Case study: Technology takes to the roads

11 Apr 2005

One of the most frustrating things for a motorist is being stuck in traffic and moving at a snail’s pace past roadworks that have been in situ for weeks and do not appear to be progressing. South Dublin County Council aims to make this a thing of the past thanks to a new online system for co-ordinating roadworks.

Called Roadmap, (Roadworks Operations And Datalogging Management Application Project), the system is used by all major utility companies in the county and council work departments to apply for permission to open a road. Recognising that it was in the interests of utility companies and councils alike to have uniformity and certainty when dealing with each other, county manager of the council Joe Horan released the product to the Local Government Computer Services Board for rationalisation to suit individual local authorities’ needs.

The principal aim of Roadmap was to bring some “sanity” to the paper-based system, according to Frank Moran, senior engineer projects at the council and the man who led the in-house development team that involved John Power, Tom Leacy and Gareth Moran. Other main objectives included: tracking all roadworks, from the moment a contractor applies for permission through completion of the works and to the end of the guarantee period; improve safety by enforcing better work practices; and reduce traffic congestion.

Work began in earnest on the project in early 2003. “What set this forward was we had a large submission from NTL with regard to expanding its operations within the county here,” explains Denis Ryan, senior engineer of Road Maintenance and Public Lighting with the council. “So we were faced with a large programme of work. We looked at various systems designed to manage that in a co-ordinated manner and we found that most of the systems partially catered for our needs but not fully. So I approached Frank [Moran] who had developed a system for managing public lighting here and he took it from there.”

“I spent three months thinking about it and assembling my team, before I put pen to paper,” recalls Moran. “We then spent the next 18 months from then until now designing and implementing it.”

The system is now live. Utility companies and the council’s works departments now apply for permission to open a road by logging onto a password-protected website They can then fill in the online equivalent of six different forms. Permission is granted online and the necessary documentation can be printed off. Contractors must display a sign identifying themselves and the utility they are working for. The documentation must be affixed to the sign and be available for inspection by any member of the public. The documents outline the permission and state the conditions under which permission is granted, ie duration of roadworks, location and so on.

Through the website, any interested party can access the system and view the status of any project through a colour-coded system.

To enforce the conditions, the council has a number of designated inspectors who visit the sites of roadworks on an ongoing basis and update the Roadmap system. As staff members in other council departments are trained in the use of the system, they are also issued with ruggedised laptop computers and a digital camera and so the monitoring regime and the information transfer increases to everybody’s benefit.

Until recently, the computers were equipped with GPRS data cards that allowed the inspectors to send and receive textual data, the bandwidth not being suited for anything more onerous. However Moran realising that this was not ideal began looking around for a more advanced solution.

By coincidence, Vodafone was working with the libraries unit of the council on a project involving 3G communications. The company heard about Moran’s inquiries and approached him. The key difference between the two technologies is speed. While the GPRS card gives throughput equivalent to that of a dial-up landline, the 3G card can deliver near broadband speeds.

Inspectors can now access and send graphical data and update the Roadmap system in real-time through a secure link. They can see at a glance if the project is on schedule and if necessary take digital photos and upload them to the system without having to waste time returning to the office. “We can watch what is going on during the day. We have immediate access to whatever the inspector is doing and so do the utility companies,” says Moran.

If a contractor does not conform to the conditions laid down by the council and if it does not return the road to its original state – and inspectors monitor sites up to two years after works are completed – they face hefty financial penalties.

Roadmap has greatly increased the quality of service that the council provides both to contractors and citizens alike.

By David Stewart