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20th October 2018

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Road network

Taxes add to $600 million transport surplus

The Transport fund financed by fuel taxes posted a $634 million surplus, adding fire to the debate around the role of tax in high fuel prices.

Four months before the Government’s 3.5 cent fuel excise increase kicked in, Transport Minister Phil Twyford was given a pleasant surprise — an expected $634 million surplus in the National Land Transport Fund, the pot of money funded by fuel taxes.

Documents obtained by Newsroom under the Official Information Act show the NLTF was expected to post a $634 million surplus for the years 2015-18. The document, a May briefing to Minister Twyford, shows that higher than expected revenue and lower than forecast expenditure would generate the surplus.

The period covered was before the Government increased fuel excise by 3.5 cents in September and does not include the Regional Fuel Tax, which raises revenue for Auckland Council.

“Unjustified” but already budgeted for

National Party Transport Spokesperson Paul Goldsmith told Newsroom the surplus showed the Government’s fuel taxes were “unjustified”.

“The surplus is enough to cover 57 per cent of the tax the Government is trying to source – more than the first two fuel tax increase are expected to raise over the next three years,” Goldsmith said.

“The NLTF is expected to have $634 million in surplus that has been carried over from 2015-2018 and the Government is planning to raise $1.124 billion in new national fuel excise increases over the next three years,” he said.

The documents said the surplus would be carried forward into the next round of NLTF spending. A spokesperson for Minister Twyford said the funding will contribute to new projects going forward, in addition to the revenue raised from fuel taxes.

National Party Leader Simon Bridges, who was Transport Minister during most of the period in which the fund posted surpluses, launched a petition on Friday to have the regional fuel tax and the increase in fuel taxes repealed.

“The average New Zealand household is now paying $200 a year more in petrol taxes than this time last year and in Auckland that figure is $324,” Bridges said.

The briefing noted that in spite of posting big surpluses, the future of the fund was far from secure.

Changing economic conditions and the rise of more fuel efficient or electric vehicles would put pressure on the sustainability of the fund.

Where does the money come from? 

The NLTF is a Government fund administered by New Zealand Transport Authority, which funds roads and other transport related projects throughout the country.

Every three years, the Government draws up a Government Policy Statement for transport, which roughly directs how the money will be divided up and the level of funding that will be given to the NLTF. The most recent GPS, for example, emphasised local roading projects and safety over highways.

The GPS uses Treasury forecasts of economic growth to estimate the revenue that will flow into the fund, which helps it to estimate the amount of money it has to spent.

The surplus comes from revenue consistently exceeding those forecasts, due to faster-than-expected population growth and increased road use. In 2015/16 the fund raised $3.5 billion, rather than the $3.3 billion forecast.

These surpluses continued until the 2017/18 year, when the fund was forecast to raise $357 million or 3.4 percent above its forecast. The briefing was drawn up in March, when the financial year still had three months to run so it’s final figures were estimates.

“Expenditure should be as close to target as possible” 

On the other side of the ledger, NZTA consistently underspent on transport projects over the three years.

At March 2018, expenditure was 88 percent of the three year budget, although the fund had targeted to spend just 91 percent of the budget.

This means the fund had revenues roughly three percent higher than forecast and expenditure roughly three percent lower.

The briefing said NZTA aimed to have expenditure run as close as possible to target.

“Although expenditure for the NLTP can be underspent for a variety of reasons, expenditure should be as close to target as possible,” it said.

“Any NLTF surplus will carry over into the next financial year and GPS 2018.

…but a surplus doesn’t mean an end to taxes 

The Ministry of Transport warned Twyford that the fund’s golden run was likely to run. As worsening economic conditions and changing vehicle user habits depleted revenue.

The Ministry uses the latest Treasury figures to forecast what revenue is likely to be in the future.

It said that lower than previously forecasted real GDP, which is correlated with vehicle kilometres travelled impacted upon the forecast.

Lower migration would also impact the fund, as it flowed-on to fewer new cars on the road.

Opinion – Peter Williams: Land transport planning, spending driving us to a standstill

We're going to be Aotea-road-cone for many years to come, writes Peter Williams. Photo / File
We’re going to be Aotea-road-cone for many years to come, writes Peter Williams. Photo / File

If you love statistics, here’s a few which might raise your eyebrows.

From September 1 last year to August 31 this year the number of cars and vans on New Zealand roads increased by 105,970.

In the year before that, the increase was 120,939.

I’ll do the sums for you. There are 226,909 more cars and vans on the roads around the country now than at the time of the Rio Olympics.

Every day for the past two years, that’s another 311 cars and vans spilling off the car yards onto our roads and into the traffic jams.

No matter what politicians try to tell us about public transport, the reality is we love our cars, and other machines on wheels, too.

