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November 17, 2016 4:00 PM, EST
Finding the Right Data in ‘Big Data’

This story appears in the November 14 print edition of iTECH, a supplement to Transport Topics.

Joe Howard

There is a lot of talk about how trucking can maximize the value of “big data,” but sometimes lost in the discussion is how to ensure fleets are using the right data.

“In the industry today, there is lots of data,” said Michael Riemer, vice president of product management and partner marketing at Decisiv, a provider of maintenance software. “That doesn’t mean it is very well-structured, reliable, real time or consistent — it is just lots of data.”

How fleets can take all of that information and turn it into actionable intelligence was the focus of a presentation, titled “Ensuring Data Quality,” at the annual joint meeting of the Information Technology & Logistics Council and the National Accounting & Finance Council of American Trucking Associations, held Oct. 1-4 in Las Vegas.

The first step, Riemer said, is establishing a goal.

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“What is it you actually want to answer?” Riemer asked. “It’s amazing how many times people come to us and say, ‘I want a graph that does this,’ but a graph doesn’t actually solve a business problem. A report doesn’t solve a business problem. So, what is the business problem that you’re trying to solve?” Just as vital, he said, is buy-in from involved parties. “Make sure everybody agrees on what you’re trying to solve,” he said.

Clarity on how to analyze the result is equally important, so ensuring that the right data elements are included in the process is vital, Riemer added.

“If you want to measure [something] and the process doesn’t capture the data required to report on it after the fact, there is no way you can report it,” he said. “Once you define the problem and define success, you have to make sure that you have all of the information you need to answer that question.”

That’s not always easy, as key information isn’t always shared across platforms.

“A lot of [data] is unstructured — it is siloed,” Riemer said. “And a lot of it is still phone-based. There are multiple sources of the truth, so where do you find out the real answer? In some cases, it is in multiple systems, and sometimes you have to make really tough decisions about which one you want to believe.”

It’s also important to build in some flexibility, Riemer added.

“There is nothing more important in today’s world than to be able to do course corrections in real time,” he said. “If you are completely reliant on after-the-fact reporting, you are going to have really good data [indicating] that you did a bad job. If you can course-correct, you can actually impact the outcome of that data before it becomes too meandering.”

Key to the ability to course-correct is freeing data from those siloed systems, Riemer said.

“It is amazing how many systems are built to be siloed when [they] need to be open so that everyone in that process can have access to it,” he said. “We all end up writing reports on things that have happened after the fact, but with good data you can — while a process is taking place — do course corrections. If you know that something is going awry, you can make a decision to do something else.”

That kind of flexibility can pay dividends in the long term and help motor carriers develop reliable platforms that produce reliable results, said Annie Sparrow, senior manager of enterprise architecture and innovation at Estes Express Lines.

“In its barest form, data quality is being able to answer the same question, the same way, with the right data, at the right time — consistently,” she said.

Estes Express, based in Richmond, Virginia, ranks No. 14 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in the United States and Canada.

“Five or 10 years ago, it used to be enough to just provide a service time [to a shipper] — when is it going to get picked up, and when is it going to arrive,” Sparrow said. “Now, [fleets] have become an integral part of the supply chain for a lot of folks, and that has a lot more data to it than what carriers are usually accustomed to delivering.”

That’s certainly true for Estes’ less-than-truckload business, where online retailing is driving sales in the business-to-consumer sector for everything from paving stones to swing sets, Sparrow said. And shippers expect reporting that is as varied as consumers’ choices.

“If I am a transportation manager working for any particular company, I want to be able to see [information] from anywhere at any time,” she said. “The concept of information only being available by phone, or only between the hours of 8 and 5 East Coast time, no longer applies.”

And they want a tailored experience, she said, with — for example — the ability to select pickup and delivery times.

“That has some pretty hefty operational implications to us as motor carriers, but it is what the customers are demanding,” she said.

Shippers also want to measure and grade carrier performance, Sparrow said. “This is something that is a bit of a sticky wicket, because those logistics and planning systems really want to be able to say, ‘How long did it take? I don’t care what you told me you did, I want to be able to physically measure you. I want to know at what point in time did you pick up my freight, how long did it take you to move it.’ And, in some cases, ‘How long did it sit in your yard? How long did it take to cross your dock?’ ”

Sparrow also pointed to the emergence of third-party logistics providers as a contributor to this demand.

“They are looking for more online reports and real-time data-sharing, and looking for it across all of our customers,” she said. “They’re co-opting our customers together and getting the small mom-and-pops to ask for information that they never would have required in the past.”

Joe Howard, information manager for ITLC, is a former editor at Transport Topics. He can be reached at jhoward@trucking.org.