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Minutes - February 24, 2011

Advisory Council on Transportation Statistics
Thursday, February 24th, 2011 (9:00am – 5:00pm)

Oklahoma Room – Ground Level, West Building
Headquarters, U.S. Department of Transportation

 

Meeting Highlights

Key issues discussed by attendees included:

  1. Improvement of coordination with commercial freight operators
  2. Clarification of the scope of statistical efforts at USDOT beyond BTS
  3. Maximization of leverage in tight budgetary environment
  4. Relevance of Intelligent Transportation Systems to USDOT strategic goals
  5. Dissemination of BTS data, analyses, and products
  6. Development of data visualization tools, including web mapping applications and coordinate with Google Data Explorer Labs

 

Action Items

Key actions prompted by the meeting include:

  1. The Council requested a briefing on the statistically-related divisions within the Department, other than BTS, including descriptions of work and budgetary support, to help understand how BTS fits into the larger picture of transportation statistics at the Department;
  2. The Council will compile a list of what freight data would be most valuable to obtain, as well as strategies for obtaining these data, and then convene a meeting of key freight data stakeholders to discuss the data and strategies;

 

Council Members in Attendance

Clarke, John-Paul (Chair, Advisory Council on Transportation Statistics)
Costello, Bob (Chief Economist and Vice President, American Trucking Associations)
Depue, Leanna (Director, Highway Safety Division, Missouri DOT)
Kane, Anthony (Director, Engineering and Technical Services, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials)
Kockelman, Kara* (Professor, University of Texas – Austin)
Replogle, Michael (Director, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy)

*Via Teleconference

 

Minutes

Note: Meeting transcript and presentation slides are available on the ACTS website.

Welcome and Introductory Remarks, Approval of Previous Meeting Minutes

ACTS Chair John-Paul Clarke called the meeting to order and asked for introductions from all in attendance.  Members, BTS staff, and visitors from the public introduced themselves.  Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) Administrator Peter Appel shared opening remarks on the opportunities for leveraging input and resources to improve our transportation system.  He welcomed newly-arrived Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) Director Patricia Hu and expressed his sense of the strong foundation BTS and RITA have to build upon moving forward.  Chair Clarke then led a review and approval of the minutes from the October, 2010, meeting, and remarked on the progress that has been made on various action items from that meeting.    

BTS FY 2012 Budget – Presentation and Discussion

Administrator Appel began with remarks to provide background context on the budget process, including a review of the Administration’s commitment to transportation infrastructure and how increases for BTS in the requested budget reflect well on the work that BTS does and its recognition in the policy community, especially in such a tight budgetary environment.

BTS Deputy Director Steven Smith then presented on the BTS FY 2012 budget.  He began with an overview of existing funding levels and structures for BTS, including funds from the Highway Trust Fund and those for Airline Statistics.  The FY 2012 budget requests support for a variety of existing programs, and also includes requested increases of $1 million for Airline Statistics (from $4 million to $5 million) and $8 million from the Highway Trust Fund (from $27 million to $35 million), with the increases supporting priorities of the Administration and the Secretary: $2 million has been requested for a new safety data and analysis program; an increase of $2 million has been requested to maintain and expand the Commodity Flow Survey; and $3 million has been requested to bring back the Vehicle Inventory and Use Survey (“VIUS”), which will vastly improve the ability to make estimates regarding the nation’s vehicle fleet.  An increase of $0.9 million has been made for the International Freight Data System to maintain and expand this effort as well.  The $1 million increase for Airline Statistics will enable continued and improved processing of the nation’s airline statistics. 

The topic was then opened for general discussion.  One attendee remarked on the lack of recent and high quality data currently available on our nation’s vehicle fleet, and the critical need and value that will be provided by the return of the VIUS.  Another attendee followed up to remark on how the VIUS will contribute to our ability to model sustainability and livability issues.  When asked how BTS might use “the next $1 million” if more funding were available, Administrator Appel remarked that the important question to consider is how to most effectively leverage the resources BTS does have.  He explained that, in some cases, the increased funding requested in the budget will not enable additional data collection for all desired areas, but will greatly enhance our ability to leverage existing data for important analytical purposes. 