The most recent numbers from the New Zealand Transport Agency reveal there are 5,172,482 registered vehicles in New Zealand. Sure, that number includes tractors and trailers too, but there are still 3,371,584 cars and vans registered, as well as 712,824 trucks and utes.

That’s more than 4 million on-road vehicles, essentially one per person of driving age, a number not going down anytime soon.

So we need roads, plenty of them – and we needed them yesterday.

Why, then, do we take forever to make decisions about what to build, and then why does it take so long to actually do it?

In the past nine years, I’ve driven between Tauranga and Auckland more times than I care to remember. I feel very acquainted with State Highways 1, 2, 27, 29 and the Tahuna-Ohinewai road, depending on which route I take on any particular day.

Without doubt, the most infuriating road is State Highway 1.

What is now called the Waikato Expressway may have been designated a Road of National Significance in 2009, but it had its beginnings with the Pokeno bypass in the early 1990s.

There wouldn’t have been a day in the past 25 years when some part of the Auckland – Hamilton road hasn’t had choking roadworks. Currently, it’s at Longswamp, near Hampton Downs.

Is that really good enough on what is the busiest part of the country’s main arterial route, the busiest side of the so-called Golden Triangle?

The signs and the websites suggest that road will be finished by 2020.

But even allowing for the piecemeal start with the Pokeno bypass all those years ago, is it really acceptable that a major highway, admittedly about 100km long from the Bombay Hills to south of Cambridge, takes more than 20 years to build?

I have no expertise in roads, apart from driving on them. But in my lifetime, there are countless examples of short-term thinking by politicians when it comes to roading.

Who can forget the Auckland Harbour Bridge debacle, originally built with just two lanes each way? The famous “clip-ons” had to be added inside 10 years.

What about the original Tauranga Harbour Bridge? It was way too small very early in its life, yet it took 21 years before a second one was in place alongside. Even the Waterview Tunnel, undoubtedly the best roading infrastructure built in the country this century, was canned by Steven Joyce and the National government in 2009 before common sense finally prevailed.

The vehicle rego numbers do not lie. Apart from aeroplanes, we are not a public transport country. We like the convenience of roads and we love owning and driving cars.

That’s why roads, in and to the busiest and fastest growing places in New Zealand, must be a top priority in land transport spending. Under this government though, that looks unlikely.

There have been too many years of under-investment in state highway spending. The snail’s pace of progress suggests we are going to be Aotea-road-cone for many years to come.

Ito World manifesto calls on cities to embrace MaaS

Data and alternative transport can combat congestion, pollution and private car dependency in global cities, says Ito World. The UK transit data specialist has published a manifesto which calls on cities to embrace Mobility as a Service (MaaS) to ‘unlock’ their future potential.

The MaaS Manifesto: smart data and accessing a city’s potential insists cities also need to have the right infrastructure and ensure the public and private sectors work with emerging players.

Ito World says city authorities using real-time data to understand people patterns and schedule joined-up services to meet demand is one of five key steps for realising the full opportunity of MaaS.

Other recommendations include: using real-time shared transport occupancy data to optimise services; providing accessible passenger information to encourage travellers to move away from private car use; and making cities people-friendly through establishing green community spaces. In addition, Ito World suggests city authorities should create safe walking and cycling routes to interconnect seamless multi-modal transportation.

Belgian politician Pascal Smet, minister of the government of the Brussels-Capital region, says it is up to city governments to redefine the role of public transport and form partnerships with innovators.

“Public transport needs to remain the backbone of a city. In the future, shared private automated services will have to connect to that backbone within a framework set out by city governments,” Smet adds.

According to the manifesto, MaaS requires a collaboration between private transport companies, data experts and public authorities to be a success in cities.

Authorities and operators working with data experts which utilise open and proprietary data will be able to deliver a single integrated dataset which gives a ‘total-city picture’ of transit options, the document adds.

Johan Herrlin, CEO at Ito World, says transport service providers, mayors, transport commissioners and city authorities are responsible for sharing data and putting measures in place to guide the behaviour of individuals to drive wider societal goals.

“We need to better encourage people to ditch the car and see public transport, bicycles and their own two feet as reliable methods to get around,” Herrlin adds.

Fix the Bloody Road group fed up over ‘absolutely chaotic’ Tauranga access highway that has claimed two dozen lives

Since December, four people have died on a risky stretch of highway between Waihi and Tauranga. About 20 others lost their lives there between 2010 and 2017.

It’s one of New Zealand’s deadliest stretches of road – if not the deadliest – and locals say they are fed up it’s not more prominent in the Government’s $16.9 billion land transport programme that was announced on Friday.

“There are a number of people who aren’t happy for their children to be driving this road as they learn to drive, and there are a number of adults as well who are apprehensive about driving these stretches of road that aren’t really fit for purpose,” Matthew Farrell of local lobby group Fix the Bloody Road told TVNZ1’s Breakfast today.

