Plan to ease traffic congestion with IT could leave departments in a jam

The results of a government review into easing road traffic congestion could present a formidable challenge for IT departments in...

The results of a government review into easing road traffic congestion could present a formidable challenge for IT departments in utility companies and the public sector, writes Nick Huber

A Department for Transport review aimed at reducing the disruption caused by roadworks by streamlining the flow of information between utilities and public authorities has been broadly welcomed. But while the review has the potential to reduce road rage among drivers, its ambitious agenda could raise stress levels among the IT staff that will have to make it work.

Few doubt the need for an improvement in the current situation. There are at least four million ongoing roadworks in the UK, exacerbating traffic congestion. And with congestion charges in central London due next year, the Government is keen to improve the quality of data about the nation's roads.

A common electronic system for sharing information on roadworks could improve the efficiency of road development and safety standards. Utility companies, which have welcomed the review, could also pass on cost savings to their customers.

The review marks the first high-level attempt to tackle the chaos caused by roadworks since the collapse of plans for a national street works register more than five years ago (see below).

The review, due to report next summer, will examine the electronic systems used by utility companies and highway authorities to distribute information about roadworks. It will also consider the feasibility of providing a national framework to reduce disruption from roadworks, and also the possibility of introducing a national scheme of records pinpointing the location of apparatus related to street works - underground pipes and cables etc. In addition, it will identify systems that could be used to support the new infrastructure.

Currently, most utility companies apply to council highway authorities for permission to conduct roadworks electronically via File Transfer Protocol. However, there are different software packages on the market to ease the transfer of roadworks information, and motoring organisations such as the RAC argue that the application of new technology and national data standards could reduce the disruption caused by roadworks.

"At the moment everyone is in the dark and the flow of information is extremely poor. Utility companies need to co-operate with this and embrace the new technology," said a spokesman for the RAC Foundation, an independent body that represents the interests of motorists.

So what kind of IT shake-up is the Department for Transport review likely to suggest? And what will be the implications for local authorities and utilities?

Option one, according to sources close to the review, is a Web-based portal, possibly using XML data transfer technology. Licensed suppliers could provide data services for organisations involved in roadworks, along similar lines to how the electronic National Land Information Service operates.

A second, possibly interlinked, option is to build a national database to register the exact location of roadworks. This would use map references to give the geographic location of roadworks. If a council knows work is going to be conducted on a busy stretch of road it can ask the company to do the work at a time when there is the minimum traffic.

Achieving this up-close view could prove tricky, as it will require changes to another huge information system - the National Street Gazetteer.

The quality of street information in the gazetteer, which is maintained by local authorities and is hosted by the Ordnance Survey, can be on three levels. The first, most basic level, gives the start and end of a street. The third, most sophisticated level, is when a gazetteer can give a complete geographic representation of a street on screen, including its shape.

An easy-to-view national database of roadworks will require a level-three quality of information from the street gazetteer, according to industry experts. However, an Ordnance Survey spokesman said most councils only have a level-one street gazetteer, and there is no timetable for reaching level three.

Industry observers warned that updating the National Street Gazetteer could also be a drain on the time of council staff.

"The software technology is there at the moment but the most important [challenge for councils] is the human resources needed to identify the streets on a map base," said Ken Hickson, managing director of Symology, a supplier of land asset management systems.

The main option for technical reform is to develop a national scheme for utilities and local authorities to exchange records about the location of underground apparatus, such as pipes and cables. Again, this could entail developing a huge database and present a formidable data consolidation exercise for the utility companies.

"You want to get away from duplication of systems and find a cost-effective way of sharing data in the interests of increased safety," said an industry source.

"If someone [such as a cable company] does not have a record of the road and take the recommended precautions, the worst possible scenario is that you go in with a JCB and hit a water main."

The overall cost of the possible changes the review will examine is unclear but, using similar national infrastructure projects as a yardstick, it is likely to run into millions of pounds.

The Department for Transport review has rightly been welcomed, but it could pose some formidable problems for IT departments if it recommends a national framework to co-ordinate the flow of data on roadworks plus a national database of pipes and cables.

It should also be noted that the last attempt by a government to create a national system for roadworks got stranded on the hard shoulder. Councils, the Government and the utilities will have to work more closely to avoid a repeat performance.

An old idea
Plans for a national roadworks system were first mooted in 1992. The streetworks project was initiated by former prime minister John Major.

The streetworks system aimed to co-ordinate roadworks through a central computerised database and end the problem of the same stretch of road being repeatedly disrupted by roadworks. However, the project, spearheaded by a Digital Equipment-led consortium, fell behind schedule and was abandoned five years ago.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks was achieving a consensus over the make-up of the system among more than 4,000 users in 500 different organisations.

Read more on IT risk management