A question was raised on whether RITA performs Congressional briefings to help convey the importance of the programs supported by the budget increases, and it was shared that this has been undertaken.  A remark was made on the comparatively small magnitude of the BTS budget relative to the need for transportation data and analysis, and Administrator Appel explained that BTS is only one of several divisions within the Department conducting work related to transportation statistics – though BTS plays a very cross-cutting role to leverage data from across the modal divisions.  It was then determined that inviting one or more representatives from these other divisions may be particularly helpful for the ACTS members to understanding the composite of funding for transportation statistics within the Department as a whole.

Synthesizing Data for Freight Analysis – Discussion

Primary areas of discussion included: analytical limitations due to the current sample size of the CFS; how to protect the privacy of shippers while improving the geographic resolution of the data; strategies for working with shippers to provide more data, including putting together a test pilot program and analysis contest with university students and faculty; evaluating different methods for freight data aggregation; the relatively diffuse nature of the industry and the role large companies play compared to the role they have played in the past; the challenge of incorporating private data into public databases, given potential restrictions on information about the data due to confidentiality concerns of the private data providers, and the potential to lose transparency about the data; the series of outreach and public policy steps that need to be taken before a full data collection program could be implemented; how to utilize the science of logistics in freight analysis; and the freight data that would be most valuable to obtain.     

Intelligent Transportation Systems: Potential for Data and Analysis – Presentation and Discussion

John Augustine, Managing Director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office (ITS/JPO), presented an overview of the vision for ITS research and connected it to safety, accessibility and mobility, and environmental challenges.  The strategic research effort seeks to support a “national, multi-modal surface transportation system that features a connected transportation environment among vehicles, the infrastructure, and mobile devices to serve the public good by leveraging technology to maximize safety, mobility and environmental performance.”  He further explained that the first priority of the effort is safety and the prevention of crashes and injuries.  The effort also seeks to further technological advances internationally.  Vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure technology is the key communications platform for ITS.  Pilot road testing and implementation will occur between 2011 and 2013 with connections to strategic goals for the program.  The program currently has a RFP/RFA out with a March 15, 2011, deadline: http://www.its.dot.gov/procurement.htm.  A question arose regarding crowd sourcing, and Managing Director Augustine addressed the different ways that data sourced by vehicles could be used (e.g. for short-term crash prevention as well as long-term transportation planning).  Managing Director Augustine also highlighted major milestones of the program, dating from July, 2009 and projected out to July, 2015, in the key areas of safety, mobility and accessibility, technology, environment, and policy.  He concluded with remarks on how ITS may help generate new data sets of value to the transportation community, how the program will contribute to the Department’s strategic goals, how there are great opportunities for statistical leveraging of ITS data, and how the ITS program welcomes feedback and involvement from the data community. 

Disseminating BTS Products – Presentation and Discussion

Thomas Bolle, Jeff Onizuk, Dave Smallen, and Amanda Wilson presented on dissemination of BTS products. 

Bolle began with remarks on how dissemination efforts connect to Administrator Appel’s earlier message, focusing on developing relationships with stakeholders and leveraging data and resources to achieve goals.  He described how BTS seeks to both present information and also listen to stakeholders to be responsive to their needs.  Administrator Appel added that BTS seeks to add value wherever possible – in addition to facilitating the accessing of information and data. 

Onizuk then presented on congressional affairs.  He began by describing that all congressional officials are treated with the utmost professionalism and respect, regardless of political affiliation.  He then described how two questions are key to responding to congressional inquiries – does BTS have the data, and how quickly can a response be made?  These are key questions in helping to respond and facilitate in a timely manner.  He seeks to ensure that Congress has access to the most robust transportation data and analysis available.  In addition, given the high turnover on Capitol Hill, a continual education effort is undertaken to ensure congressional officials are aware of BTS and the resources available to them to work on transportation policy.  He also described his close collaboration with the library team in responding to inquiries and disseminating both hard and soft copies of materials.  When BTS does not have the specific data or information requested, an attempt is always made to point the inquiry to officials that may have relevant resources.  Many congressional officials tend to consider BTS their first and one-stop shop for transportation data, and BTS is eager to assist in any way possible. 