“They’re too narrow. They don’t have an adequate shoulder, there’s no median barrier, there are large sections with no Armco – ditches, banks, blind crests and summits, tight bends, you name it,” he said. “This road is two generations old, and it’s showing the signs of that now.”

The sometimes one-lane road, which sees roughly 30,000 vehicles per day and is covered by volunteer emergency responders, was described by Farrell as “absolutely chaotic”.

The road did have $80 million allocated to it earlier this year, and the Government included that previous allocation in last week’s announcement. But that project starts at the Waihi end, which doesn’t provide a quick fix to a problem that needs urgent attention, Mr Farrell argued.

“The real issue is obviously at the Tauranga end, and particularly the Katikati-Tauranga stretch is really the devily one,”  he explained. “You’re eight times more likely to die in Te Puna or Apata than you are on a typical stretch of highway elsewhere in the country.”

In 2016, it was estimated that it would cost $520 million for the entire Waihi-Tauranga highway project, but land, material and construction costs have all gone through the roof since then, Fix the Bloody Road points out.

“We welcome the investment around the country for the other regions, but we just think that the deadliest road should have been the top priority – not ‘come back to us in six months'”, Farrell said. “We don’t care which colour the party is that does it – something needs to happen on this road, very soon.”

The NZ Transport Agency is continuing to carefully review the plans for the SH2 Waihi to Tauranga route, to evaluate if it aligns with the new vision for the transport network.

Police defend big drop in commercial vehicle inspections

Police say safety won't suffer despite a drop in the number of roadside checks on commercial vehicles.
DOMINICO ZAPATA/STUFF
Police say safety won’t suffer despite a drop in the number of roadside checks on commercial vehicles.

Police spot checks of commercial vehicles have dropped by more than 13,000 over the past three years, despite rapid growth in road transport.

During the same period the total number of licensed commercial vehicles in New Zealand rose by almost 6000 to 179,157, with heavy trucks and buses accounting for much of the increase.

The police inspection records were released in response to a Stuff Official Information Act request filed after a spate of serious bus crashes, including one on Mt  Ruapehu which killed 11-year-old Hannah Francis, and another in the Manawatū​ which injured 19.

The data shows Police did 52,474 commercial vehicle inspections for the 12 months to June 2016, just under 48,000 the following year, and 39,289 last financial year

Stuff also asked whether checks were being done off main highways on rural roads and in national parks, but police declined to provide this information on the grounds that it would be too time consuming to collate.

Transport Minister Phil Twyford is still awaiting a report into three serious bus crashes that occurred in the space of 11 days
MARK TAYLOR/STUFF
Transport Minister Phil Twyford is still awaiting a report into three serious bus crashes that occurred in the space of 11 days

Acting manager of the police commercial vehicle safety team Mike McRandle​ said the drop in inspections was due in part to lack of staff, but that had been remedied.

The team had also changed its approach to enforcement with a stronger focus on prevention, and on the quality rather than the quantity of roadside checks.

“If we notice during inspections there seem to be recurring issues with the same company, we’ll go and meet with them and talk about the issues and what they can do resolve them and prevent any other issues with their fleet.”

McRandle said this worked well and feedback from transport operators was positive, a claim echoed by Police Minister Stuart Nash.

He pointed out there had been a 14 per cent increase in funding for dedicated road policing, and he said the raw numbers of commercial vehicle inspections did not tell the full story.

“Even at the low point in 2017, Police were carrying out more than 100 commercial vehicle inspections a day. Targeted enforcement and prevention is also a valid approach.”

However, the cut back in inspections has surprised union and transport industry representatives in light of issues around maintenance standards, driver shortages, working hours, and overloading.

First Union transport division spokesman Jared Abbott said the truck driver shortage resulted in drivers working longer hours that at times breached legal limits.

“And we know from members in the concrete industry that they are being pressured to drive with overweight vehicles because of the shortage of drivers.”

Do you know more? Email amanda.cropp@stuff.co.nz

In three years licensed heavy truck numbers have grown by more than 3600 to almost 90,000.
ANDY JACKSON/STUFF
In three years licensed heavy truck numbers have grown by more than 3600 to almost 90,000.

Road Transport Association chief executive Dennis Robertson said he was surprised at the pull back because the amount of freight carried by road was growing with almost 90,000 heavy trucks licensed at the end of June.

“From our point of view we want a level playing field and inspections are good because they keep everyone honest.”

He said a new Weigh Right programme to identify overloaded vehicles, could make enforcement fairer and more efficient.

Sensors in the road will weigh and record the speed of vehicles as they pass, and illuminated signs will direct those deemed overloaded into a roadside weigh station.

