InTrans / Sep 20, 2017

Q&A with leaders at the Center for Transportation Research and Education

What sets CTRE apart from other centers at Iowa State University’s Institute for Transportation is its in-depth research in traffic safety, broad and extensive programming, and initiative to collaborate with a variety of partners in both industry, local and federal government agencies, and elsewhere.

Led by Director Omar Smadi, CTRE is supported by a number of researchers and program leaders, such as InTrans Associate Director Neal Hawkins (REACTOR Lab), Center for Weather Impacts on Mobility and Safety (CWIMS) Director Zachary Hans (ITSDS), and transportation research specialist Inya Nlenanya (IPMP).

Neal, tell us about REACTOR.
REACTOR stands for “Real-time Analytics of Transportation Data,” which combines massive data streams, high-performance computing capabilities, and a talented group of faculty, staff, and students focused on problem solving. REACTOR can complete numerous calculations within seconds, which we turn into real-time solutions and decision support.

The Lab was officially established in 2014 with researchers Anuj Sharma, Skylar Knickerbocker, and myself sharing the responsibilities as co-directors. Our goal is to extend beyond the boundaries of traditional research and create both a teaching as well as a research and support laboratory. We find ourselves continually transforming to meet the needs of the Iowa DOT as well as work for the National Science Foundation and FHWA.

What are some of your current projects?
REACTOR is currently working on a number of big impact projects, including statewide performance monitoring, work zones performance monitoring, predictive analytics, and the TIMELI project, which is led by Anuj Sharma and funded by the National Science Foundation.

The goal for TIMELI, which stands for the “Traffic Incident Management Enabled by Large-Data Innovations,” is to use emerging large-scale data analytics to reduce the number of road incidents through proactive traffic control and to assist operators in the statewide traffic management center.

How does REACTOR impact local agencies in Iowa?
Let’s face it, we live in a world of big data and that amount of information can be difficult for almost any agency to use, so REACTOR provides access to big data analytics using traffic, weather, and other data that otherwise would not be available. REACTOR supports these agencies by handling data requests and any analysis or visualization of the data. A recent example of this involves a project with a private consultant and input from metropolitan planning organizations looking at travel-time reliability in Iowa. REACTOR processed all of the probe data used to support the analysis, including different reliability measures, and provided them with the ability to visualize reliability on specific corridors.

Zach, tell us about ITSDS.
The Iowa Traffic Safety Data Service provides agencies with the most readily available crash data analysis resources in Iowa. It was created to fill the gap between what safety data users can gather for themselves and what they can obtain from experts. It is for anyone who needs to examine crash data to make decisions about funding, improving roads, implementing enforcement, writing reports, designing presentations, or increasing traffic safety awareness.

Nearly anyone can submit a data request. We’ve gotten them from concerned citizens, engineers, researchers, law enforcement, etc.

How does the ITSDS impact local agencies in Iowa?
Local agencies often request data directly from ITSDS but are also supported through other statewide efforts like fall safety workshops, law enforcement conferences, corridor and special enforcement projects, road safety audits, and multi-disciplinary safety team support.

A while back, in 2011, we completed a data request for a local Iowa fire department. They needed the data as part of their application for an Assistance to Firefighters Grant, which was awarded to them at a value of almost $600,000. They sent us a thank you: “Our Department feels that all of the work you and ISU did in getting us local statistics on emergency vehicle intersection collisions was one of the major reasons we got our grant. Our request was last minute, and we got a lot of great information in a very short period of time. We are grateful and SAFER in our responses because of what you do for Iowa and the region.”

Inya, tell us about IPMP.
The mission of the Iowa Pavement Management Program is twofold: support the management, planning, and programming needs of transportation agencies and provide pavement management information, tools, and training for project- and network-level activities.

IPMP promotes optimal, cost-effective decisions on highway maintenance, rehabilitation, and reconstruction using accurate past and projected pavement conditions.

What are some of your current projects?
Last year we started an IPMP Users’ Group that meets quarterly with local agencies with an aim to increase capacity in terms of data-driven pavement management in Iowa. This group provides agencies with training, data, and support with their pavement management plan. Another project being done is designing a geographic information system interface that will allow local agencies to interact and have access to their own current and historic data.

How does the IPMP impact local agencies in Iowa?
IPMP data provides an invaluable tool that local agencies use for project prioritization. Our pavement management training and support helps make local agencies better stewards of taxpayer dollars. For instance, when one agency passed a 1 percent local option sales tax, that agency used the IPMP data and deliverables to come up with a comprehensive pavement management plan to take advantage of the additional income.

For more information on CTRE and its programs, visit