How Geospatial Technology Fits into Transportation’s IT Mainstream

Highway on the prairie.

Whether it’s in the planning or program management department, location permeates every aspect of a Department of Transportation’s (DOT) business. A question that has become more and more prevalent in DOT communities in the last couple of years is, “Where does geospatial technology fit in an enterprise transportation agency?”

At times there exists a struggle within the hierarchy of a state DOT to answer this question. Traditionally, this spatial enabling technology lived in the division of planning. And there are several reasons for that. First, spatial technology has been viewed as an analytical tool to help decision makers choose between alternative projects. It’s been viewed as a process-driven tool. Second, one of the primary functions of spatial technology has been meeting the multiple mapping needs of a DOT. In early iterations, many of the spatial enablement technologies contained a storage medium that was outside of a DOT’s mainstream IT department.

So, what are some of the factors that have led to the thinking that spatial technology would become a core component of the DOT IT architecture? As spatial technology began to evolve, it started to become tightly integrated with the enterprise database management systems (DBMS). DBMS’s such as Oracle, SQL Server, DB2, and PostgreSQL support native spatial data stores. With these native spatial data stores, the entire enterprise has access to spatial-locational data for development of decision support systems. Suddenly, spatial concepts are embedded in the IT mainstream of a DOT. In fact, management of the DBMS has always been a core function of a DOT’s IT division.

In addition, DOT’s are using a multitude of industry standard web services to exploit the valuable data stored in these databases. The web services have to conform to IT division standards and fit within the scheme of the overall IT architecture. With the threat of cyber-attacks so prevalent today, IT departments have strict control over the types and uses of web services that are implemented by operational divisions within a DOT. Also, the use of existing web services lowers the cost of application development in an economy of shrinking budgets. This contributes to spatial technology moving closer to the IT mainstream. To add to this, the proliferation of web services has somewhat lessened the dependence on desktop spatial technology. The usage of the desktop software is more focused on “heavy lifting” analysis functions.  And as spatial technology becomes more IT centric, the desktop platforms that are being used have the possibility of changing. Many factors would go into a decision like that.

Another element that has influenced spatial technology assimilating into the IT fabric is the emergence of cloud computing. More DOT’s are beginning to consider building applications in the cloud. This requires a major coordination effort based on whether the DOT decides to host internally or utilize commercial cloud-based computing services. Just like with web services, security is always a major concern for the DOT IT department. As more spatial applications at DOT’s are moved to the cloud, it can be expected that IT will be very involved with how they are deployed. This would be especially true if the DOT elects to use commercial cloud providers to host its applications.

Of course there will always be resistance to change. With this change will come the “wrestling of control” of everything spatial from the traditional venues of planning and cartography. This will require all of the “sum parts” of the DOT doing what is in the best interest of the “greater good”. Loss of control via change usually requires a transitionary period for acceptance by those most affected.

With all this said, the technology revolution within the DOT marches on to bigger and brighter things. As we’ve discussed IT organizations within the DOT have a lot to contemplate moving forward as spatial technology continues to evolve and becomes more central to its overall mission.


Bruce Aquila
About Bruce Aquila

Bruce Aquila is a senior transportation consultant for Hexagon Safety & Infrastructure and has been with the company for 33 years. He currently works in the Transportation Business Development group where he is responsible for technical business development, consulting, industry conference presentations and product requirement collection. Aquila works exclusively with State DOTs, Metropolitan Planning Organizations, local governments, and transit agencies in the areas of linear referencing, network and data modelling, and surface transportation analysis applications.

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