Robertson said the system would help change the behaviour of operators who deliberately overloaded their vehicles, giving them an advantage over those who stuck to the rules.

A dozen weigh stations spread throughout the country are due for completion by 2020.

Stuff

Sleeping killer – the transport industry gets a wake up call over fatigue

It’s every motorist’s worst nightmare – rounding a corner to find a fully laden 50 tonne truck and trailer unit hurtling straight at you with the driver asleep at the wheel.

Fatigue is a major issue for the transport industry and one it is taking more seriously.

Quite apart from human casualties, accidents are costly when vehicles are written off and precious cargo destroyed.

As well as teaching drivers how to manage fatigue, transport companies are getting them tested and treated for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a condition which causes sufferers to take “micro sleeps” without warning.

Many commercial drivers fit the risk profile of being over 50, overweight, and over tired from regularly working 13 hour days.

Which is why transport companies are also fitting their vehicles with monitoring units that sound an alarm and vibrate the seat if drivers are distracted or close their eyes for too long.

Christchurch driver Craig Forbes-Williams credits the technology with saving his job and possibly his life.

Some night shifts he set off the cab alarm three times. “It scares the hell out of you.”

His employer, Brenics Transport, insisted on a sleep apnea check which showed he was getting as little as six minutes quality sleep a night.

Thanks to a special mask that pumps oxygen through his nose while he sleeps, Forbes-Williams now feels “heaps better.”

Driver Craig Forbes-Williams says getting help for his sleep disorder and eating healthier transformed his life and saved his job.
GEORGE HEARD/STUFF
Driver Craig Forbes-Williams says getting help for his sleep disorder and eating healthier transformed his life and saved his job.

Brenics owner Gary Johnstone says fatigue is much more of an issue than the industry likes to admit, but it’s worth attacking head on to prevent accidents and hang onto staff who would otherwise forfeit their heavy traffic licences.

“We’ve been able to turn around someone who would have gone down the road into a valuable team member.”

The New Zealand Transport Agency says privacy issues preclude it recording the number of drivers being monitored for sleep apnea as a condition of their licences.

But over the past four years, about a third of the 750 bus, truck and courier drivers screened by health and safety company Fit for Duty had moderate to severe OSA.

Managing director Rachel Lehen says that is actually slightly lower than an Australian study which found 40 per cent of  long distance drivers tested were likely to have sleep apnea, but it’s alarming nonetheless.

Sufferers end up exhausted because they repeatedly stop breathing at night.

“The brain goes, ok I’m going to have to wake you up, or we’re going to die otherwise … some people have hundreds of these events over the course of a night.”

Fit for Duty charges $395 for a sleep apnea test – which involves wearing an oxygen monitor on a finger overnight –and $520 for a month long trial with a continous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine like the one Forbes-Williams uses.

The machines can cost up to $2100, and some employers help cover that, or contribute to the hire fee.

“A bus company in Auckland bought machines and organised wage deductions. I figure they want their drivers to have some skin in the game and if they’ve paid for it, they’re more likely to use it,” Lehen says.

Tranzliquid has 45 long-haul drivers carting petrol and bulk bitumin and owner Jackie Carroll says half a dozen have been diagnosed with OSA since they started testing three years ago.

She doesn’t begrudge spending $30 a week on CPAP rental and monitoring to ensure drivers are using the machines because of the difference it makes.

“They’re not as tired and cranky, you can see it from the colouring in their faces. Most people think it’s larger older workers, but it could be younger people you wouldn’t expect to have sleep apnea.”

Some companies pay for remote monitoring to ensure drivers with sleep apnea use CPAP machines to get a good night's rest.
123RF
Some companies pay for remote monitoring to ensure drivers with sleep apnea use CPAP machines to get a good night’s rest.

Tired of waiting

For those going through the public health system, waiting lists can be lengthy.

Stuff talked to a Wairarapa driver who used up eight weeks of holiday and sick leave waiting for a sleep test in Wellington after his GP raised the issue during a medical check.

Fit for Duty consultant and Counties Manukau District Health Board sleep physician Stuart Jones says stories like that put people off seeking help.

Counties Manukau has 6500 patients on CPAP machines which it supplies free of charge, but Jones says that’s not the case in all regions.

Yet he is hard pressed to think of any other medical treatment which so rapidly improves patients’ quality of life and has such obvious economic spin offs.

It reduces absences due to sick leave, there are fewer work place and road accidents, and marital and family relationships improve because people are not always tired.

Logging companies have invested thousands of dollars in equipment to test drivers for sleep disorders in an effort to prevent fatigue-related accidents.
JOHN HAWKINS/STUFF
Logging companies have invested thousands of dollars in equipment to test drivers for sleep disorders in an effort to prevent fatigue-related accidents.

Glenn Heybourn handles health and safety matters for the Log Transport Safety Council which represents operators employing 4500 truck drivers.

