Is the IT Department Your Partner or the Enemy?

By Mr. Douglas Noble P.E., PTOE posted 04-04-2014 11:06 AM


At the ITE Technical Conference and Exhibit, I had the opportunity to sit in on the session on connected vehicles and cybersecurity.  Mark Plemmons from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) gave an enlightening, if pretty darn scary, presentation on cybersecurity in what DHS terms industrial control systems in transportation.  Ed Fok with FHWA wrote about these issues in the July 2013 issue of the ITE Journal.

What was interesting to me was that it exposed an issue that I have encountered when I working in consulting firms and at public agencies.  In both environments there were very knowledgeable staff in the technical groups doing work in CAD, traffic simulation, and design, architecture, deployment and operation of traffic signal systems and ITS devices. On the other hand there were staff from the government or firm's information technology office that has control over their organization’s approach to hardware and software selection, installation and support.   

In my experience, we engineers and planners tend to keep the IT folks at arms’ length at best or totally isolated from our programs.  “We don’t want them mucking about in our program, because they don’t know what we’re doing.” I think this stems from the perceived conflict between two groups with different primary goals and subordinate objectives and measures of performance for service delivery.

I have seen different pricing models from IT departments that may (or may not) be accepted for reimbursement through Federal Aid funds. One example from my experience was a number of years ago at public agency when a network switch in the TMC failed and the ITS engineer put in a requisition for the same brand but newer model in the series with a bit better performance.  The requisition was rejected by IT department because it did not meet their current specification. Staff reviewed the spec and agreed it would serve the TMC purposes better and resubmitted the requisition to purchase the switch. The IT department then responded that with the requisition they would install and maintain the switch in the TMC and the transportation agency would be internally billed for these services.  That’s when it hit the fan… the TMC operations were Federally-funded and they would not allow money to be used services outside the agency (even internal to the government) that cost more than agency staff and for which agency staff were being funded to perform the task.  If I recall correctly the back and forth went all the way up to the agency directors and ended up being resolved with the transportation department using the IT hardware specs but not being required to use IT’s services for installation or support.

So, in today’s more intensive cybersecurity environment, what do we need to do to better partner with information technology organizations to achieve our goals as a transportation program provider? Do we need to put ITS and signal systems engineers in the IT department? Do we need their IT specialists embedded with transportation technical staff? Do we create a joint process between the agencies to share goals and objectives for hardware/software/device specification and deployment? What do we need to initiate and develop a trusted partnership to create wins for both groups because in the end we both want high value, lost cost, secure and effective technology to manage and operate the transportation system.

I say that, yes, we must consider and act on these ideas and more…but except for a few cases all I have heard lately is the lament that, “The IT folks are trying to get into our business”…again.

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