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Publication Number:  FHWA-HRT-11-004    Date:  May/June 2011
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-11-004
Issue No: Vol. 74 No. 6
Date: May/June 2011


Guest Editorial

Using Information Investments Wisely

Photo. Headshot of Leni OmanThe investments that transportation agencies make in gathering and generating information are difficult to estimate but certainly considerable. Agencies collect and store data in multiple formats, ranging from files, tables, and documents to geographic information systems, images, and databases. The transportation community uses this information to increase understanding of the systems being analyzed, to inform decisionmakers and the public, and as a resource for future actions and performance measurement.

Despite all the information produced, finding relevant data for a task can be difficult. A synthesis of studies conducted by the International Data Corporation found that employees spend up to 35 percent of their time searching for information and that searchers are successful only 50 percent of the time or less, representing a loss of resources and time that could be spent more productively.

That's where librarians and library science add value, contributing expertise and tested methodologies to find and organize information. Professional librarians are skilled in research methods and knowledgeable about information classification systems and management techniques, enabling them to find information and resources quickly. They know how to phrase search terms and target sources that best fit information requests. They also have access to databases and information networks that enable them to procure resources in a least-cost manner.

The Washington State Department of Transportation hired a librarian specifically to manage information to support the Endangered Species Act consultation process for a corridor program. According to the department's planning manager, the librarian enabled the technical staff to respond more quickly and accurately to tasks requiring their specialized expertise, helping to expedite consultation on one project by more than 10 percent compared to the average consultation time. The conclusion: having a librarian on a megaproject is decidedly beneficial.

Improved access to information is not just about employing librarians and information professionals, but also about optimizing critical resources in a time of dwindling budgets. A review by Oracle found that 80 percent of an organization's information is unmanaged, increasing the likelihood that a significant amount will be difficult to find over time. In the digital age, information resources and products are commonly managed independently by functional groups within an organization or by information type (such as data, records, and manuals). Each group creates independent and task-specific classification systems. Few crosswalks exist to support searching and retrieval across these information silos. This inability to use information across an organization can impede achievement of strategic objectives.

Efforts are underway to address these challenges, both regionally and nationally. Through development of transportation knowledge networks, transportation organizations are collaborating to improve information access, exchange, use, and preservation for their employees, partners, stakeholders, and the broader transportation community. For more information, see “Masters of Information” on page 28 in this issue of PUBLIC ROADS.

Transportation agencies have created a huge body of information. Wise stewardship of these assets will require improved management at the organizational level and support for emerging transportation knowledge networks. By increasing awareness and use of existing resources and promoting practices that improve the retrieval of information, the transportation community can build a strong information infrastructure that will support business needs far into the future. The investment in information made by the transportation community is simply too precious to squander.

Leni Oman
Office of Research and Library Services
Washington State Department of Transportation




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