253 | Undervalued transport data and diluted plug-and-play solutions

There’s little to digest about the value of transport data. Under-priced, hard to get, but gold mine for the servers willing to carry tray-table apps, clipboards and courage on hot and rainy days. 

International companies in African countries are forced to rebrand, reposition and place their products square into the “African” box. Whereas, the international service offering is attractive to the primary clients: governments, cities and officials. 

It is where the acquisitions, mergers and market placers will not hesitate to position their offering closer to one of the largest and most untapped data reservoirs in the world. 

In practice, we see the low quality and high cost project outputs offered by bloated consultancies with a reputation, good branding and a reputable leadership but scrambled deployment of scarce skills. 

In my view, it is a race to the bottom. Instead of finding optimal pressure points for rich data collection platforms and biting the sunk cost of the initial investment, we see deviations from seeking a standard in transport planning in SA. 

Who pays for the inconsistencies? Everyone, but the consultants, who by and large do not use public transport, live or have familiarity with the long-term living conditions of the areas they serve. 

Thus, as long as the service level agreement is signed and the project goals are achieved within the minimum requirements the incentives to do more, better or give genuine value evaporate. 

Over-outsourcing 

I met one group of consultants once. Highly trained team, excellent communicators, modest and hyper-focused. The team knew how to navigate controversy and vested interests in this particular project. 

Meetings had one or two senior professionals. But who did the work? An intern. Where is the work now? Shelved. Any follow-ups? No. 

Imagine the responsibility to produce an implementable project programme that a municipality can budget for and competently engage with Treasury, Council and others. Undervalued assets these Integrated Transport Plans are. 

In retrospect, how many ITPs have been produced since the 2000s? How many officials have actually used them? I ask this on purpose because if the ITP is unimplemented, or does not provide useful data that provides integrated continuity from the previous one, then it is probably useless. 

This is a challenge in the state: over-outsourcing instead of investing in high-skilled professionals to develop and execute transport programmes. This “avoided cost” seems efficient from a cost perspective, but it appears to produce an ineffective service delivery problem. 

Where multiple service providers funnel through minimum requirements, without critical and principled oversight across the board. Perhaps in the early days it made sense, but at this point it is fundamental risk to the transport planning environment—for freight and passenger services. 

Standardise the data asset

In fact, there is no central repository from the National Department of Transport where we can see all the ITPs, for all municipalities in the country. Even the minimum requirements are outdated, without a true standard, and behind the digital curve for transport data internationally. 

This is coming to an end as more and more platforms and firms emerge. Transport companies with a serious interest in long-term infrastructure investment are aware of how data is an asset for financing decisions. 

However, these are slow growth scale-ups rushing through R&D and probably faced with incremental improvements to their platforms on a case-by-case basis. 

Few, from my observation are ready to plug-in beyond the design and budget tradition from the engineering entourage. 

Nor are there teams ready to divert from the legal template for operating contracts, let alone tying up industrial and commercial real estate incentives in their clauses. 

At face value, maybe, these could be ideas for executives to run with. I would argue, that even if imitation does occur, the original effort required to build plug and play solutions to SA’s transport problems are scattered by the lack of standards, due diligence, review and transparency. 

The plug and play solutions work, but they are easily diluted to the lowest cost, least effort—land of least resistance. Whereas, if transport data was truly valued, it would be a policy priority across all modes and sectors. 

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