NYC street signs (Andrey Bayda/

NYC takes new direction with street sign management system

It used to be that when New York City Transportation Department field workers had to inspect, update and change traffic signs, they first stopped at the office, grabbed a printout of their work order, located the sign on a map and headed out to find it. They hand-wrote notes about their findings on the paper and returned to the office at day’s end to enter the information into the 30-plus-year-old mainframe traffic sign order management system.

That all changed June 5, when NYC DOT launched the Sign Information Management System, a custom-developed, open source web application. SIMS has three main parts: an interactive map with sign locations pinned, asset management and work order management. The department issued 100 Android tablets for managers and field workers to use, although the web application works on any smart device. Now workers have real-time visibility into traffic-control devices, or, more simply, signs.

“We created this system to be flexible so at any time we should be able to define the assets -- the traffic-control devices --  with respect to our latest city map, and then we were able to search for either the locations or for the signs or for assigned orders," said Varghese Abraham, director of the NYC DOT Project Management Office. "Then we are able to assign the work orders to different groups of staff, and they’ll be able to control and secure the work needed in the field.”

One of the biggest challenges with building SIMS was migrating data on nearly 11.5 million records from the old system, written in COBOL, to SIMS. The first step was loading the mainframe records into the new SQL-based database, Abraham said. The location information for each sign was in a text field but needed to populate a geocoded model. To ensure only accurate data moved over, the team used custom algorithms to handle the data conversion.

In fact, data accuracy had been an area of concern with the old system because field workers relied on their handwritten notes. SIMS uses a graphical user interface that allows department workers to point and click, and either enter or use drop-down menus to access the data fields they want to populate. “It’s more user-friendly now,” Abraham said.

Other benefits of the new system include better situational awareness. For instance, staff can see other work orders in SIMS and note how those sign changes or additions could affect their own assignments.

“As our planners or engineers are looking at these roadways, they have situational awareness of what else is going on, both what’s been installed by seeing the signs that are already existing and … what’s been proposed,” said DOT's CTO Cordell Schachter. “They can see those orders in progress because they may be working around the corner or down the street from an existing order, and they can make sure that their work is going to harmonize with the existing order, or if they see that there’s a conflict, bring that to everyone’s attention before all the work is implemented.”

The display grid of work orders also helps NYC DOT’s legal department, Schachter added, because a main issue in traffic crash litigation is the regulation in effect at the time of the accident and whether information was properly posted. So “another client group here is the legal division,” he said. “They are making use of the data from this app.”

The department opted for a web-based, open source app as opposed to a commercial solution because none of the off-the-shelf products they tried fit all their needs, Schachter said. The department worked with Cambridge Systematics on building the custom open source stack.

One requirement for the new system was an interactive map because “the city’s map is a transitory thing,” Schachter said. “Every day we change regulations, streets are added or changed, lanes are changed, so that’s one of the reasons this application is so important. The traffic control information on the street needs to keep pace with the growth and change within the city.”

Easier, more accurate data analysis was another requirement.  Generating reports from a mainframe system required them to be "handcrafted," said Harry King, SIMS program manager.  "It wasn’t always easy to build repeatable processes that made things more automated,” he said. “Going to the modern system, where we use SQL-like databases, then you have a little bit of data ready to be manipulated in ways that you need to see things more quickly.”

Although the department doesn’t “lead with the technology” when researching solutions to business problems, Schachter said that as other business needs arise that could benefit from an asset or work order management system, the team would look at SIMS before buying or developing another platform. “And because it’s open source, we know that the future investments will go toward coding to address the future business needs and not to pay more licensing fees,” he said.

Editor's note: This article was changed Sept. 26 to clarify Varghese Abraham's title.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.


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