Covering approximately 115,000 miles, Iowa's roadway system is one of the largest (per capita) in the nation. Keeping all those roads safe for travelers throughout the year is a challenge. Car crashes tend to spike during the winter months, when the state receives an average of 33 inches of snow, causing costly delays and hazards for drivers. The Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) plays a critical role in assessing the state of the roadways in real-time: it is their job to notify first responders and commuters about crashes and current road conditions. Getting children to and from school is a top priority every day. Mike Patton, superintendent of the Roland-Story school district, notes that "our primary concern is making sure that we get everyone to and from school safely. As road conditions change it's important for us to stay on top of what's happening out there. If technology could help us determine what's occurring across the entire school district we'd make better decisions for our kids."
As part of that goal, the Iowa DOT collects mountains of data, generating daily, monthly, and annual reports across a range of variables, from numbers of fatalities to average vehicle miles travelled (VMT). Although roads are maintained by cities and counties as well as the state, the state DOT has responsibility for all of that data collection. Bonnie Castillo, Director of the Traffic Management Center, reports that the Iowa DOT has operators continuously monitoring road conditions more than 400 cameras as well as other sensors, like radar detectors, GPS devices, and cameras mounted on snow plows. As the numbers and images accumulate they must be interpreted. So the Iowa DOT turned to Iowa State's Institute of Transportation (InTrans) for help. Since 2013 they have been collaborating through the university's REACTOR lab, one of the only facilities in the country using big data to analyze problems and recommend solutions for transportation. The lab collects terabytes of data from a wide variety of sources as frequently as every twenty seconds. "We wanted to condense that data and analyze it much more quickly," says Tracey Bramble, Information Specialist at the Iowa DOT.