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United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Volpe's New Innovation Challenge Elicits Unique Solutions to Emerging Transportation Issues

Friday, December 28, 2012

Volpe recently completed its first-ever Innovation Challenge, a competition for staff to receive funding to develop unique solutions to emerging transportation issues. Recognizing that today's challenges are complex, the Innovation Challenge encouraged staff to work together in multidisciplinary teams, leveraging Volpe's unique breadth and depth in expertise.

Recognized internationally for its transportation research expertise, Volpe houses experts in virtually every field, from economists and urban planners to mechanical engineers and computer scientists. Volpe is a multi-disciplinary organization, working to solve multimodal transportation problems.

To compete, teams were required to do more than just describe a technical solution; they were required to identify the impact of their proposal, identify the size of the market, and the idea's financial viability. Teams also had to identify a logical sequence of events that would transition their idea into a solution that can improve the state of transportation in America.

The value of this competition is that, in addition to engaging Volpe staff in professional development, the Innovation Challenge stimulated the development of innovative ideas that could have application to multiple modes of transportation. The seven teams that made it into the finals of this three-month competition were competing for funds to develop their solutions for real-world application. The judging panel was comprised of top leadership from multiple modes from across the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Volpe teams presented ideas on how to improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists; improve crash data capture and analysis; better leverage big data; reduce stress and fatigue for operators; and make our airports safer and more efficient.

Three proposals offered solutions to big data problems, such as improvements to data verification. Three other proposals offered technological or software solutions to emerging issues, and five proposals offered solutions to increase safety in the air and on the ground.

Photo of Qi Van Eikema Hommes addressing an audience.

The winning team proposed a software tool that would improve safety management by facilitating a system-focused hazard identification method. Led by hazard analysis expert Dr. Qi Van Eikema Hommes, the multidisciplinary team also involved aviation safety engineer Zale Anis, operations research analyst Joanne Kang, and software and electrical engineer Mike Razo. The hazard analysis method that Van Eikema Hommes' team proposed will provide a more comprehensive understanding of a system's risk, taking into account hazards caused by unanticipated interactions among components of the complex electronic control systems that are present in modern transportation. "Even if every component appears to be functioning properly, problems can still arise. This new tool will help a user quickly get up-to-speed with using this method, even if they have not been trained extensively in it," says software engineer Mike Razo.

Of the Innovation Challenge, winning team leader Van Eikema Hommes said, "the challenge was a great learning opportunity for us. The process of preparing the pitch, receiving input from leaders across Volpe and refining our idea really helped us better understand how to forward the Department [of Transportation's] mission. It was an eye-opening experience and towards the end of the challenge, I felt that it didn't really matter if we won or not, I had learned so much."

About the Winning Team

Said Qi Van Eikema Hommes, team lead for the winning proposal, "Joanne [Kang], Zale [Anis], and I met during Volpe Day, [a recent cross-Volpe internal conference aimed at increasing technical collaboration]. All of us attended a system safety session hosted by Dr. Stephen Popkin where Joanne and Zale both presented their perspective on system safety practices and challenges. We were all very excited about the idea of more people using this new hazard analysis method, but the learning curve is steep because the method is relatively new. That was when our idea was born. We needed to find a programmer, so we brought [software engineer] Mike Razo on board."


Above photo: Hazard analysis expert Qi Van Eikema Hommes led the winning project group. The group proposed a software tool that would improve safety management systems and risk analysis. (Volpe photo)

Photo of Innovative Challenge Judges

Judges from Volpe's Innovation Challenge included (from left to right) Jo Strang, FRA Associate Administrator for Railroad Safety; Robert Johns, Volpe Center Director; Gregory Winfree, RITA Acting Administrator; Christopher Bonanti, NHTSA Associate Administrator for Rulemaking; and Tony Fazio, FAA Director of the Office of Accident Investigation and Prevention (not pictured here). Tony participated via video teleconference. (Volpe photo)