Highways – data as national infrastructure

Systemic weaknesses must be overcome to realise the full potential of vehicle connectivity and the communication of road information, says Shane O'Neill

Roads are nothing if not connected - they begin in one place, travel through many others and end up at a different place. Along them now travel intelligent computers on wheels, connected to the internet via in-car SatNav, infotainment systems and mobile phones. The technology is there, and the expectations are there, for instant communication of information – on road closures, officially designated diversion routes, advanced warning signs or advice on driver behaviour.

Yet our physical network's connections is not yet matched by the same level of information connectivity. A visitor to Traffic England, our national flagship travel site, must choose in which Highways England contract areas of the country to look at – even if travelling cross country from Bristol to Newcastle. 

Traffic managers wishing to optimise a diversion off the strategic network often don't have an up-to-date route to choose from, nor one that is automatically pre cleared of being free form local authority roadworks. Utilities interface with dozens of local, regional and national highways authorities with their different interpretations and applications of noticing and permit permissioning. 

Access to critical data is available but in multiple places via different routes and regimes, or worst of all not available at all (yes still - even form public bodies). And attempts to create ecosystems of inter-operability across the boundaries of our highways infrastructure have resulted in that bane of public sector investment - the ambitious IT project which over-runs its time and costs and is not fit for purpose when it finally is completed.

The roots of this systemic information weakness are not difficult to analyse. First, the fact that our highways network is actually managed by over 200 different organisations does not facilitate the free movement of data – the fuel of information systems – across boundaries. 

Second, the grip of a public sector contracting culture, focused necessarily on long term infrastructural projects, driven to look at their own areas and economies of scale, means that information projects come a long way down in interest for senior decision makers.

And finally there is that peculiar fusion of the public sector, civil engineering and contracting cultures that favours large capital expenditure projects and really doesn't understand anything more modest or agile.

However, just as government is now focusing on physical transport Infrastructure, through launch of the National infrastructure Commission, there is also the beginning of a focus on National Information Infrastructure.

The Department for Transport has recently invested to create through Ordnance Survey a new Integrated Transport Network 'mastermap'. Local authorities have created through an innovative public-private venture a national database of roadworks at, Highways England is working to fix the issue of alternative diversion routes across authority boundaries, and the SatNav industry is making advances in taking official information sources and rendering them 'noise-free' and real-time in such ways as to give practical benefit to motorists.

Representatives of these initiatives are coming together at Highways UK at the NEC 16-17 November, to debate Data as National Infrastructure and to offer a challenging view as to why data interoperability and infrastructure sits so low on the priorities of public transport infrastructure decision-makers and influencers.

Shane O'Neill is chairman of Elgin, the creator of - the local and national communications hub for live and planned roadworks, road closures and traffic disruptions.