He says the high cost of private sleep tests and a wait of up to six weeks for an appointment prompted the council to buy OSA testing units it hires out to members for $35

In the last year, 12 of the 56 drivers tested were referred on for further treatment.

Heybourn’s interest in fatigue stemmed from an accident about 10 years ago when a highly experienced apparently health log truck driver inexplicably veered off the road into a mercifully empty school playground.

After initially putting the accident down to an error judgement, further investigation revealed severe sleep apnea as a possible cause, and testing confirmed that.Heybourn says the key to getting buy-in from a largely male, pretty staunch workforce was a video featuring two drivers involved in major fatigue-related accidents, and having education programmes delivered in-house by people they know and trust, instead of bringing in outside experts.

Big brother is watching you

Australian company Seeing Machines aims to have 2000 of its face monitoring software units installed in New Zealand commercial vehicles by the end of the year, and Woolworths is insisting that new carriers delivering to its supermarkets have them fitted.

The Seeing Machine alarm sounds in the cab and the seat vibrates if a driver’s eyes are closed for 1.5 seconds.

Some companies are making it mandatory for trucking companies carrying their goods to install eye-monitoring technology.
GEORGE HEARD/STUFF
Some companies are making it mandatory for trucking companies carrying their goods to install eye-monitoring technology.

A dash cam recording is sent to a monitoring centre in the United States where the incident is analysed, and the driver’s dispatcher is notified within two minutes if it is deemed necessary.

The eye tracking software also detects if the driver is not looking at the road ahead for a sustained period.

Insurer NZI has paid for clients to trial the machines and head of commercial vehicle insurance Ian Taylor says most opt to keep them.

After scrutinising their 100 largest heavy vehicle claims –plenty of which topped $100,000 – Taylor reckons about a third were caused by fatigue, which came second only to distraction (mostly cell phone use).

New Zealand Seeing Machines distributor Charles Dawson says that in a normal day they record anything from five to 25 fatigue events.

Company responses range from telling the driver to pull over and have a kip, to sending out a replacement driver to take over the run.

Fatigue alerts are more common in metro drivers than in those plying long haul routes, and about 70 per cent of micro sleeps happen in the first hour of a shift. Monday mornings are bad too.

Brenics Transport co-owner Gary Johnstone says drivers took some convincing over the use of dash cam monitoring, but they have accepted it prevents accidents.
GEORGE HEARD/STUFF
Brenics Transport co-owner Gary Johnstone says drivers took some convincing over the use of dash cam monitoring, but they have accepted it prevents accidents.

“That’s around people having had time off, maybe a bit of a change in their routine, maybe not going to bed quite early enough.

“Every time we wake someone up we’re potentially preventing an accident.”

Enthusiasm for the technology is not universally shared by drivers some of who feel it’s an invasion of their privacy.

Johnstone reminded Brenics drivers who hung their hats over the cameras that it was about saving their lives as well.

“I said ‘if something terrible happens, do I say to your kids and your wife that Gary tried to help daddy, but he refused to help himself and played with the safety device?'”

First Union assistant general secretary Louisa Jones sees it as an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff response to the real issue, which is that low pay and long hours are causing fatigue.

But pricing of the technology may limit its use – Seeing Machines cost $1500 to buy and $105 a month to rent.

Road Transport Association chief executive Dennis Robertson says that is well beyond the vast majority of his 2000 members, many of whom own fewer than 10 trucks.

“A lot of small operators are not making a lot of money, they’re just surviving.”

The cost of fatigue

According to the Ministry of Transport (MOT) there were 585 fatigue-related crashes in 2016, the latest statistics available.

The toll included 36 deaths, more than 700 injuries, and a total social cost of $291 million. Between 2014 and 2016, the MOT says fatigue was a contributing factor in 5 per cent of truck drivers involved in fatal crashes.

Police investigating a crash could seek copies of cab recordings, but police commercial vehicle safety team head inspector Kelly Ryan said they would need a warrant.

Police say it's hard to know the true level of heavy vehicle accidents related to fatigue, but they are probably under-reported.
RICKY WILSON/STUFF
Police say it’s hard to know the true level of heavy vehicle accidents related to fatigue, but they are probably under-reported.

She believes many fatigue-related heavy vehicle crashes are attributed to other causes, such as cornering too fast, when it’s tiredness that leads drivers to make errors of judgement.

The Road Transport Association estimates 2000 new drivers a year are needed to replace those quitting or retiring, and Ryan fears a driver shortage is leading companies to push the limits.

“If you think about a 70 hour cumulative work period, which is what’s legally allowed, [drivers] could be doing 13 hours a day for five days in a row, before a 24 hour period of rest is required.

“That’s massive … if you combine that with other factors and they are not getting a good restful sleep between those time periods, it’s really scary.”

