Open To Suggestion

Thinking Highways
By David E Pickeral August 27, 2014 14:41

Open To Suggestion

Taking on board a broad scope of ideas is key to successful collaborative thinking

Whether viewed as intellectual curiosity or simply a matter of common courtesy, acceptance of a broad view of ITS development goes a long way towards fostering collaboration, says David E Pickeral.

Not long ago I was attending a major international transportation conference, with all modes well represented.  As I always do at such events, between some of the specialized ITS sessions and client and partner meetings, I wandered about on my own to canvass the exhibit floor, looking for both familiar faces as well as a sense of what – and who – was new in the industry.

In so doing, I stopped by a booth belonging to one of the major transportation research organizations in the host county.  There I found a young engineer – a newly minted civil engineering PhD, in fact – who was covering the exhibit booth alone while his senior colleagues were off the floor in an executive session.  A group of people was listening to him expound upon, what turned out to have been the topic of his doctoral dissertation, methodologies for the collection and monitoring of data regarding the condition of bridges, highways, tunnels and other infrastructure within the transportation industry.  He asserted that the ability to collect and analyze such data was a matter of national priority for his government, as well as the transportation industry worldwide.  His chief complaint was that there thus far a complete lack of any data in this area, nor any current ability to go about obtaining it.

After several minutes, at what I deemed an appropriate pause for commentary, I politely suggested that it might be helpful to see the problem not so much as the lack of data per se, as it was the lack of structured data, noting that his predecessors had been doing careful inspections of critical infrastructure assets for decades, even generations, with the results captured often in great detail in the form of spreadsheets, standalone databases, handwritten notes, logs and journals, or even just in their own personal recollections of what might have been many years of observations.  If such data it could be properly extracted and analyzed, I hypothesized, perhaps this would be an excellent baseline for further development, even as more advanced means of collection became available through the deployment of sensors and the use of open standards now ongoing around the world.

His reaction was unexpected, and could best be described as openly hostile.  Rather than assess the merits of what I had proposed, he responded defensively, almost explosively, that this line of thinking was absolutely and unequivocally wrong – again asserting the data simply did not exist.  Rather than offer evidence to support this however, he then launched into a discussion of the academic study he had done on multiple continents to support the idea that only a whole new set of data gathered with appropriate new techniques would even begin to address the issue.  Clearly anyone who perceived otherwise – including and at the moment especially me – was guilty of ignorance bordering on sacrilege.


During this diatribe, the others who had been gathered around the booth wisely took the opportunity to drift off elsewhere.  For me, a graceful resolution was far less practicable.  Although, those who know me will attest I am hardly one to shrink from conflict, there are two instances where I will never engage in an open argument under any circumstances; the first is when dealing with airport security, law enforcement and border guard personnel in any country, and the second is at industry conferences, which I consider by definition to be neutral ground for candid debate.  At this point, I therefore saw only one option – rapid retreat!  Seeing no signs that my new adversary was planning to pause any time soon, I simply tuned on my heels and walked briskly away without a backward glance.  For several seconds before I purposefully rounded the corner, I could still hear him talking – apparently at this point to no one but himself.


As I had joined the conversation in progress I had not had the opportunity to do any introductions or exchange business cards beforehand, and as I discovered a few minutes later I had put my conference badge with its speaker and sponsor ribbons into my jacket pocket while outside earlier and had forgotten to put it back on.  The recent grad, therefore, had no idea whom he was passionately excoriating.  As far as he knew, he could well have been dressing down the head of a university department, a transport minister, a politician or an industry leader that might well have been in a position to both support his cause and advance his career.  Far worse I think, he could have blasted someone entirely new to the ITS industry who was still trying to understand it and merely wishing to toss a few ideas around in aid of furthering that understanding.

My point in relating this is if course not to denigrate, even anonymously, this studious, passionate and otherwise highly intelligent professional.  Rather, it is to offer up a cautionary tale of sorts.

ITS is, as we all know, an extremely arcane and esoteric industry, where interstate meets Internet meets intermodal.  It continues to evolve as a patchwork of other disciplines combining elements of physical infrastructure, ICT and complex political and strategic overlays.  We might be engineers, architects, lawyers, academics, executives or others with highly advanced educational backgrounds.  Likewise, we are also practitioners with years of hands-on implementation and operational experience.  Almost invariably, those of us who have been in the industry for some time bring some unique combination of academia and experience to the table – as headhunters will tell you, it is very difficult to anonymize the CVs of veterans in the ITS community such that their peers won’t recognize them.  Regardless of our individual backgrounds, ours is a field where it is virtually impossible for anyone to be an expert in everything.

It is thereby essential in this industry, as in no other, to allow adequate consideration for not just the views of others, but to acknowledge both the potential for something entirely new to appear on the scene and for something that has been around for quite some time to be used in entirely new ways.

Unstructured data will indeed become an ever more useful resource with the advent of artificial intelligence, that will eventually allow absorption, consolidation and interpretation of vast amounts of seemingly disconnected archival material.  The infrastructure inspection data mentioned earlier can be infused with materials analysis, climatalogical records, and other sources within the Big Data ecosystem.  Analytics can be applied at any point of the process -including when real time sensor data does eventually become available regarding the structural integrity of individual assets.  Cloud capabilities, facilitated by open standards to allow sharing between networks, will let that data to be aggregated and shared securely with appropriate users in the next office, next building or worldwide.

In summary, while I would be the last one to blur the ‘art of the possible’ against hard practical reality, in terms of discussions with our colleagues in ITS, and even more with the broad stakeholder community that will be necessary to ensure the political, financial and institutional viability of future ITS enhancements, I would respectfully submit it never hurts to be open to suggestions!


David Pickeral is Transportation Sector Lead for the IBM Industry Smarter Solutions Team

Thinking Highways
By David E Pickeral August 27, 2014 14:41