Big Data, Blog, Technology

Investing in Infrastructure: Suggestions from the analysis of Big Data

It’s a Thursday, like any other, and I’m on one of my almost weekly train rides from Milan to Bologna, which reaches the station at 6.45 p.m.

Pulling in to the terminal, the train is met by a scene that has not changed much in the past 30-40 years: Commuters, languishing on the platforms due to the usual delays—strikes, cancellations, mysterious malfunctions—practically ambush the local trains when they finally arrive. These commuters—some of the 14 million who commute daily—are office workers, students and even tourists who rely on antiquated, slow, dirty, eternally late and increasingly expensive trains to get from point A to point B.

For the Milan-Bologna route, there are a few options. The fastest, the high-speed Freccia Rossa, costs upwards of €29, and takes only 55 minutes to cover the roughly 207.9 km/129 miles from Milan’s Rogoredo station south to Bologna. The cheapest option, and the one most used by commuters, costs a little under €16 and is the slowest—the same route takes an average of two hours and forty minutes, and traveling at a speed of 35.5 kilometers/hour makes it among the slowest in Europe.

It is no secret that the high-speed trains have proven to be a profitable business, where spending has increased by 395% over the past five years—striking in comparison with the reductions in speed, increased ticket prices and inefficiencies that local transport users have seen over the same period. [This, from an excellent report—Pendolaria—by Legambiente (League for the Environment), which collects data on policies and funding of government and local regions for rail transport.]

While services for the high-speed trains continue to expand, they do so at the expense and inconvenience of the local and regional lines—and thereby the 14 million commuters—as rail preference is given to the high-speed trains.  All of this while commuter passengers continue to see increased ticket prices, the same old trains and increasingly unreliable schedules.

What is the impact of these transport inefficiencies? I would venture to say that this strategy has a huge impact on businesses, even down to local economies. What if we could quantify the loss of productivity for each rail user who arrives late to work every day? Or the loss of talent—55 minutes vs. almost three hours is a huge factor to consider in a job offer.

And what would be the impact, instead, of investing in improving the existing infrastructure to safely expedite traffic for the commuter trains, to improve and upgrade local stations and terminals and turn them into a real hub of services? And, how do we attract the attention of policy makers and investors in this direction?

Help is available in the proper analysis and use of so-called “Big Data,” the ever-increasing volumes of content available on the web or inside an enterprise network—free and readily available. The amount of information available today eclipses that available even 20 years ago, and technologies are available to create models that can measure the impact of such investments in a variety of scenarios. With the data in hand, we can go from a general or abstract idea to concrete, objective knowledge and facts useful for strategic decision making. At a time when it is wise to reduce waste and optimize available resources, the free and readily available information can only help the economy of a country that moves forward with one foot on the brake, and that, often, travels at two speeds.

Although this is an Italian story, the narrative of wasted resources and missed opportunities can be found in the public and private spheres around the world. As creators of much of the Big Data mentioned above, and more importantly, as citizens (and customers), it’s up to us to demand that policies—and investment of taxpayer funds—are made based on objective and measurable evaluation (and here Big Data can help). In this way, maybe we’ll find a methodology that will work for the good of the people who depend on such services, and not just to those who can afford them or who have the political clout to influence the decisions.

(Sidenote: A perfect example of these investments is the new high-speed train station that opened in Bologna in June, reportedly built to, among other things, reduce congestion on the regional lines… We’ll see!)

Author, Luca Scagliarini.


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