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Kyle Titlow

Kyle Titlow
During his fellowship with the U.S. Department of Transportation, postgraduate Kyle Titlow analyzed GPS data sets to improve U.S. transportation methods.

Postgraduate researcher investigates transportation systems using GPS data

In the United States, nearly every vehicle, vessel or aircraft moving through the multi-modal transportation network contains a spatial tracking Global Positioning System (GPS) device. These devices are an important part of operations management and contribute to transportation system safety by providing information regarding vehicle location to transportation coordinators. This information helps prevent collisions and ensures both people and goods arrive at their destinations safely and on time.

The information emitted by these trackers is increasingly being stored, queried and analyzed by transportation planners for reasons other than just safety. Knowing the locations of transportation system chokepoints and congestion—two more insights gleaned from these types of data—is absolutely critical to the management, upkeep and planning of the national transportation infrastructure.

During a recent fellowship with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Research Participation Program, postgraduate Kyle Titlow gained experience using the information gathered by GPS trackers to identify when, how and why roads, waterways and air spaces are being used in order to develop new statistical products and applications for logistical planning.

From an early age, Titlow was fascinated by mapping, geography and cartography. During college, his interests led him to pursue a career as a social scientist and human geographer. It wasn’t until he learned about geographic information systems (GIS) as an undergraduate at the College of William & Mary that Titlow was introduced to geography as a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) discipline.

GIS are frameworks designed to capture and analyze geographic and spatial data. Although they can be used to design applications that focus on a particular aspect, such as mapping, logistics or location intelligence, Titlow was fascinated by the broad applications of GIS to multiple fields.

“I was impressed by how GIS made it possible to analyze data from almost every academic discipline through the lens of geography and its theories and concepts about spatial relationships,” said Titlow.

“The diverse applications of GIS, and knowing that it would allow me to continuously engage my interests in mapping and geography while not being entirely stuck in a single field of study or exclusively in the human or natural sciences, led me both indirectly and unexpectedly into a STEM career.”

While completing his master’s degree in geography at the University of Arizona, Titlow began exploring opportunities that mixed his interests in GIS, human geography and transportation. When he found the DOT Research Participation Program while visiting information booths during the 2018 Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting, he immediately knew it was a perfect fit.

The DOT Research Participation Program provides and expands opportunities for research collaboration and coordination, while upholding the integrity and impartiality of transportation statistical data. Participants have the opportunity to learn from skilled mentors and gain hands-on research experience related to a variety of transportation topics.

During his appointment, Titlow was stationed in the Office of Spatial Analysis and Visualization (OSAV) at the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) in Washington, D.C. Under the guidance of his mentor, Ed Strocko, Director of BTS OSAV, Titlow contributed to several projects involving the analysis of big spatial datasets of GPS data points from different modes of transportation.

His research specifically examined how BTS can use data associated with three different modes of transportation: freight trucks, airplanes and ships. Titlow collected data on each mode from various sources, including private industry and government sources. He then coded algorithms and applied geospatial layers to the data in order to extract valuable information from each transportation system. Titlow’s results included information such as when and where vehicles were stopped, how long vehicles spent inside a facility and how to determine when a vehicle had completed a trip.

“While each of these is seemingly simple in concept, they each presented interesting complications,” said Titlow. “Understanding these intricacies of how vehicles and vessels move through each transportation system, and how to observe those movements in the data, required a substantial literature review even before I wrote any code or produced any maps.”

Titlow’s research, while still exploratory, will assist DOT in the management and improvement of transportation services and future statistical products. His time with DOT allowed Titlow to develop his technical skillset and increase his data literacy, as well as grow as both a researcher and geographer. He highly recommends the program to other students.

“It is an excellent opportunity for recent graduates who are interested in getting their feet wet with research opportunities outside of traditional academia,” said Titlow. “I’ve gotten a much more realistic understanding of how the government functions and the challenges and opportunities it faces in regards to transportation data.” 

Following the conclusion of his fellowship, Titlow joined BTS as a full-time federal employee in May 2020. He plans to continue his research on GPS transportation data and hopes to one day publish his findings.

The U.S. DOT Research Participation Program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for the U.S Department of Energy by Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU).