically selected and capture contextual information. It is also essential to examine the transferability of lessons from case studies to new contexts – for example, if a system works well in Europe, can its performance necessarily be duplicated in the United States?

As we continue to examine the decision-making process in transportation, it is important to think broadly about the impacts of data, its applications, values, and reach. We should continually be engaged in assessment and self-assessment. The customer is the one who determines if we are serving the market, innovating and evolving.

A multimedia recording of Schofer’s presentation is available on the US DOT Research and Innovative Technology Administration’s events web site: