Utah DOT’s Data Connects State Funding Directly to Outcomes
In the coming year, state transportation departments across the country expect to receive more than one trillion dollars in federal funds for new projects. State legislators will be responsible for deciding how those funds are used, including what percentage of that money will go to new projects and how much will be applied to existing projects. In order to ensure they are making the best decisions, legislators will be looking to the leaders of transportation departments to supply them with accurate analytics of department data and data-driven recommendations.
Department of Transportation leaders who want to learn how to better supply that information should look no further than the example set by the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT).
Meaningful Measurements and Data for Everyone
UDOT’s Director Carlos Braceras has defined three strategic goals for the organization: eliminate traffic-related fatalities, preserve the state's transportation infrastructure, and optimize mobility. The staff at UDOT work hard toward these goals every day but with more than 1,000 employees and an annual operating budget of more than $1.2 billion, communicating the department’s performance has been difficult in the past.
UDOT releases an annual Strategic Direction Report, which covers the health and performance of the organization’s efforts and assets to the legislature and the public. Each year, producing the report requires several months of compiling and analyzing departmental data. The final product is a PDF that is printed and passed to legislators and other stakeholders each January. The process of putting together the annual report has been, “frustrating for two reasons,” says Shane Marshall, Deputy Director of UDOT.
“First, it was a one-time shot,” Marshall says “Our budget is just over a billion dollars and the only time we got to show how we were doing was with this document.”
Second, Marshall was frustrated with this lack of eyes on the document. He wanted it to be helpful not just to the legislature, as mandated. But, he also wanted UDOT employees and elected officials at the county and city levels to use the information. He found, instead, that most everyone who could benefit from the information in the report spent little to no time reviewing it.
“You provide a piece of paper once a year and it’s just not enough for anyone to buy into the idea of continually measuring our strategic goals,” says Marshall.
Marshall wanted to be able to check the organization’s progress against its goals on a daily basis by digitizing all of the data in the report and hosting it to the cloud. “We wanted to be able to open this document and at a quick glance say, ‘What is the health of the organization and how have we done in the last year?’ We wanted to make it live and make in meaningful in terms of our three strategic goals,” says Marshall.
The first step was finding a vendor. When UDOT put out an RFP for a transportation intelligence solution, the state of Utah, a Socrata customer, reached out to Socrata to encourage them to respond. Socrata then contacted its partner Grant Thornton, a technology integrator and consulting firm, to bring analytical expertise based on decades of experience in transportation.
“You have to hire someone who knows how to work data analytics,” says Marshall. “That’s where Socrata came along.”
Six Weeks to Success
Before UDOT began working with Grant Thornton and Socrata on moving their report to the cloud, the annual Strategic Direction Report was created in Cognos BI.
Ivan Hartle, Business IT Manager for UDOT, recalls the downside of working in Cognos BI. “Before, we only had a few Cognos BI power users,“ says Hartle. UDOT staff could not access the data or analyze it without making a request to one of those power users or the help desk at the Department of Technology Services.
Hartle worked with Grant Thornton to combine the data for 9 systems into a report hosted by Socrata. The process was done in several weeks and the data is continually updated unlike before when “by the time it was printed and distributed in early January, the data was already two months old.”
Hartle says UDOT employees realized the value of the open data portal right away. He’s finding more and more UDOT employees digging into the annual report data and using it to improve how they do their job.
Data-Driven Decisions at the Legislative Level
Being able to measure outcomes in real-time has been a game changer for how Braceras and Marshall work with the Utah legislature on funding recommendations.
“Traditionally, when we went to the legislature with a PowerPoint presentation,” Marshall says. “Now, we present the data completely live.” Marshall appreciates the flexibility Socrata provides. He can dive deep into raw data in a spreadsheet or stay high level with a visualization, depending on the questions being asked by legislators and staff.
The ability to be nimble with the data also allows Braceras and Marshall to make more accurate and quicker recommendations to elected officials on where to focus transportation funds. Every dollar has a clear outcome attached to it. “Now we can look back on our work and say, ‘We were given X number of dollars and this is the outcome and the impact on the strategic goals,’” says Marshall.
The legislators viewing UDOT’s cloud-based presentation were impressed.
“They told us that no other state agency is doing anything like this,” explains Marshall. “No one is talking about their performance measures in terms of outcomes.”
What’s Next for UDOT
Marshall looks forward to adding more data to the portal so UDOT can be even more specific in conversations with the legislature.
“Eventually, we will be able to drill down on our three main strategic goals by geographic area,” he says. “This means we can go to a senator and say, ‘Senator, this is your region. Our measurements for your area look like this. But, if you invest $X, your region would change in these ways.’”
When asked what advice he would give to other state DOTs looking to go digital and open, Marshall says, “Find the tool that will produce what you want in the end. Then, invest the time and resources to drive the innovation.”
What’s one of the greatest outcomes of UDOT’s move to open data? “For us, there is now a higher likelihood our legislature will fund our programs appropriately.” And that means reaching their three goals sooner, the true reason for the effort.