Lack of overnight accommodation for truckies driving to the bottom of the South Island is an example of the need for change.

“Nothing is organised for them to stay the night, so the assumption is they will turn around and come back. Things like that are not OK.”

WorkSafe took its first fatigue-related prosecution in May against an agricultural contractor who was ordered to pay $90,000 in fines and reparation after a 23-year-old worker died in a tractor accident. .

He had just finished a 16.75 hour day, and in the two weeks before his death had clocked up almost 200 hours harvesting potatoes on a Pukekawa farm .

WorkSafe chief inspector Darren Handforth says employers have a responsibility to schedule rest breaks and roster appropriate periods off between shifts, and work places should encourage employees to put their hands up if they are too tired or hung over to operate safely.

But a long haul driver with more than 40 years experience says it can still be hard to resist pressure to carry on regardless.

“We’re worried about young ones coming into the industry who can’t say to the boss ‘no, I’m pulling up because I’m falling asleep.’ Older ones will stand up to them and say, ‘no, I’m pulling up, safety first.'”

Stuff

Government agencies turn to Google, Spark data to try and solve Auckland’s traffic woes

Google data is being used to help monitor the performance of new state highway infrastructure or upgrades. For example, NZTA says, it's being used to measure travel times through Auckland's Waterview Tunnel.
BEVAN READ/STUFF
Google data is being used to help monitor the performance of new state highway infrastructure or upgrades. For example, NZTA says, it’s being used to measure travel times through Auckland’s Waterview Tunnel.

The movements of your smartphone are being tracked, collected, marketed and sold to government agencies eager to understand how we get around. National Correspondent Katie Kenny reports.

Mobile network operators have long partnered with big data marketers to sell customer data. In New Zealand, Qrious, a Spark-owned software company, has been providing customers’ location data to local government bodies for the last three years.

Now, it’s experiencing an uptick in demand from central government agencies. Those agencies are also exploring other sources of location data, such as Google and GPS manufacturer TomTom, to help inform decisions and planning.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has recently moved from using only official government statistics to incorporating private data.

Its Tourism Data Plan mentions new projects at the Ministry of Transport and the New Zealand Transport Agency, using Qrious and other “travel data” to map drivers’ movements.

The Ministry of Transport says it’s recently completed a project using cellphone tracking data to estimate the volume of travellers between territorial authorities. That data will be used for transport modelling.

NZTA has since confirmed it’s “exploring” using data from Google, which, the search giant says, is sourced using anonymised and aggregated data from Android devices with location services switched on.

WHERE’S THE DATA FROM?

As the types of available data have increased, the costs of obtaining it have decreased. Every time we swipe a bank card, upload a photo to Facebook, use a loyalty card, read an article online, hail a ride with Uber, send an email, we’re giving away some digital information.

Companies such as Facebook, Amazon, and Google mine this information for marketing purposes. But governments, and even charities, can also use big data to try and make our cities smarter and societies fairer.

As of June 2017, New Zealand had 3.8 million mobile phones with active internet connections. Telecommunications companies, such as Spark, see some cellular data for all types of cellphones. (Location data, determined by the nearest cell tower, is necessary for any phone to receive calls.) Telcos can aggregate that data and, as long as they strip it of identifying information, sell it.

While the fine print allows this, most people are likely unaware it happens. For commercial reasons, there’s little transparency in the private sector. Perhaps owing to public trust issues, or the siloed structure of the public sector, there’s little transparency there, either.

When first asked about Auckland Transport’s use of location data, a spokesman simply said the agency didn’t use cellphone data. However, Chris Creighton, group manager of technology solutions, later clarified AT is “considering use” of Google data.

“We’re just exploring these datasets. We have lots of data sources already, so we’re looking at how we can augment this data source to see if it can add any more value.”

The potential benefits include providing drivers with more reliable journey times, as well as measuring the impact of disruptions, he says.

As vehicles crawl along Auckland's motorways, the movements are tracked via smartphones and GPS devices.
CHRIS SKELTON/STUFF
As vehicles crawl along Auckland’s motorways, the movements are tracked via smartphones and GPS devices.

WHAT’S IT BEING USED FOR?

The NZTA says it already uses a variety of data sources to help deliver effective real time travel information to people, and to monitor the performance of the transport system. For example, it purchases historical data from TomTom to “assist with understanding trends in journeys, travel times and speeds.”

Leigh Mitchell, NZTA director for customer experience and behaviour, in an email said the Google data trials relate to providing travel time information to customers through its website and roadside message signs, especially on “key journeys” throughout the Auckland and Wellington regions, as well as improving traffic flow in congested areas.

The data is also being used to help monitor the performance of new state highway infrastructure or upgrades, including measuring travel times through the Waterview Tunnel.

