Finding needles in a haystack: public works and transportation research

Ben Gribbon
Program Manager, Road Safety Professional Capacity Building Program
Federal Highway Administration Office of Safety
APWA Education Committee Liaison to the APWA Transportation Committee

Last year, Robert Mason, Director of Public Works for Smith County, heard an interesting presentation on concrete overlays at an APWA chapter conference, and was considering using a concrete overlay to solve several problems recently identified. The presentation on "white-topping" however, was given by a concrete specialist and Robert wanted to make sure he had all the facts and could estimate exactly what cost savings he might realize. Was this the right application at the right time?

After a couple calls, a few Internet searches, and one downloaded document, Robert had his answer. In this case, white-topping would solve some perennial problems with pavement rutting and shoving, might mitigate some crashes, and ultimately saved the county several thousand dollars.

Robert essentially faced a rapid research problem. He knew the answer to his question was probably available but couldn't risk guessing or spare a staff person much time to get up-to-speed researching this. In this century enormous volumes of information are available; the trick is finding your needle in all those haystacks. Robert took advantage of several shortcuts we will describe below, including skilled use of search engines, contacting the right person, and finding the right document in the right library. Here are six tips for finding the information you need fast.

Search the Internet skillfully
Let's face it; the Internet is the first stop for anyone looking for information now. Thanks to modern search engines such as Google or Yahoo, searching the World Wide Web doesn't have to be the research equivalent of browsing a magazine with three million pages. Like most tools, search engines can save you a lot of time if you take time to learn how to use them well. Use the "Advanced Search" tool to look for specific combinations of words until you learn the "operators" (e.g., AND, OR, quotes, +, -, ~, and :) which you can use as shortcuts to find specific phrases, synonyms, or domains, or exclude irrelevant topics. Use enough key words and phrases to reduce your search to about 35 relevant hits. Practice guessing what words might cause an ignorant search engine to pull up irrelevant information and exclude related terms. After all, white topping on cake might not be exactly what we're looking for.

Search for documents instead of websites
Accepted standards and proven information will likely find their way in to print where documentation is more thorough. Even if you start your research on the Internet, look for sites that lead you to documents. Several popular search engines have included a link to "More>>" ways to search web; try searching just Books or Scholarly papers. Better yet, go straight to specialized libraries.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics provides a National Transportation Library online, in addition to a Transportation Libraries Catalog that combines twenty transportation library catalogs. The TRISOnline database, provided by the Transportation Research Board, contains over a million references. If your issues are usually within one subject area, head straight to a library you trust. The ITS Joint Programs Office maintains an online database of benefits, costs, and lessons learned for Intelligent Transportation System experiences. Many special topics such as Work Zones and Pedestrian Safety have a dedicated "Clearinghouse" with databases and resources devoted solely to those topics. Visit these often if it's a topic you are regularly involved in.

Look for standards
Many research reports document the results of specific experiments, frequently designed to answer one very specific question. For quick decisions about implementation, you may not have to compile all the latest results, or read through all the discussion. Instead, look for well documented "standards" such as a guide, manual, handbook, toolbox "standard operating procedure," "state of the practice" or "specifications."

Find topic-based resources
APWA, FHWA, AASHTO and other organizations have several web pages dedicated to specific topics, such as Livable Communities, Utilities, Pavement Management, Signs and Signals, or ITS. These are typically sorted into subtopics that will allow you to browse available information relevant to your issue, instead of information about the organization, events, or marketing. From the APWA website click "Resource Center" in the bar at the top of the page. AASHTO lists resources by type under "Hot Topics." FHWA has several topical sites, and a wealth of other information organized by office. From FHWA's home page click "FHWA Programs."

Join communities of practice
Similarly, major transportation and public works organizations offer specialized communities of practice, allowing you to share issues and information with others interested in the same topics. Join APWA's infoNOW Communities and specify which topics you are interested in. Similarly, FHWA offers two dozen topics in the Highway Community Exchanges, accessible from the FHWA home page.

The volume of information and discussion traded on an e-mail list can be overwhelming at first, especially for a public works manager responsible for a variety of issues. Identify staff members to monitor specific topics, which will help keep them involved in the state of the practice. Don't try to read every word in every discussion, but use the ongoing dialogue as a heads-up about what issues are hot. Use your e-mail rules and alerts to separate mail sent to the whole group and flag key words you are most interested in. Lending your participation and expertise to the group, however, improves your chances of getting your own questions answered.

It's who you know
It might be easier to just pick up the phone and ask someone, but the trick is knowing whom to call. Even if you get the right organization, your first contact may not know whom to go to next. Organizations devoted to a specific topic can usually provide technical assistance if the call comes in to the right person. Check their website first for contact information. The FHWA Resource Center has staff dedicated to providing technical assistance in a variety of highway topics, but they are located throughout the country. Go to the FHWA website for the Resource Center to locate specific Technical Service Teams.

Where to start
The APWA website is www.apwa.net and the FHWA home page is www.fhwa.dot.gov/. Links to all of the resources referenced in this article will be posted on APWA's infoNOW in the Transportation Community under the Subject "Needles in the Haystack (Transportation Research Links)". Robert Mason and Smith County are fictitious. Google, Yahoo, and FHWA are real.

Ben Gribbon will be a presenter at the 2006 APWA Congress. His session is entitled "Public Works Training for Safer Roads & Streets—It's No Accident!" and takes place Sunday, September 10, at 3:00 p.m. He can be reached at (202) 366-1809 or Benjamin.gribbon@dot.gov.