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Dutch road management organisation encourages startups to innovate

Dutch highway management agency RWS is sharing data with the private sector to stimulate innovation

The Dutch organisation responsible for the management and maintenance of main roads and highways in the Netherlands, Rijkswaterstaat (RWS), is working with the private sector to innovate around the use of data.

For example, by combining different datasets, the maintenance of tarmac can be better planned, resulting in higher quality, safety and cost savings.

This type of analysis of road maintenance is part of a larger European project called Be-Good (Building an Ecosystem to Generate Opportunities in Open Data), which aims to make public domain information more widely available and usable.

“We want to give private companies the opportunity to develop innovative services in the area of infrastructure and environment based on data, which they can then deploy to various clients in Europe,” said Be-Good project manager Raymond Feron.

Developing reusable models

The Be-Good project is being financed by EU-Interreg, which includes several sub-projects. Asphalt maintenance is one of them.

“Different regions in Europe work together to create an ecosystem that offers opportunities for innovations based on open data,” said Feron. “The intention is to develop sub-projects where data can be exchanged between different countries. For example, RWS is one of the clients of the asphalt maintenance project, whereby the maintenance of Dutch roads is optimised on the basis of various datasets. But the models will also be used in other EU countries.”

Analysing data on roads and maintenance

Each year, RWS spends large sums of money on maintaining the national roads across The Netherlands. The maintenance is outsourced to contractors, but RWS is responsible for planning. In addition to managing the Be-Good project, Feron works for RWS.

“We use performance contracts for maintenance, which stipulates when work must be completed and for how many years the asphalt needs to be perfect,” he said.

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When maintenance is carried out too early, it is a waste of money, and when it is done too late, the road no longer meets the high quality requirements of RWS.

“We have enormous amounts of data [on] asphalt quality, construction, previous maintenance, subsoil, the amount of traffic that uses certain roads, and so on. We can carry out analysis using big data analysis tools,” said Feron.

Data lake offers smart links

RWS uses analysis tools from SAS, which run on Hadoop. “We have created a huge data lake that we call our Big Data Lab. It consists of a lot of open data, but also contains other data,” said Feron.

A number of data scientists filter out interesting connections in the data, which can lead to smarter handling of asphalt maintenance.

“Perhaps we would have previously decided that a certain part of the road was due for replacement or maintenance, but based on all the data we can now conclude that this maintenance can wait another two years without affecting the quality of the road. With this analysis we want to try to improve our maintenance planning,” he said.

Playing in the RWS data lab

The RWS data lab is not only accessible to its own data scientists. The Be-Good project encourages private parties to develop their own solutions based on all that data, which they can then sell elsewhere in Europe.

“We have set up the data lake in a separate environment that is well secured. Interested parties can play there to their heart’s content,” said Feron.

“We have set up the data lake in a separate environment that is well secured. Interested parties can play there to their heart’s content”
Raymond Feron, Be-Good & RWS

Startups that want to develop software in the area of ​​infrastructure and environment can access the enormous data collection of RWS. It is not the intention of Be-Good that organisations then claim ownership of the statistical models being developed.

“We want Be-Good to be as open as possible, and we also want to encourage small businesses to create business models that they can use elsewhere in Europe,” said Feron.

For example, organisations that do smart things for RWS with asphalt maintenance forecasting can then go on to implement the same services with other European road authorities.

Helping innovative startups

RWS supports small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in developing smart solutions that can be implemented more widely in Europe. That, too, is part of Be-Good.

“RWS acts as the client in the asphalt project. We pay for the first implementation, and further on in the process we organise a roadshow through Europe, for example, where innovative solutions are presented to various authorities and government agencies,” said Feron.

“We pay the accommodation costs and ensure that a company can present its solution. That opens doors for such a company to do the same implementation elsewhere.”

That is the commitment that different EU regions have given to Be-Good, said Feron. Public authorities of each region are open to solutions from other countries. It is collectively examined, where certain solutions can be used thereafter.

Launching customer and research partner

RWS is currently busy improving the maintenance planning process for Dutch asphalt. This must be completed by the end of 2019. In addition, RWS wants to use the big data solution it is experimenting with more broadly.

“Maybe in other countries like Sweden, with its own big data solution, or for research in our own data lab, but it is also possible to build a research lab together with Sweden or Belgium,” said Feron.

“We are open to collaboration with other parties and want to act as a launching customer and research partner,” he added. “RWS is the client, not the expert, in the field of asphalt. Of course, we employ people who know a lot about asphalt and maintenance, but the real expertise resides within the market.”

Working together on innovation

Any company can request access to the RWS data lake, but a number of conditions must be met for access to be granted.

“An explanation [memorandum of understanding] has to be signed, because we value the safety and quality of our data lab. In addition, there must be a governmental relevance or link with RWS,” said Feron. “Not everyone who wants to play around with bits and bytes can just go to the data lab. This also has to do with the tools and databases under the data lake.

“Licences cost money, so it is not the intention that an organisation in our lab is going to crunch bitcoins. The conditions we set are not intended to drive away innovative companies, but rather to [encourage them to] work together with us on innovation.”

Greater versatility

Asphalt maintenance is a major annual cost. For national roads, these costs amount to around €200m per year. By better predicting asphalt maintenance requirements, with the help of big data analysis, costs can be reduced. RWS states in an innovation paper that the costs for the big data project – one of the 11 components of Be-Good – amounts to around €2m for the organisation, but that it expects to recoup that investment from 2022 onwards. “We expect to recoup all the investments we make in the data lab by, among other things, being able to do asphalt maintenance more efficiently.”

Moreover, RWS hopes to gain extra insights through the possibility of carrying out further analyses on the enormous amount of data it holds, such as the safety of certain roads.

“When you stop and analyse the entire road area in the system, you will find out objectively what the critical safety parameters of roads are. This could, for example, send the government back to ensure higher safety on the road,” said Feron.

“It goes far beyond the planning of maintenance. It all starts with analysis, but there are probably many more interesting insights. It is good to investigate whether we can do anything with it.”

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