“All Google data is cleaned, anonymised and aggregated before being received or accessed by the NZTA,” she says.

As for how much it costs? “That information is commercially sensitive.

“We use pre-purchased tokens to query Google’s datasets. We do not own the data.”

The results from the Google trials will be compared with existing ways of collecting travel data (such as the use of Bluetooth sensor devices installed around the state highway network, which require ongoing maintenance).

Qrious chief executive Nathalie Morris says the data analytics companyoffers customised reports using “aggregated and anonymised” mobile location data from Spark. This data helps local and central government agencies understand visitor movements, and supports them in planning.

“In particular, tourism and transport industries have long acknowledged there are gaps in traditional data information available, so what we provide is additional insight, allowing an understanding of people flows around New Zealand,” Morris says.

“I think, historically, agencies have tended to use survey data, but what we’re able to provide is a more complete picture.”

The Thames-Coromandel District Council, for example, uses Qrious data to understand population movements over the busy summer period. (Come Christmas time, Coromandel is inundated with Aucklanders.)

“[The council] was keen to look at peak population levels so they could make sure infrastructure is reliable,and understand the volume of people, and where they’re concentrated. So, in the case of an emergency, they know where people are,” Morris says. “That also allows them to do things like support applications for tourism infrastructure funding, event planning, and consent applications.”

Because this data is just coming from Spark customers, Qrious “normalises” it to make it more representative of the full population. As well as location points, the Qrious provides insights such as what part of the country people are coming from (or whether they’re visiting from overseas), and how long they stayed.

Qrious chief executive Nathalie Morris says the public sector is making better use of data.
SUPPLIED
Qrious chief executive Nathalie Morris says the public sector is making better use of data.

PRIVACY VERSUS POTENTIAL

In the commercial sector, there’s an increasing focus on how organisations can use data to drive decision making, and that’s now happening in government agencies too, Morris says.

“There’s a desire to move away from gut feeling decisions to actually be able to use data to drive planning processes. What’s exciting for us is the ability to be part of that, and help public agencies deliver better services.”

There are certainly plenty of advantages when it comes to using this sort of administrative data — that is, data originally collected for another purpose. Administrative data doesn’t involve any extra effort from subjects, such as filling out a survey. And, often with many millions of responses, the insights are more detailed than those of traditional sources. There’s also huge potential for social good.

“There’s huge potential here for getting a much richer understanding of how we’re moving around New Zealand,” says Government Statistician Liz MacPherson. “But the issue is how do we keep the value and maintain trust and confidence at the same time.”

In January 2017, Uber announced it was providing data to cities and transit agencies around the world. The partnership, called Movement, allows city planners and members of the public access to anonymised data from millions of Uber trips in specific cities. Not only can the data alert maintenance workers to a pothole, but it can also measure the impact of major events, such as the London Tower Bridge closure, and analyse movement patterns to help inform urban planning.

As of this month, in the United States, Google is now providing 911 operators with more precise location information from callers using Android phones. (Typically, location is sent to the call taker by a wireless carrier.) The company struck a deal with T-Mobile to send location data straight to 911 call centres. Testing showed the system sent more accurate location data than what carriers provided, and sent it more quickly.

In light of international examples, many technologists would say New Zealand doesn’t go far enough in harnessing the power of big data. However, there are risks to consider, too.

Because it’s originally collected for another purpose, there will always be questions around the accuracy of administrative data used in a different context, and concerns regarding privacy and confidentiality.

In 2013, researchers at the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) studied 15 months of human mobility data for 1.5 million people, and found “even coarse datasets provide little anonymity“.

A simply anonymised data set doesn’t contain names, home addresses, phone numbers or other obvious identifiers. But if an individual’s patterns are unique enough, outside information — public information such as geolocated tweets or pictures or a work address — can be used to link the data back to an individual.

Associate Professor David Eyers, at Otago University’s Department of Computer Science, says sometimes it can be difficult to be sure if data is truly anonymous.

We’re in the early stages of the “data economy”, Eyers says, and it’s anyone’s guess as to how it will evolve.

Given that supermarkets, in some cases, are almost making as much from metadata as from selling products, it would be interesting to know how much telcos get for their data services, he says. But that doesn’t mean the contracts aren’t a good deal for public agencies, he adds.

“Measuring public transport data, that could be hugely useful. To get that quality of data, what would the equivalent instrumentation look like?”

But while consumers remain confused about what data is being used where, they’re hardly in a position to negotiate better deals.

“The data economy is going to end up being about people realising the value of the type of data they have,” Eyers says. It’s “not inconceivable” telcos would drop their prices in exchange for more public data.

“All of this is going to become more transparent over time. It’s just a question of how quickly, and what’s motivating it.”

Stuff

Washout jeopardises Wairoa-Napier railway reopening

Plans to get logging trains moving between Wairoa and Napier by the end of the year could have been derailed by a washout during the storm in northern Hawke’s Bay.

