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Central Ohio, Startup Plan Huge Transportation Data Project

Highways and bus routes. Weather and car crashes. Counties and cities. What happens when all that data comes together in one place? A look inside a major transportation initiative shaping up in Columbus, Ohio.

What would happen if every piece of the transportation and transit system in a major metropolitan area worked together, instead of on their own?

Columbus, Ohio, is going to try to find out.

The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) is embarking on a grant-funded project — along with the state Department of Transportation, 12 surrounding counties and others — to set up what could very well be a data fusion effort unprecedented in scope. It will run on a platform set up by the startup Waycare, which made a name for itself in the Las Vegas area helping transportation officials predict when and where traffic collisions were likely to occur.

But the COTA project is about more than predicting crashes and congestion. It’s about rerouting buses, it’s about making data available in real time where it’s usually only available post-fact, it’s about setting the stage for different transit agencies to work together to make things easier for riders.

The pilot project, funded by a federal grant and slated to last about a year, will clean up and centralize data from many different places in order to support work ranging from emergency response to bus routing to urban planning.

That data will include traffic camera feeds, bus locations, social media posts and a lot more fed into AI algorithms for predictive purposes. And critically, it will be updating in real time, as opposed to pulled at regular intervals, which means all that data goes from an item in a report to an operational tool the government uses to make the transportation system run better.

“When we talked to the transit authorities, no one’s ever asked to see (their data) outside what they can provide in (General Transit Feed Specification),” said Jason Yanni, senior director of product management and innovation at COTA. “So we want to get their core scheduling services and get access to some of that data. When we’ve talked to some of the emergency (responders) in those rural counties, no one’s ever asked to see that data before or make it accessible.”

As in southern Nevada, the platform will tell the government where it thinks a crash might happen soon. The government can then reduce speed or take other measures to help prevent a crash from happening. If it still happens, emergency responders should be on scene faster, and any buses on that route should be able to find a way around it relatively quickly.

“I can see a time where eventually these type of analytics connect to that dispatching system and the routing system and automatically reroute our system in the very short term, like based on emergencies,” said COTA President and CEO Joanna M. Pinkerton. “Longer term, what you see with COTA and many other transit agencies is our need to respond to changing mobility demands.”

The program will rely heavily on an existing API from the state transportation department called OHGO, which offers data ranging from traffic speed to weather. In the future, ODOT Director Jack Marchbanks says other counties in the state might be interested in adopting the program as well. It fits well with other work the state is doing to try to make data from various mobility sources such as scooters and bikes more useful. For example, the state is working on creating an open architecture for mobility data.

“We know that data will be just as important as pavement and structure as we move forward into multimodalism,” Marchbanks said.

A key point is removing some of the uncertainty travelers have when trying to get from location A to location B. For a bus rider living in a suburb or exurb of Columbus — as in most parts of the country — getting into the city can require both skill and luck. Different transit operators often don’t share payment systems and don’t work together on scheduling, so if one bus is late it could make its passengers miss their connection.

A simmering dream in the transit industry is to make it possible for a rider to open a single app where they can find all the buses they need to take and pay for it all at once.

“Creating and fostering economic growth, at the core of it is enabling the user, the customer who’s getting on the bus, to have one fluid system, whether he’s on two different bus systems or three, or a scooter and another system,” said Noam Maital, Waycare’s CEO. “All of that has to start with all of the information being shared on one cloud environment.”

The goal is largely to better position the state for the future. Transportation data has changed much in recent years, but officials expect even more radical changes in the next decade.

That will have a lot to do with self-driving vehicles, to which Columbus is no stranger. Amid heavy competition, the city won a big federal grant to test out the technology in 2016 and has been working on it ever since.

Self-driving vehicles imply high levels of connectivity, which means rivers of real-time data the likes of which transportation officials are not used to.

“It’s going to be exponential, at this point,” said Pinkerton. “I mean, the leap that we’ve taken from days of really no real-time data to where we are now — I think it’ll be a challenge for us to even conceive of what those data sets look like within five to 10 years.”

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.