2019 Freight and Logistics Symposium: Sharing data to facilitate disaster response

John McClellan
John McClellan

When disaster strikes, one overlooked but deceptively critical aspect of incident management is data—especially on the roads. Traffic data can be used to pinpoint incidents and optimize routes, so there’s a lot of potential for making disaster relief more organized and efficient. Sharing data, however, can get complicated.

The Regional Transportation Management Center (RTMC) in Roseville, Minnesota, is an example of sharing data well on a small, local level. The building serves as a combined dispatch center for the Minnesota State Patrol, MnDOT maintenance, and MnDOT freeway operations, and this uniquely integrated system ensures that everyone has access to the data they need.

More than 800 traffic cameras on the metro area freeway system give RTMC dispatchers the ability to study traffic patterns and quickly locate incidents. MnDOT dispatchers also are linked to the Road and Weather Information System and the State Patrol Computer-Aided Dispatch, allowing them to track dangerous weather systems and coordinate their incident responses with State Patrol. In addition, this information can readily be shared with the public through MnDOT’s 511 website and app.

Mark Berndt, Dan Murray, and Jeffrey Meek
Mark Berndt, Dan Murray, and Jeffrey Meek

“That’s the idea with this integrated center,” said symposium speaker John McClellan, freeway operations supervisor at MnDOT. “It’s a coordinated response.”

On a larger scale, however, this integrated system of data sharing can become more difficult, particularly when private entities are involved.

The problem is not a lack of data. More trucks are being equipped with GPS trackers, traffic camera systems are getting increasingly sophisticated, and the overall flow of real-time data is increasing. Algorithms for modeling optimal routes and contingency plans are becoming more sophisticated as well, especially in the private sector through companies like Quetica Consulting and Engineering.

“The sticky wicket is the legal agreement on the data,” said symposium panelist Dan Murray, senior vice president at the American Transportation Research Institute. The person who owns the hardware owns the data, he said, and companies tend to be nervous about sharing data because anything they release has the potential to be used against them.

But, in a disaster, information might be a matter of life or death.

“When people are dying and the clock is ticking,” said symposium speaker Bethany Stich, “nothing is proprietary.”

Stich, director of the University of New Orleans Transportation Institute, said a system needs to be set up ahead of time that codifies the sharing of information during a disaster. Private companies need to know that their information will not be used against them, and the public sector needs to know that critical information will not be withheld or used as a means for profit.

“We have all these technologies and communication,” Murray said. “If we get through a couple issues like data privacy and data sensitivity, we can start to connect up amazing communication systems… and we can start to develop this coordinated effort.”

Story by Sophie Koch, Photos by Michael McCarthy