Stop Being Such an Engineer! Reviving Engineering Judgment in a Data-Driven World

For those taught to analyze details to determine and develop solutions, it can be easy to overly focus on those details when working through a decision. In the past, we would spend days, weeks, or even years collecting information that is now available at our fingertips—and the amount of data we have access to grows daily. There are many advantages to this world of endless data, but with those advantages, new challenges have arisen. For example, it can be easy to get caught up in data, which may lead to incorrect or incomplete conclusions. Kimley-Horn’s Tracy Shandor, P.E., PTOE presented with Volkert, Inc.’s Clark Bailey P.E., PTOE about these challenges at the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) Annual Meeting in Minneapolis. Keep reading to learn how today’s engineers and planners are solving problems using engineering judgment.

Potential Challenges with Data

1 | Excessive Data

As engineers and planners, we are often tasked with using data to defend our decisions. As a result, when presented with a dataset that appears to provide the exact answer to a question, it can be difficult to step back and recognize that the level of available detail might not be the level of detail needed to make a decision. With all of this information, is there also an opportunity to rethink the deliverables and reports we provide to our clients? Is there an opportunity to summarize information visually rather than in a hundred-page report of numbers?

A DOT client recently decided to develop a dashboard to summarize and display signal performance information rather than having consultant teams compile the data into monthly reports. Now, the DOT client can automatically pull and summarize data into the necessary reports and focus staff and consultant team efforts on analyzing and interpreting the data instead of just compiling it.

Make an Engineering Judgment Call: Apply this approach to other tasks—use the public’s money more efficiently while leveraging the abundance of available data.

2 | Deceiving Data

Data can be deceiving if it is summarized in a manner that doesn’t properly convey information. For example, on a recent project, crash data revealed a high frequency of crashes along a few of the corridors within a client’s jurisdiction. If we had not examined the data more closely, we may have missed a key inaccuracy and allocated funding to determine how to address corridor issues and construct improvements. When taking a closer look, we discovered that the high-crash corridors had a similiarity: they were all located near a police station or coffee shop/restaurant that had Wi-Fi. It turns out that the crash reports were uploaded and tagged with location data when the law enforcement officers’ vehicles connected to a Wi-Fi network—not necessarily where the crashes occured.

Sometimes the path to gathering thorough and accurate data isn’t as straightforward as we may anticipate, and we need to gut-check our findings before accepting them as truths. More often than not, we should consider multiple factors—not one data set—when making a decision.

Make an Engineering Judgment Call: When the data is not telling us what we think it should, seek out other information sources to validate our findings. Don’t be misled by deceiving data!

3 | Incomplete Information

We are often in a situation where we need to decide or move forward with an assumption before we have all the data that we want or need. For instance, imagine we have collected intersection turning movement counts along a corridor. When developing solutions for this corridor, we realize that one of the alternates aligns at an existing location where we did not previously collect count data. We cannot collect data this data now because a major construction project significantly impacts travel patterns in the area. Instead of halting the project, we review the adjacent intersections (where data is available) and assume what the volumes are likely to be.

There is always more data that can be collected and analyzed. It is our responsibility to strike a balance between collecting and analyzing all of the information available to us, and collecting and analyzing the information needed to develop the best solution for our projects.

Make an Engineering Judgment Call: Think about what other options exist when the available data is not as complete as we had hoped. Decide what data is critical to make a decision and what information is helpful or just nice to have.

Using Your Engineering Judgment

Using Your Engineering Judgement DiagramData is only one piece of the puzzle, and we should rely on more sources to make decisions. Standards don’t always match real-world situations, and new scenarios may arise that we have not yet experienced. We must combine standards, experience, and data to develop solutions using engineering judgment.

It is this engineering judgment that allows us to overcome the challenges associated with having too much, not enough, or misleading data.

Empowering New Engineers to Make Good Decisions

How do we encourage future professional engineers to make good decisions using their engineering judgment? We let them make bad decisions! Within the office environment, encourage diverse opinions and ask future engineers to present and defend their ideas. Help them determine if their ideas are worth pursuing by teaching them how to think, what to consider, and how to draw conclusions. Building their knowledge of what constitutes a good or bad decision will help the next generation of engineers think through problems and better analyze data, developing their engineering judgment.

Managing People Is Not the Same as Managing Projects

It is up to leaders within our organizations to develop future engineers who will make good decisions. As leaders we must:

  1. Acknowledge that people are not roads. Managing people is very different from designing roads, managing projects, or completing data analysis. As a result, a great designer or project manager may not immediately be a great supervisor—and that’s alright. Management is a skill that must be developed.
  2. Recognize that everyone is different. We must focus on developing each person’s strengths and recognize that because future engineers are all different, we can’t approach managing all of them the same way.
  3. Educate ourselves on how to manage people. Turn to mentors for advice and attend leadership training programs like LeadershipITE, a program that works to position ITE members to shape the future of transportation. It’s imperative for us to create an environment where people feel supported, inspired, competent, and creative. This environment encourages future professional engineers to think about what’s possible and apply their engineering judgment to develop innovative ideas. These ideas will be the ones that solve the problems of our future.

Thinking from Your Gut

When we use our engineering judgment—combining industry standards, our past experiences, and data—we think from our gut and make better decisions. Let’s guide future transportation engineers to do the same as we move forward in this world of more and more data.