Red Light, Green Light

Virginia's new Dashboard system instantly shows the status of state transportation projects.

by / May 21, 2003
For a large government agency to design an IT system that tracks the status of all its projects would be difficult. To design such a system in a week would be seemingly impossible.

Yet the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) did just that. The agency's new Web-based system, Dashboard, allows VDOT employees and Virginia citizens to instantly assess the status of construction projects throughout the state.

"The technology component of Dashboard took less than a week to design," said Murali Rao, VDOT's IT application director. "Things have matured quite a bit since then, but the basic shell is the same."

Driving Accountability
Dashboard provides the latest information on budgets, schedules and work orders (project changes that result in additional costs) for VDOT projects ready to go to construction, as well as projects already under construction.

The data that flows into Dashboard is pooled, and a color is assigned to each project based on how the project ranks. The colors assigned to each project correspond to the colors of a traffic signal: Green means a project is on track, on time and within budget; orange means the project is at risk of falling behind schedule, going over budget or using too many work orders; and red means the project is behind schedule, over budget or has too many work orders.

The overall goal of Dashboard is to improve the delivery of VDOT projects on time and on budget and to hold the agency accountable for its performance.

"With VDOT spending over $3 billion of public money every year, taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being used," said VDOT Commissioner Philip Shucet. "The Dashboard holds VDOT accountable for its work in a very public way."

Data Rich, Information Poor
Prior to Dashboard, VDOT used two old mainframe systems to track projects. One system was designed for developing projects to go into advertisement, and the second was designed for paying contractors and tracking the status of payments on a month-to-month basis.

"To try and find the cumulative totals on all the projects in a district or residency would take an enormous amount of time and paper," said Connie Sorrell, VDOT's chief of policy and organizational development. "The department was data rich and information poor. We had lots of data being spewed out, but no good management reporting tools."

The push to develop Dashboard originated with Shucet. As commissioner, he was looking for a high-level management information system that could give him a broad-level view of the status of VDOT projects. When Shucet found there was no tool available to help him, he asked VDOT's IT group to develop one.

Dashboard was developed internally with no extra costs to VDOT and was officially launched in August 2002. According to Rao, the data warehouse is Dashboard's driving engine.

"We extract data from various transactional systems like the financial system, construction management system, utilities management system, etc.," Rao said. Once the data comes into the data warehouse, it is programmed to run various queries on the data. "We then apply the Dashboard business logic to the data and present it on the Dashboard," he explained. "The data is just one day old, so it's near real-time."

Shucet said Dashboard was originally designed as an internal tool for VDOT. But as the project matured, it became much more. On March 12, 2003, a public version was unveiled.

"Once we got into it we realized its value to the public," he said. "It's kind of like hanging all your laundry out on the clothesline for everyone to see, but it is the public's money, after all."

Technologically Dashboard suffered few setbacks along the way, primarily because VDOT's IT team had experience developing a similar system. The team's biggest challenges involved data quality.

"People were never efficient in keeping up the data in the old legacy mainframes," Rao said. "There were so many business policies being practiced that had been status quo for a long time. When we exposed that data to the Dashboard and the Dashboard rules, many data issues became apparent."

Fortunately the department was quick at work. Though it took a couple months, VDOT employees eventually agreed on rules to ensure data going into the system was clean, consistent and up-to-date. To guarantee the credibility of project ratings, VDOT decided that any projects delayed due to business rule debates or missing data would automatically default to red on the Dashboard.

"You have to qualify through the rules procedure to come to green, so the data integrity is unquestionable," Rao said.

Meanwhile, Sorrell's challenge came to light when discussions shifted to taking Dashboard public. "We were very concerned about being overwhelmed when the public accessed the information," she said. "Many people were worried they'd spend all their time dealing with angry e-mails about projects that were in trouble."

Fortunately that fear proved unfounded, and the public was very receptive. VDOT had 14,000 visits to Dashboard within weeks of its public launch, yet received only about 100 e-mail complaints.

Internal feedback was positive as well. Personnel at VDOT district and field offices can now see budgets, schedules and work orders in an integrated fashion. "They know which areas they need to pay attention to," Rao said. "It's a fantastic tool for internal management. It's also allowed us to identify several areas where business processes could be streamlined, and they are being worked on as we speak."

Sorrell said knowing that 75 percent of projects are on budget is important. "We've learned a tremendous amount about some of our business processes by being able to access this information in such an easy-to-use, cumulative way," she said.

Deadlines and Dollars
VDOT envisions several enhancements in Dashboard's future.

Eventually VDOT hopes to integrate GIS data -- visitors to the site could then click on a project and get a map of exactly where that project is taking place. They could also view a graphic of what the area will look like when the project is done, while a "Drive It" feature would let them virtually drive a road both before and after construction.

The most important aspect of Dashboard will still be the improved management of VDOT projects. Sorrell said those improvements are already occurring.

"Projects are absolutely being run better," she said. "It's been a tremendous improvement in our ability to know the status of our projects, and then know what steps we need to take to improve their timeliness and ensure they are on budget. What gets measured gets done."

Shucet said though more state departments of transportation are providing the public information via their Web sites, they aren't providing them the full story. He believes Dashboard-like projects will soon spread to other state DOTs as public demand for more information increases.

"While we are saying, 'Here was our original deadline, and here's where we are now,' other states are simply saying, 'Here's where we are now.' We've taken it a bit further to hang it out there for everyone to see where we're doing well and where we're not doing well. Demand for that type of information is on the rise."

As word spreads, Dashboard-type systems may become more common in other departments within Virginia government. Sorrell said Dashboard has already increased pressure on agencies to provide better access to information about how tax dollars are spent.

For now, Dashboard will continue helping VDOT track projects and monitor progress.

"We're not going to make any dramatic, immediate changes in active construction projects just because we have the Dashboard," Shucet said. "But I do believe we will dramatically change the future of our construction program and the future of how we manage deadlines and budgets."
Justine Brown Contributing Writer