Searching for common ground in the ITS privacy debate

Should your vehicle be able to gather, store, or transmit information about where it’s been—or where it’s going? On the surface, it seems like a simple question. However, it inevitably gives rise to many others: Who will see the data? How will it be used? Can it be given or sold to a third party? Under what circumstances? Clearly, there are no straightforward solutions or answers in the debate surrounding privacy issues in intelligent transportation systems (ITS).

“The difficulty and complexity of these issues has resulted in an increasingly disconnected public discussion about privacy and ITS,” says Frank Douma, a researcher in the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “In one camp are privacy advocates, and in the other camp are technologists and the ITS industry, who generally view privacy issues as secondary when compared with the tremendous benefits of these technologies. The disconnect often results in the two sides talking past each other, with too little energy spent finding potential common ground.”

According to Douma, one cause of this disconnect is a lack of clarity on both sides about the needs, goals, and interests of those involved. To address this divide, a multidisciplinary team of U of M researchers has published a report that sheds new light on the ITS privacy debate by mapping and assessing the interests of all participants. The team was led by Douma and research assistant Tom Garry, and the project was sponsored by the ITS Institute, a program of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies.

The ITS privacy debate involves an interlaced web of participants with multiple interests.

Researchers began their analysis by pinpointing exactly who should be concerned about privacy as ITS technologies are developed and implemented and what their goals are with respect to privacy data. A number of diverse participant groups were identified, including ITS developers, transportation users, the government, data collectors, data users, and secondary users such as marketers and litigants.

“We found few black-and-white divides among participants in the privacy debate,” says Douma. “For example, transportation users are not simply pro-privacy, and data collectors are not inherently anti-privacy. Individuals are willing to share their locational data in exchange for real benefits in a variety of circumstances, such as GPS guidance or electronic tolling. However, there are also limits to this willingness.”

Because of this nuanced landscape, researchers concluded that while there is no all-encompassing solution to the ITS privacy debate, there are a number of potential avenues and tools for finding common ground. Their recommendations include setting limits on the time data can be retained, prohibiting unrelated secondary use of data, designing ITS systems with privacy in mind, avoiding the collection of personally identifiable locational information when possible, and implementing privacy policies such as the use of clear privacy notices.

“It’s also important to remember that the positions of participants in this debate are not entrenched,” says Douma. “As technology changes, privacy expectations will also likely evolve as well, such that what may seem important today is less so, and something we are not considering today could be critically important in the future. Consequently, it’s very important that this conversation continue in the years to come.”

Reprinted from the CTS Catalyst, May 2013.

Portable weigh-in-motion system demonstration

Weigh-in-motion (WIM) systems consist of sensors placed in road pavements to measure the weight of vehicles passing over them, along with other data such as speed, axle load and spacing, and vehicle type. This data is used to enforce weight limits on trucks and is also useful in a wide range of other applications, such as pavement design and traffic analysis.

However, constructing and maintaining permanent roadside WIM stations is expensive, so these systems are installed primarily on roadways with heavy traffic, such as interstate and trunk highways, and rarely used for rural local roads. Meanwhile, heavy truck volumes on local roads are increasing, significantly shortening their lives. A less costly, portable WIM system is needed for such roads so that collected data can be used to better design these roads to accommodate heavy truck traffic.

One solution for bringing WIM technology to local roads is to implement a portable, reusable system similar to pneumatic tube counters used to conduct traffic counts. With funding and technical assistance from MnDOT and the Local Road Research Board, Professor Taek Kwon of the University of Minnesota—Duluth has developed a prototype system that has already proven to be nearly as accurate as the more expensive, permanent systems.  MnDOT Research Services staff drove up to MnROAD this week to observe a live demonstration of the technology, and made this short video.

The research being conducted here is part of an implementation project based on Kwon’s original study, the results of which can be found in this research report and its accompanying two-page technical summary from MnDOT Research Services.

Bicycle and pedestrian counting initiative monitors nonmotorized traffic in Minnesota

In a continuing effort to better understand nonmotorized traffic patterns in Minnesota, researchers from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs have partnered with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to develop guidelines and analyze information collected in bicycle and pedestrian traffic counts throughout the state.Image

The research team, led by Professor Greg Lindsey, aims to develop consistent methods for monitoring and assessing bicycle and pedestrian traffic that can be used in both permanent, automated traffic counts and short-term manual counts. The goal is to provide evidence for decision making that Minnesota cities have historically lacked, Lindsey says. “We’ll have practical, useful information about bike and pedestrian traffic that can help local jurisdictions as they plan and invest in infrastructure,” he says.

