Transportation Data: Who Knew Goldilocks was so Elusive?

Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) use all kinds of data to support their metropolitan transportation planning processes...

Kristen Z, Transportation Planner

[<10 Minute Read]

Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) use all kinds of data to support their metropolitan transportation planning processes. There’s count data, survey data, public input data, GIS data, condition and performance data, travel demand data, project data, network data, land use data, and it seems like new and improved datasets and analyses are introduced almost daily. It can feel like the “Three Bears” fairy tale, where Goldilocks and “just right” data are not quite within reach. Our aim for this blog post is to share reasons and considerations when evaluating data specifically for MPO purposes.

Why do MPOs expend resources to collect, manage, analyze, and report on data?

  • It’s Required: the Federal Government requires MPOs to collect, calculate, and report on their progress in meeting performance targets for the regional transportation system. These include safety, condition, and performance measures.
  • It’s Requested: MPO staff may receive requests from their Committee or Board members for specific datasets. For example, public input summary data and project information are common requests.

(EcoInteractive’s ProjectTracker service displays MTP and TIP project-level data. Funding sources and amounts, scope, schedule, and other basic info are displayed in an easy-to-read table along with a mapping interface to show the project location. Check out the new-and-improved software here.)

  • It’s an Emerging Issue: MPO priorities change over time, and as they change, the data collection focus changes with it. For example, interest in active transportation modes has increased over the last several years, and many MPOs are now collecting data on the volumes and location of bicyclists and pedestrians.
  • It Supports Decision-Making: MPOs are in the business of navigating what oftentimes appear as conflicting interests – urban / suburban, cars / bikes, state system / local system. Using data-driven planning helps to justify planning and funding decisions. For example, “Preservation of the System” is a common goal, and using condition and capacity data for the regional road system is very helpful in deciding which intersections / corridors / interchanges are in the highest need of replacement and / or rehabilitation. There is never enough funding to fund all of the candidate projects, and using data in a meaningful way goes a long way to helping MPOs invest strategically in their transportation system.
  • It Offers New Insights: Transportation planning is constantly innovating where new datasets, analyses, and reporting are available. There have been some innovative data projects released recently that offer new insights into commonly held beliefs about travel patterns, community vibrancy, and economic development. These can help MPOs ask new questions and evaluate how the transportation system contributes to the overall look and feel of a community.

It’s important to understand the considerations for collecting, analyzing, compiling, and reporting on data. We asked two transportation planners that specialize in transportation data to weigh in:

“What’s important to you when evaluating data considered for use in MPO transportation planning?”

Chris Upchurch, MPO Transportation Planner @ Mid-America Regional Council (MARC)When evaluating data for use in transportation planning at an MPO, it’s important to look beyond the usual issues like accuracy, cost, and timeliness that would apply in any field. Two fundamental questions will tell you a lot about how useful the data is going to be:

1. Can the data tell me something about the region’s goals?

The goals laid out in the long-range Metropolitan Transportation Plan describe where we want to take our transportation system. They’re an expression of the obstacles we face and the shortcomings of the existing system. Data that can inform us about our progress towards these goals or help decide what investments will make progress towards them is vital for decision-making in an MPO.

2. Can I use this data to tell an understandable story to various audiences?

An MPO’s planning products shouldn’t just be for transportation planners. We need to communicate the data we use and the conclusions we draw to elected officials, stakeholders, and members of the public.

Jim Hubbell, AICP, Solution Engineering Manager @ StreetLight DataMPOs are somewhat unique in that they are both voracious consumers and producers of data. MPO planners, like others, need massive amounts of data to support their planning work today and in the future. At the same time, MPOs typically act as repositories for regional data, providing value to the local jurisdictions that they serve. This means MPO planners not only have to think about how data can be used in their day-to-day work, but also about how it can be stored, managed, and maintained over time in a way that generates value for the entire region.

With these goals in mind, here are 5 critical questions to consider when evaluating data for use in MPO transportation planning:

1. Will it be used to meaningfully inform a planning decision?

The answer to this question should be a no-brainer, and always “yes” of course. However, MPO planners are constantly balancing the need to meet their core planning requirements with short-term issues that inevitably crop up and demand immediate attention. With so many new types of data becoming available, it’s easy to get distracted with something that’s nice-to-have, or might create a snazzy graphic. However, in a world where time and resources are limited, we should prioritize collecting and using data that will lead to better outcomes.

(Pro-Tip: Look for data sources that apply broadly to your core work AND random issues that arise.)

2. Is the data current?

We all know the phrase “the only thing constant in life is change” or some variation on that idea. Obviously the world is always changing, but it certainly seems like the pace of that change is also increasing. To keep up with this change, planners need current data. MPO planners are often expected to answer questions about today with data that’s 1, 5, and even 10+ years old. Historical data is important (more on trends below), but we need to be seeking out and demanding more current and frequently updated data!

3. Is the data source stable, and will it be around in the future?

Planners need to monitor trends, which means longitudinal data is needed. We can’t forecast or project into the future without observing data and performance measures over time. MPOs and their planning partners (local governments, State Departments of Transportation, U.S. Department of Transportation, etc.) typically have established data collection programs that collect and report key transportation data at regular intervals in a consistent format. These are relatively stable, although they are tied to budgets that can be unpredictable. A lot of new data sources are emerging however, that come from a variety of outside sources. Before investing precious resources in a new data source, it’s important to consider whether or not that data will be around for the next update to your plan or performance measures report.

4. How much is known or shared about the data itself?

Metadata (or data about the data) is often overlooked or given minimal attention – but it is just as important as the data itself! When evaluating a data source, don’t forget to dig into the details. Yes, it’s extra work, but it’s incumbent upon planners to access, read, and understand as much documentation about data as possible.

  • Where does it come from?
  • What sort of quality control measures are applied?
  • What assumptions are used or applied?
  • What methods are used to derive or calculate the data?
  • What are the sources of error?
  • Are there any inherent biases?

These are just a few of the questions that you should be asking. Knowing the answers will help you defend any conclusions or recommendations based on the data, and make you look like a rockstar when someone tries to stump you at the next policy board meeting!

5. Has the data been objectively verified or validated?

This question probably applies more to many of the new and emerging data sources, particularly data or metrics based in whole or in part on Big Data / Passive Data (used interchangeably) or otherwise remotely sensed data.

A significant amount of data processing is needed to convert Big Data into meaningful analytics, and often this processing involves data science techniques such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, which are unfamiliar to a lot of planners.

Questions 4 above is applicable here too, but since these data or metrics are derived, planners should also actively seek information on how well they align with other data sources.

Ask data providers to share validation studies or white papers. If they don’t exist, ask if they’d be interested in collaborating with you to conduct one (assuming you have the data and resources available). Something to bear in mind, however, is that we planners often assume data sources we typically work with (e.g., traffic counts or Census data) to be “ground truth” and free from error. This is not always the case!

Make sure you understand confidence intervals and / or measures of error for the data you’re validating against.

Key Takeaways

Next time you are in the market for data to use at your MPO, make sure you consider all of the important factors regarding the purpose, ease of communication, timeliness, longevity, metadata, and accuracy of the candidate data!

With these in mind, Goldilocks and “just right” may be just around the corner 🙂

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