A fortnight after the washout, ruining 45 metres of the track just north of Raupunga, KiwiRail is non-committal to a date for the reopening of the line, and is still assessing the problem.

The washout has left the railway track suspended. Photo / Duncan BrownThe washout has left the railway track suspended. Photo / Duncan Brown

“Our teams are continuing to assess the damage and any impact it may have on the planned reopening date for the line,” KiwiRail said in a short statement today.

The line has been closed for more than six years since KiwiRail decided it was uneconomical after a major washout which left about 100 metres of track suspended in the air near Mahia on the Wairoa-Gisborne sector in March 2012.

KiwiRail had put the cost of repairing that sector at over $3.5 million, and mothballed the line, which had been used only for freight trains since Cyclone Bola put an end to regular passenger services in 1988.

Haami Hilton, kaumatua, blessing a work train in anticipation of the railway line reopening. Third from left is Shane Jones, regional economic development minister. Haami Hilton, kaumatua, blessing a work train in anticipation of the railway line reopening. Third from left is Shane Jones, regional economic development minister.

Help was rejected by the government of National Party leaders John Key and Bill English, but the new Labour coalition in February announced a $5 million contribution from the Provincial Growth Fund to reopen the line for logging trains to relieve pressure on the highways amid the growth of the Wall of Timber from forestry harvesting in Northern Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne-East Coast.

The washout is north of Raupunga, on the way north towards Wairoa. Photo / Duncan BrownPhoto / Duncan Brown

During a ceremonial launch of the project in June, including the dispatch of a train from Napier with track ballast as part of the railway restoration, regional economic development minister Shane Jones sand KiwiRail chief executive Peter Reidy weren’t putting a precise date on the reopening, but Mr Jones said it was hoped there’d be 2-3 trains from Wairoa to the Napier Port each week within 12 months.

This picture shows the extent of the washout. Photo / Duncan BrownPhoto / Duncan Brown

It’s estimated there will be close to 6000 less logging-truck trips on the 116km stretch of State Highway 2, which has had several passing bays installed and the major work of the Mata horua Gorge realignment and bridge, but still includes winding stretches, and the notorious bend of the Devil’s Elbow between Napier and Tutira.

NZ Intermodal Transport Safety Group formed

A new body has been formed to establish and maintain best practice safety and compliance standards for all road transport operators loading, handling and delivering intermodal imported and exported freight.

The NZ Intermodal Transport Safety Group (NZITSG) is to address the significant safety and other issues associated with the interface between road transport and other modes associated with import and export freight.

The NZITSG provides the road transport industry a single and convenient portal to talk with government, officials, port management, manufacturers and other stakeholders impacting road freight operators working in the import/export arena.

“We can achieve a lot more to improve safety and compliance once all the key industry players are working collaboratively than we can doing our own separate things,” says Group Chair Murray Young.

“It also makes sense for the industry to have information disseminated down through the Group and on to the businesses affected rather than having each company trying to engage with WorkSafe NZ, ports, manufacturers and training institutions on their own.”

As a sign of the industry’s commitment to improving workplace safety 21 separate transport companies were involved at the NZITSG’s initial August meeting. At that meeting the Group’s members were elected, essentially representing the interests of the majority of road freight transporters operating in this space.

The Group’s first major project will be to improve sidelifter safety. A number of companies have shared internal policy that will be incorporated into an industry code of practice for the use of sidelifters.

The NZITSG is also engaging with Worksafe NZ, manufacturers and educational and qualification institutions such as MITO to assist with development of the code of practice.

“The use of the Sidelifter Code of Practice, while recommended, will not be mandatory although the mandatory requirements that will be referenced in it cannot be avoided,” says Young.

“It is the intention of the NZITSG to make compliance uncomplicated and make sure that needless costs or compliance burden are not unnecessarily placed on operators. This Code of Practice will be the simplest and most effective mechanism available for industry to develop for the improvement of safety and compliance. The alternative is to wait for government to intervene and take a heavy-handed regulatory approach.”

The Group’s members represent each of the main port regions throughout New Zealand and are:

• Murray Young – NZ Express Transport – Christchurch

• Ian Pauling – CODA Group – Auckland

• Calven Bonney – L.W. Bonney & Sons– Auckland

• Mike Herrick – TDL Group – Auckland

• Grant Darrah – Reliance Transport – Auckland

• Clinton Burgess – CODA Group – Tauranga

• Nigel Eden – Tomoana Warehousing – Napier

• John Anderson – LG Andersons Transport– Wellington

• Richard Smith – Hilton Haulage – Christchurch

• Mark Purdue – H.W.R Group – Dunedin

The Road Transport Forum is providing secretariat services to the NZITSG.

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