As part of the 18-month project, the research team created a set of tools and methods for short-duration manual counts of nonmotorized traffic, held training workshops, and organized a statewide counting effort involving 43 Minnesota municipalities last fall. The overall response was positive, Lindsey says, and some communities are already using their collected data to submit grant proposals for projects related to nonmotorized traffic.

In addition, Lindsey and his team have examined traffic information from six permanent counters on Minneapolis trails. The continuous counts collected at these locations help the researchers understand traffic patterns and the factors that affect them, Lindsey says. For example, the team found that bike and pedestrian traffic vary by trail type, time of day, day of week, and season.

“Once we know the patterns at permanent sites, we can develop factors that help us expand short-term counts from other locations with similar conditions,” Lindsey says. The factors could be used to estimate anything from total daily traffic to annual traffic, as long as the short-term count location is similar to an existing model.

Based on the overall results of the study, the research team developed recommendations for MnDOT. These include continuing to coordinate statewide short-term field counts, demonstrating the feasibility of automated counting technologies, and beginning to integrate nonmotorized and vehicular traffic databases.

Based on these recommendations, MnDOT is moving forward with a new project that will collect more short- and long-duration counts throughout Minnesota, says Lisa Austin, ABC Ramps coordinator at MnDOT. The next phase of work aims to collect counts for pedestrians on sidewalks, bicyclists on shoulders and in bike lanes, and pedestrians and bicyclists on multiuse trails. MnDOT plans to install more permanent, automated counters in suburban and midsize cities and to conduct additional manual counts in smaller cities around the state, Austin says.

“We’re really excited that this bike and pedestrian counting project is moving into wider implementation,” Austin says. “This next phase will help us see which automated counting technologies work well and make recommendations for moving forward on a broader scale.”

Reprinted from the CTS Catalyst, May 2013.

White House honors MnDOT traffic boss for work on rural intersection safety

The White House named Minnesota Department of Transportation State Traffic Engineer Sue Groth one of its 12 transportation “Champions of Change” for her role in implementing life-saving technology to help prevent collisions at rural intersections. The rural intersection conflict warning systems, which use sensors and lights to give motorists real-time warnings about traffic conditions, were developed by MnDOT’s Office of Traffic, Safety and Technology.

It’s worth noting that MnDOT Research Services and the University of Minnesota are also currently working on a project to develop a low-cost version of these systems using LEDs and solar panels. The ongoing research, being conducted by University of Minnesota— Duluth Professor Taek Kwon, is a continuation of the Advanced Light-Emitting Diode Warning System project completed in 2010.

Here’s the press release from MnDOT:

ST. PAUL, Minn. – On Wednesday, May 8, 2013, the White House honored Sue Groth, Minnesota Department of Transportation’s state traffic engineer, as one of 12 people who are Transportation “Champions of Change.” The Champions event, “Transportation Technology Solutions for the 21st Century,” focused on individuals or organizations that have provided exemplary leadership in developing or implementing transportation technology solutions to enhance performance, reduce congestion, improve safety and facilitate communication across the transportation industry at the local, state or national level.

“These Champions represent the very best in American leadership, innovation and progress,” said Secretary Ray LaHood. “I’m proud to recognize these transportation leaders who work every day to grow our economy and help us reach our destinations more quickly, efficiently and safely.”

The MnDOT Office of Traffic, Safety and Technology has been selected as a Champion of Change for their work to reduce fatal and life-changing crashes on Minnesota roadways, while enhancing mobility for all users. OTST is being honored for designing, testing and helping to deploy dozens of life-saving rural intersection conflict warning systems throughout Minnesota, while leading a national effort to do more of the same throughout rural America. These systems save lives at rural intersections that might otherwise not warrant or afford more traditional traffic control devices or geometric improvements.

See also:

U of M transportation research highlights video

U of M transportation research highlights during 2012-2013 include a smartphone app for visually impaired pedestrians, pedestrian and bicyclist safety in roundabouts, methods for counting bike and pedestrian traffic on trails, and a filter that takes phosphorous out of storm water.

