Open Data Day Highways Hackathon 5 March 2016

On the afternoon of Friday 4th March Open Mercia is celebrating Open Data Day 2016, with live streaming of the ODI Friday lunchtime lecture followed by an afternoon hackathon exploring how open data can help those working in environment, charities, and highways and transport.
This post gives an introduction to the current challenges facing those working in the highways sector, and explores some of the ways open data can be used to raise awareness and improve the condition of local highways.

Challenges facing local highways authorities

Outside of London, 120 local highways authorities are responsible for 98% of the road network across England by length, but only have in the region of £30 million a year each to spend doing so, and this doesn’t go far.  Our local roads are an ageing asset, suffering from years of short-term annual budget cycles that restricted the funding available to invest in preventative maintenance.

In 2015, an estimated £93 million per local authority was considered to be required to restore their local highways asset to good condition (ALARM Survey, 2015), three times the average annual funding income.  Nationally, across the 120 English Authorities excluding London, this equates to an estimated one time catch up cost of £10.7 billon, against the Department for Transport annual budget spend on Local Transport of around £3.25 billion (using 2011-2012 Capital Expenditure data).


Traditionally, maintenance of local highways was funded through Revenue budgets, supplied through the Department of Communities and Local Government, with Capital funding from the Department for Transport used to build new roads. The maintenance crisis, together with reductions in Revenue funding have meant local authorities need to apply other sources of funding, including Capital funding, to maintenance activities. The focus is now very much on maintaining the existing local road network, rather than building new roads.  

Rising to the challenge

As we all know from personal experience, with rising costs and falling budgets, there are two ways to work through that, ideally in tandem:

1) Find new sources of income

For local highways authorities this means moving away from the reliance on annual central government funding that has been the norm for so many years.  this raises questions like: Where do we look for funding?  How much do we need? What do highways users and all those affected by the highway really need?

2) Reduce costs

By pooling resources and working together collaboratively to procure and deliver services, the 120 English local highways authorities can achieve economies of scale not possible by acting individually.

Many local authorities are choosing to form collaborative alliances to jointly procure and/or deliver services, by identifying and bringing like-needs together.

There are regional collaborative alliances, devolved authorities such as Cornwall, shared working arrangements between authorities, such as the Solihull/Coventry/Warwickshire partnership, and the creation of sub-regional transport bodies aiming for devolved status to co-ordinate and deliver transport and other services across a regional area. Examples include the Midlands Connect, and Economic Heartlands Alliance.

In simple terms, the challenge is making the best use of available resources.  But in reality, there is often a pragmatic challenge of striking a balance between:

  • a) identifying the right resources to deliver best value
  • b) making best use of available resources (we haven’t got x, but we have got y, what can we do with that..?)
  • This means experimenting, innovating, and exploring to see how we can do things differently. We need a framework that helps us balance short- and long-term decision making. There are a number of models to aid decision making, for example

  • predictive – forecasting future problems
  • diagnostic – asset condition monitoring
  • user problem solving – don’t want to be driving over potholes, don’t care how, just fix it
  • Director of the RAC Foundation Steve Gooding presented at the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation Annual conference on 2nd March 2016. The 5 summary points in his presentation seemed well-received and enlightening: 

      The Future might be very different…..but we have to start from where we are
      Ribbon cutting might have a seductive appeal…. but we need to look after what we’ve got
      We need to educate and inform our stakeholders….recognising their priorities
      We need to be open to experimenting….and learning from what doesn’t work
      Remember – it’s not really about transport….

    How can Open Data help local authorities transform highways maintenance?

    Reduce costs of procurement and bidding process, by making data on all contracts open, to enable the supply chain to see:

  • when contracts expire
  • which authorities are part of which collaborative alliances
  • which local authorities are using the same contractor
  • what services are being outsourced, and which being retained in house
  • need other intelligence information to go with this, such as political drivers and other external influences, but access to an open dataset would give everyone good solid baseline information
  • STATUS:  challenge – not yet open data.  Google doc created to identify current highways maintenance contract arrangements in West Midlands and other regions.  Data collected manually from web research.  To my knowledge no published licensed open datasets exist for this so far.  

    Inspire development of practical technological solutions to monitor and repair the network

  • access to open data on existing asset condition information and customer needs
  • knowing what assets you have, and by modelling demand, also knowing what you need
  • reduce costs of manual monitoring/maintenance activities by installing monitoring sensors to collect and feedback information
  • STATUS: challenge – not yet open data.  Use of existing data.  Asset condition data is held by local authorities, but in a variety of formats and different systems that makes bringing it together usefully a challenge.  Case Study of how East Sussex County Council have used their asset condition data to inform their maintenance work plans and provide evidence case for additional funding to deliver what residents need. Devon County Council are starting to publish open datasets for Highways condition, but this is still very early stages for many local authorities.  

    Reducing load on maintenance budget by identifying which roads are not worth repairing (leaving roads to ‘expire’)

    engaging with users to understand their needs, and deciding jointly which roads should and should not continue to be maintained.

    Reduce congestion by helping road users identify and avoid congested routes, or choose different travel options Improve journey reliability, by integrating live traffic flow information into other apps and devices

    What can you do with Open Data to help local highways?

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