Transportation Asset Management helps agencies make the best use of resources to create the maximum return on the roadway investment. TAM is dependent, however, upon access to a range of data that too often resides in "silos" or other pockets dispersed within an agency. Data integration (DI) helps align all relevant information, regardless of its legacy format or source, so that it is more readily available for use in decision-making for the stewardship of transportation assets.
Thorough planning is essential to the process of data integration. An understanding of the requirements that an integrated data environment will be expected to fulfill is the first step. The agency's business processes, user needs, organizational characteristics, existing information systems infrastructure and database and database management characteristics must be assessed. Then data and process flow models must be established. From there, alternatives-such as aligning and connecting similar data systems (fused databases) or helping disparate information sources better relate to each other (interoperable databases)-are evaluated and selected.
The design and specification of the resulting database is then addressed. A series of decisions ensues, including recommendations regarding data models and standards. Data reference systems are explored and data "dictionaries," are assessed. Finally, software and hardware choices that best support the envisioned integrated database are made.
Development, testing, and implementation of the processes and solutions chosen is the final step toward full data integration. Well after the new system is in common use, however, it is important to understand that the more successful the result of the data integration process, the more robust the demands on the infrastructure are likely to be. This generally creates a need for vigorous ongoing maintenance to ensure it sustains peak performance, a phenomenon that must be anticipated in the planning and cost evaluation stages.
On the road to data integration, challenges abound. The quality of existing data varies and must be addressed. Determining a sufficient level of storage capacity can be difficult, yet is critical for a highly functioning end product. Buy-in from top management to end users is critical and can create a hurdle, particularly if the effort is undertaken at a time in which resources are stretched to capacity. Managing the cost and level of effort associated with data integration calls for considerable knowledge and foresight in the planning and analysis stages of the project. Finding project managers and other staff with relevant experience is becoming easier as more agencies achieve data integration, but the number of DI veterans remain small nationwide. And a process that can sometimes seem analogous to design-build construction practices is difficult to cost accurately, requiring a quality of commitment that allows for some flexibility as it moves toward and into practice.
Yet the dividends paid by a fully functioning integrated data environment are well worth the investment. Access to information drives innovation, efficiency, safety, and maximum return on investment. Empowering talented professionals with the information they need to make their most insightful contributions harvests from the transportation community the best possible options for addressing immediate priorities such as "Putting America to Work." It also helps ensure consistent action in the long-term best interests of the highway customer and the Nation.
Colorado DOT's enterprise data system is expected to grow as more data systems are converted, helping support the agency's five-year programming and twenty-year planning cycles. CDOT also recognizes that data integration becomes increasingly critical to providing stakeholders, such as the legislature and elected officials, with reliable information, including accomplishments involving performance measures and Transportation Asset Management, to ensure efficient resource allocation. CDOT is constantly nurturing and reevaluating its business processes and information management tools to ensure this goal is met. In the words of agency personnel, "We are never done."(23)