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Bringing transport data to life through digital

Think about the process of booking a flight. The passenger weighs up competing preferences – typical considerations include departure time, cost and brand loyalty – before reaching a decision. And yet the one factor they fail to think about is easily the one that causes the most headaches: the on-time performance of the airline.

Every domestic flight that leaves an Australian airport is monitored by the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, with departure details logged, stored and published. It’s a wealth of very valuable consumer information but no one was reading it.

Gary Dolman, Head of the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE) – the research and statistics arm of the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development – says while data is everywhere, it’s meaningless unless it can be brought to life.

“This data has been available for years. You’ll often see when a certain airline is ahead with its on-time performance it’ll put a billboard outside the airport that quotes the data,” Dr Dolman said.

“But we were concerned that it wasn’t really getting to the target audience, which is people making decisions on which airline to fly with. We wanted to lift the availability of that data and ensure you didn’t need to be an IT expert to interpret it.”

Making data useful

Airline data is far from the only information that the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development holds that is of public interest. Its remit is across transport including roads, rail, maritime and aviation as well as large infrastructure projects, meaning it has access to lots of useful information.

“We undertook a review of the data we hold across the department, as well as the research or consultancies that we had, because we thought they weren’t being fully utilised,” Dolman says. “The data was being collected but it was largely just stored in filing cabinets or on network drives. And while a little bit of analysis was being done there wasn’t any sort of deep interrogation of that data.”

This was brought to light when the department was contacted by a consumer association wanting to gain access to aviation data. This was difficult to find and even harder to interpret because it was published as raw data in spreadsheets and lengthy statistical publications.

The department decided it needed a powerful analytics tool to make sense of the huge amount of data at its disposal.

It opted for Microsoft Power BI as it was well established in the market place and had a user-friendly interface that removed the need for an extensive training program.

The department then enlisted the help of Microsoft Gold Partner, Agile BI to help with technical design, and another consulting firm, Strategic Reform, to work on the overall data strategy.  Chris Morrison, program manager from Strategic Reform, came over to the department to assist with the  broader implementation.

“The first project off the rank was the airline on-time performance dashboard – a graphical representation of the punctuality and reliability data of major domestic and regional airlines operating between Australian airports,” Mr Morrison said.

“The impact has been immediate, with the department now able to publish information more quickly and make it available on mobile.

“There’s a productivity gain for citizens because we’re effectively reducing the time it takes to deliver insight. They get answers to questions faster, rather than having to trawl through spreadsheets and detailed publications.”

“It also has implications for other stakeholders, such as consultants and state government officials, who need to draw from this information,” Dr Dolman added.

“They can now do so in a more efficient manner.”

Fulfilling the purpose of data collection

Another significant impact from the audit has been a better understanding of how data can fuel the department internally. This includes a series of projects to foster broader collaboration and improve data quality.

It’s also being used to track progress. The department has connected Power BI with Microsoft Outlook to monitor the responsiveness in responding to questions from the public. While Power BI is currently being rolled out where required, more staff are eager to get their hands on the system.

“In larger areas of the department that want more sophisticated modelling done we’re building SQL databases so they can access their data and use Power BI to analyse it,” said Steve Monahan, Acting Chief Information Officer at the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development.

People are jumping away from using Excel, manipulating data with Power BI to achieve a lot more. It’s going to grow exponentially as people want to do more analytics work.

– Steve Monahan


The project is an ongoing priority for BITRE. It’s already looking at using Power BI to make road safety data more accessible, including information on fatalities, injuries, types of accidents and locations. The department is also hoping to expand its airline dashboard to include airfare data, following consumer interest.

The other change will be format accessibility. Most of its data is currently published in hefty books with tables. Power BI will help make publishing instant and deliver more impact.

“Ensuring the data reaches the people it needs to in a format that is accessible to all users is as important as collecting the data itself” Dr Dolman said.

“We’re looking to make the interface available across the department, and to the general public, so that data is readily accessible and used for decision making. After all, this is the reason for collecting it in the first place.”