Help us hack the highways by better exploiting the value of data

by | Sep 19, 2019 | Technology

Author: Charlie Henderson – Global Head of Roads, PA Consulting

Charlie Henderson

The UK highways sector needs to move faster and collaborate with those outside of traditional sector boundaries if we’re to improve the industry and create a positive human future. Imagine if we could work together across industry to use data to address major transport challenges. That’s exactly what we’ll be doing at Highways UK this year, as part of PA’s Hackathon.

We believe there’s an opportunity to better exploit the value of the data that is already collected, including combining it with other datasets.

The highways sector has always had lots of data, for example data on vehicle speed, flow and road layout. As an engineering-based industry we use data to support decision-making, for example why roads are built, when they are maintained and how flow of vehicles can be optimised along our busiest roads. All good stuff that means in the UK we have a pretty effective road network that is key to economic growth and social mobility. But I believe as a sector we have been slow – certainly slower than other sectors – to exploit the value of data.

Opportunities for change

Industry has been slow to exploit data due to a combination of factors. First, the culture of the sector is based around standards and guidance developed over many years – often looking backwards at precedence rather than ahead to possibility. Another issue is the focus on risk avoidance – we’re a safety-critical industry and are cautious to adopt new technologies and ways of working. These are important characteristics when making significant investment decisions in a safety-critical environment, but we should also recognise they can hold us back.

Better exploiting available data brings a number of benefits. You can better understand when infrastructure needs maintenance (predictive maintenance). You can manage when people use the road network (more active demand management) and you can provide people with information to make the right mode choice (encouraging a modal shift) which will help enable better outcomes for road users, businesses and communities.

Going further, faster

Working with others can help drive change at pace. As a sector, there are examples of collaborative working. But this tends to be with those within the sector – those who share the same culture, experiences and training. We need to reach further and work with those outside our traditional sector boundaries. This includes those from the automotive and energy sectors, mobile phone operators, behavioural psychologists and data scientists. And we need to ask different sorts of questions – less about trips, more about purpose of travel.

You can get involved

As part of this year’s Highways UK, we’re hosting a hackathon to help solve these challenges.

We are asking for multi-organisational teams (for example an engineering firm, an academic institution and data analytics organisation) to come together to create teams of different skills and insight. We (PA and Highways UK) can help facilitate introductions if need be.

Teams will have exclusive access to a O2 dataset, which includes national origin-destination data of c4.3m cells relating to 140m journeys. We’ll also highlight other available datasets to use to enhance your recommendations.

The data will be provided in advance of Highways UK so that teams can spend their time during Highways UK showcasing their findings in a dedicated space within PA Consulting’s Innovation Hub. And experts from O2, Highways England and PA will be able provide guidance before Highways UK as to areas that you might want to consider, brief you on the O2 data and highlight other potential data sources.

The Highways UK 2019 hackathon is not a competition – no judging, just a unique opportunity to showcase analytical capabilities. It also provides a ‘safe’ environment to explore working with different organisations, develop new contacts, look at new datasets and to inspire one another.

Please get in touch with me ( if you are interested or would like to know more.

Charlie Henderson is global head of roads at PA Consulting