Research partnerships create better pavements

As is painfully evident this time of year, Minnesota’s weather is highly destructive to our asphalt roadways.  One of the biggest challenges for transportation practitioners in cold-climate states like ours is low-temperature cracking in asphalt pavements. The distress caused by  our extreme weather variations and constant freeze-thaw cycles wreaks havoc on our asphalt streets and highways, causing decreased ride quality, increased maintenance costs and shorter pavement lifespans.

On April 17, the Center for Transportation Studies presented its 2013 Research Partnership Award to the team members of a multi-state, Minnesota-led study designed to combat the problem. The project, Investigation of Low Temperature Cracking in Asphalt Pavements, Phase II,” was a national pooled-fund study involving six state DOTs, four universities, the Minnesota Local Road Research Board and the Federal Highway Administration. It resulted in a new set of tools — test methods, material specifications and predictive models — that will be used to build longer-lasting pavements.

The project is a prime example of the value and benefits of cooperative research. Each organization brought its own unique strengths and expertise to bear on the problem. The University of Minnesota, led by Professor Mihai Marasteanu, brought its strength in lab testing of binders and mixtures, for example; other universities leveraged their respective expertise in data analysis, statistics and modeling capabilities. MnDOT, as the lead state agency, controlled the finances and kept the research on track, guiding the process through technical advisory panels. MnDOT’s materials laboratory and its unique MnROAD pavement research facility also played a key role in the study.

The above video provides an excellent overview of the project and includes commentary from key MnDOT and University of Minnesota team members. MnDOT is already moving to implement the results. It plans to use the new test procedure on several road construction projects this year. Iowa and Connecticut are among the other states reportedly planning implementation projects.

See also:

2013 Research Partnership Award winners

From left: University of Minnesota Professor Mihai Marasteanu, the project’s principal investigator; MnDOT State Aid Director Julie Skallman; MnROAD Operations Engineer Ben Worel; and CTS Associate Director for Development and Finance Dawn Spanhake, who presented the award. (Photo by Cadie Adhikary, Center for Transportation Studies)

In the news: innovative U of M and MnDOT pothole repair technology

Last night, KARE-11 News featured innovative pavement repair research sponsored by MnDOT. In a public-private partnership, Larry Zanko of the Natural Resources Research Institute at University of Minnesota Duluth connected with Krik Kjellberg’s company to microwave a mix of asphalt and magnetite in road holes, creating a long-lasting pothole fix.

The people (and machines) who fix Minnesota’s potholes

In Minnesota, with our often wildly unpredictable weather and constant freeze-thaw cycles, potholes are a fact of life. Anyone who’s climbed into a motor vehicle in the last month or so has doubtlessly encountered countless reminders of this dismal reality. Fortunately, we have a small army of public works professionals devoted to eradicating this perennial nuisance. The Minnesota Local Road Research Board recently produced this video, which nicely explains the various methods used to combat potholes in Minnesota.

Potholes form when water invades cracks in the pavement and infiltrates the soil beneath it. When that water freezes, it stretches the road surface, causing the fractures to expand. After a few cycles of freezing and thawing, the pavement begins to buckle and eventually collapses under the weight of passing traffic, creating disruptions in the road’s surface.

Road crews use a variety of methods to fill potholes. The simplest method is the “throw-and-go” procedure, in which workers simply shovel an asphalt mixture into the pothole and pack it down until the road’s surface is smooth. A related method is “throw-and-roll,” where the patch is compacted using an asphalt roller.

Other methods include:

  • “semi-permanent” patching, in which workers clear the pothole of moisture and debris and then square the edges with a pavement saw before applying the patch;
  • “spray injection,” which involves using specialized equipment to blast water and debris out of the pothole before spray-filling it with asphalt mix and finally applying a dust coat of dry aggregate on top; and
  • “slurry” or “microsurfacing” crack filling, in which a slurry of aggregate, asphalt emulsion and mineral filler is placed over a crack in the pavement and leveled off using a squeegee.

This Asphalt Pavement Maintenance Field Guide (PDF), co-funded by MnDOT and produced by CTS, provides a handy how-to guide to pothole patching and other types of pavement repairs commonly applied by public works professionals in Minnesota.

See also:

Minnesota transportation research blog