Digital transformation

Why Abu Dhabi’s transport system is a global best practice

Aug 30, 2016

From enabling the public to intuitively report traffic issues, to providing all staff with a single real-time view of all agency data – Abu Dhabi’s transport spatial information framework is a global best practice.

Alexander Gerschenkron, the famous economic historian, once posited a benefit for those countries that came late to development – they could introduce the latest technology, and thus jump over some of the standard development paths followed by their predecessors. 

After just returning from a visit to Abu Dhabi, I think it's possible to make the same argument for late-comers to intelligent transport systems (ITS) – they can learn from those who went before, and more easily implement best practice.  

Let me explain why I think the Abu Dhabi Department of Transportation (DOT) will likely emerge as one such example.


The DOT for the Abu Dhabi Emirate has all transport modes under its authority, and takes that responsibility quite seriously. For the last year and a half, they have been developing a comprehensive spatial data model designed to accommodate not only the requirements of each mode, but also to provide a model allowing for the integration of information across those modes. 

This data model is designed to manage and maintain all of their tabular and spatial data, and to provide the underlying data infrastructure supporting all of their subsequent business and operational workflows. The DOT very consciously examined the practice of leading transportation agencies, and designed this architecture with great care.  

It was only after these spatial networks were built and attributed, that the department began to layer on their subsequent business solutions (travel demand forecasting, asset and maintenance management, public transport AVL, among others), and this data framework also undergirds the implementation of the department’s ITS program. 

In addition, the department then built a series of information portals, each building off of the same core networks and associated information.

First was an internal data portal, which allows managers in each division and department to access a wide range of information necessary for their work. Thus, a highway engineer can access pavement information (and a detailed video log) from a map interface, a similar map interface that lets the public transport division see the current location of a public bus. So not only do they share the same base network, but they also can share the resultant information, which can often be real-time information.

Next came the public-facing traveller information web portal, which is also fully multi-modal. So the public can not only see current highway conditions, road construction and detours along with parking locations, but also bus, ferry and airline schedules, bus routes and stops, and points of interest along the route, as well as the current location and timed arrival of the bus. 

Additionally, the portal allows the public to report an incident or condition requiring the DOT's attention, such as a pothole, which is then sent to the department’s customer care division for further action.

The key point to be emphasised is that they created a transport spatial information framework which now allows them to easily share information from across their various modal divisions in a consistent way, and which allows them to build fully integrated systems utilising this framework. 

Compare that with the current state of information silos typical in many similar agencies around the world – and it is this careful information architectural planning that will, I believe, allow them to make quite significant achievements – even best practice – in a very short period of time.

The point to be made is that the Department of Transport’s ITS systems are an integral component of the overall data and IT architecture used by the agency for many of their routine business functions, and was not built as a typical information silo divorced from the more standard data and information workflows.

And while there are certainly many better known ITS deployments among national roadway administrations and Departments of Transportation, this example represents a growing trend among those agencies  who have come to ITS in a second wave, and have put a strong emphasis on creating a comprehensive spatial data architecture to manage all of their various information work flows, and who have sought to avoid some of the common information silos more typical of the first generation of ITS implementations. 

Additionally, this agency has been able to avoid some of the more common difficulties associated with interagency coordination, and has been able to construct comprehensive traffic management and incident response systems integrating a number of different agencies. 

And isn’t that the real promise of ITS? To be able to integrate a large amount of information to better manage our roadways, whether reducing construction times or clearing incidents faster. And that all depends on access to spatial information which helps to facilitate these efficiencies.

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