Smallen then presented on the public affair efforts at BTS, and how public relations for a statistical agency differs markedly from public relations in other settings.  Specifically, statistical agencies are prohibited from mentioning political appointees in their press releases, so the emphasis is really on the data and the analysis itself.  Smallen has modeled the public affairs office on OMB Directive 3, which focuses on a set release schedule so that everyone is given access to the data and analysis at the same time.  OMB Directive 4 is now used to guide the public affairs program, as well, though the third directive is used for the TSI as it is hoped this data product will become a principal economic indicator falling under the third directive’s purview.  As far as outreach is concerned, the internet and social media have vastly changed the frontiers of the public affairs program.  The program now uses Twitter, and this effort has expanded the reach of BTS to reporters as well as individuals that might not otherwise have been aware of BTS and vice versa.  It has also been a very effective way for BTS to increase its understanding of stakeholder needs and interests.  In addition to its press releases on the BTS website, the public affairs team also submits releases to the Department’s online digest.  The contribution of social media to enhancing the ability of BTS to be responsive relates to the earlier discussion of crowd sourcing and efforts to understand how this can be leveraged to empower citizens and improve our data sources and analysis. 

Wilson then presented on the information resources program efforts, including their managing of dissemination of both hard and soft copies of data and publications.  The program is using the American Customer Satisfaction Index survey to understand customer feedback on the BTS website and materials.  The program is also helping guide the implementation of a new content management system.  The program also assists in briefing key officials on BTS programs and resources.

BTS Key Transportation Indicators – Presentation and Discussion

Transportation Analyst Chester Ford next presented on the Key Transportation Indicators (KTI).  Ford provided an overview of the concept of an indicator, along with a history of indicators at BTS and the KTI in particular.  Ford then expanded upon the context of the KTI and its scope, explaining the type of data best covered by the KTI.  A schematic illustrated data by mode, along with commentary on whether these data are included in the KTI, under research for inclusion in the KTI, or not included for a variety of reasons.  Ford then provided an overview of the current KTI, along with an example of figure based on U.S. Highway Vehicle-Miles Traveled.  This prompted a tangential conversation the method for estimating vehicle-miles traveled, and the smoothing process that may reduce the accuracy of the estimates in periods of large fluctuations in the economy, and potential strategies for supporting an improvement in the estimation of these particular data.  Ford then concluded with a demonstration of the KTI webpage.

Visual and Interactive Presentation of Transportation Data – Presentation and Discussion

A team of BTS staff then presented on several efforts to present data.  Steve Lewis began with a presentation regarding web mapping and mapping policies.  He included descriptions and illustrations of existing mapping applications, such as State Facts and USDOT Research Facilities. 

Bruce Goldberg then presented on the Intermodal Passenger Connectivity Database.  He began by providing a historical context of the database, including its origins and development to its current state.  He then described the timeline of planned future developments of the database, the types of information available and connection to such initiatives as livability, and how to access the database.  He then demonstrated features of the web application of the database, and shared that currently about half of all stations in the database have an intermodal connection.  Several questions arose during the presentation.  One related to whether the database could be used for routing purposes, and it was explained that the purpose of the database is somewhat different from routing for individual trips.  Another related to the specific criteria of how an intermodal connection is defined.  A description was provided of the varying criteria for connections (within the same station) and near connections (within a single block), and explained that a hypothetical connection requiring use of another vehicle would not be considered a connection for the purposes of the database.  A question was raised on whether bike sharing would be added to the database in the future, and Goldberg explained that the current focus is on completing current components of the database but that such connections could be added in the future.  Steve Beningo then described mapping applications using international data, including those related to trans-border freight, border crossings, and reports on international issues.  He also described planned applications, including those relating to trans-shipment data.  BTS works to develop mapping applications for requests of the Office of the Secretary, as well. 

The final presentation on visualization was given by Bernetta Crutcher and focused on BTS efforts to work with the Google Data Explorer Lab.  Crutcher described the context of the effort within Google’s initiative to make data easier for the public to access and use, and also gave a live demonstration of various current data sets on Google.  BTS is joining other federal agencies in collaborating with Google on this initiative.      

Council Discussion – Discussion Follow-Up

The discussion focused on strategies for increasing collaboration with commercial freight operators on data, improving statistics at State DOTs, bringing the Journal of Transportation and Statistics back, greater focus at the Department on metropolitan planning, and the potential for BTS to serve strategic roles in transportation analysis.

Meeting Adjourned (4pm)