Mapmaker, Mapmaker, Make Me a Map
With the click of a "mouse,'' Tammy Spears' computer screen leaps to life with a spidery crosshatching of deep blue lines etched on a black background that conforms to a street plan of the city of Portsmouth, Va.
With another click, she zooms in on a specific neighborhood, filling the screen in a flash with a clearly defined grid of streets and intersections.
Spears, a transportation planner for the Portsmouth school district, quickly clicks through several on-screen menus, selecting a feature here and an option there almost faster than the eye can follow. After setting the parameters of a computerized search, a final click sets the program into operation. Within seconds, the computer superimposes a series of dots, lines, and boxes on the street map.
Calling attention to the array of lights on the electronic map, Spears explains how the district uses its new software to streamline its transportation system and establish school-attendance boundaries. "This is the location of the student,'' she says, pointing out the individual dots. "And this is the location of the nearest bus stop,'' she adds, pointing to one of the boxes.
On the screen, the white lines radiating from each of the dots converge on one of the boxes to indicate where each student will wait for the school bus.
With a few swift clicks, Spears switches screens to reveal a table listing each of the bus stops, complete with its address, the number of students expected to board at the stop, and the approximate time the bus is scheduled to arrive.
Before the district bought the software program, called EDULOG, much of the work that now takes Spears minutes to do took hours or even days to complete--if it could be done at all.
Before EDULOG, which was developed by a Missoula, Mont.-based firm called Education Logistics Inc., Spears says pushpins and dots represented bus stops and riders on paper maps, as they still do in most of the nation's 16,000 school districts. In those days, some bus stops existed simply because the school district had used them in previous years, regardless of whether children still lived nearby. What's more, many hours of work spent carefully developing a bus route could be swept onto the floor by a careless passer-by.
"I keep thinking about 'before' and 'after,''' Spears says. "I don't know if I could go back to 'before.'''
On the Cutting Edge
The EDULOG software is the biggest-selling program of its type in a relatively small market niche that has developed in recent years to streamline transportation planning for school districts.
Although by far the dominant developer in the field, Education Logistics competes with roughly a half-dozen other companies to provide solutions to such knotty and time-consuming problems as complying efficiently with court-ordered, desegregation-related busing plans and deciding how many new buses to buy to accommodate growing enrollments.
The 18,000-student Portsmouth district, located on the south shore of Virginia's Hampton Roads harbor, is one of Education Logistics' newest clients. A relatively small district compared with neighboring Norfolk, Portsmouth is nonetheless on the cutting edge of automated transportation planning.
In late December, officials of the Prince George's County, Md., public schools, one of the nation's 20 largest districts, visited Spears' closet-sized office to see the EDULOG system at work. Transportation planners from the nearby Petersburg, Va., district paid a visit in January.
School officials in Portsmouth say simplifying the process of arranging bus routes, adjusting attendance boundaries, and managing other transportation problems is well worth the district's initial outlay of $27,000 for the software and its annual $2,700 maintenance fee.
And, they note, with fiscal prudence a watchword for districts everywhere, the short cuts derived from computerized scheduling have allowed them to employ their fleet of 140 buses more efficiently.
But Portsmouth has found other uses for the system, as well. Recently, for example, the district, which has a predominantly black enrollment, has been considering developing a system of neighborhood elementary schools and has tried to calculate reasonable walking distances for some 9,000 students.
Spears recalls that a similar initiative to modify secondary school boundaries, undertaken before the district purchased EDULOG, took almost two years to complete. With EDULOG, she says, the district devised several alternative boundaries for the elementary schools in only two months.
A Mathematical Solution
The program's ability to dramatically simplify routine and tedious tasks has helped Education Logistics grow dramatically since the company was founded in 1977 by Hien Nguyen, a mathematics professor at the University of Montana.
Nguyen, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who migrated to Montana, is a specialist in a field of applied math called "operations research.'' He got into the software business, according to Carter Young, a company spokesman, when he was asked to help develop a transportation plan for the Great Falls, Mont., public schools.
As a mathematician, Nguyen immediately viewed the task as a variation on an optimization problem--a classic challenge in higher math often described by using the analogy of the "traveling-salesman problem.''
"Basically, it's a problem where someone has 20 places to go, in X amount of time,'' Young explains. "And the question is, 'What's the best route to take to get there?'''
Although the computing power and graphics programs available in the late 1970's were primitive by today's standards, the initial transportation plan was extremely successful, netting Nguyen a contract worth $250,000.
Meanwhile, as the power of personal computing has grown over time, the ability to create and manipulate the "digital maps'' that are the heart of the system has become far more affordable. And software that once needed huge mainframe computers to operate can now run on a desktop system.
Today, Education Logistics has contracts with 750 school districts in 44 states. And Young estimates that the company controls some 65 percent of the market, a figure that market researchers verify.
Other Math Problems
EDULOG also helps transportation planners devise boundaries that allow them to adjust the racial balance of schools to comply with court-ordered desegregation programs, if necessary, and to insure that special-education students don't have to ride too long to reach their classes. In fact, Young counts such uses among the system's most important applications.
In Memphis, for example, which enrolls 108,000 students, the district buses 16,500 students to comply with court-ordered desegregation, while it transports only 3,000 special-education students to school. Yet, the district schedules 350 bus runs for court-ordered busing and 305 bus runs for special education.
Such figures are not uncommon. According to Young, scheduling special-education routes often requires as much as 70 percent of a district's planning time.
Unlike conventional bus routes, special-education buses often must pick students up directly from their homes, making the routes far more complicated. Solving the problem involves manipulating three different variables, including the number of buses available, the number of students to be bused, and the number of stops each bus must make.
"The X, Y, and Z add up to a serious problem,'' Young says.
The Bottom Line
Many of the company's clients use the software simply to trim bus schedules or streamline routes--goals that frequently result in large savings of fuel, maintenance, and replacement costs.
One of the company's largest clients, Young notes, is the state of North Carolina, where every local school district uses the software.
In the late 1980's, the legislature required districts to adopt the system, says Derek Graham, the project manager of the state education department's Transportation Information Management System, or TIMS, which is built around the EDULOG program. The mandate altered the state's school-funding formula to reward fiscal efficiency at the district level.
Although it is difficult to pinpoint individual savings in such a large system, Graham says a comparison of data collected before and after the system became widely used indicates that using EDULOG has significantly reduced transportation costs.
According to figures compiled by the Institute for Transportation Research and Education at the University of North Carolina, districts statewide operated a total of 13,231 buses in the 1989-90 school year. During that period, the buses traveled 26.4 million miles and consumed 20.7 million gallons of gasoline.
By comparison, 12,759 buses covered the same routes during the 1991-92 school year. This decrease in the number of buses helped reduce the state's annual mileage to 23.7 million and fuel consumption to 19.4 million gallons.
"The funding formula gave them the incentive [to economize],'' Graham says. "And TIMS gave them the tools.''
Time Out for Accuracy
Despite its obvious advantages, users say the automated system does have drawbacks.
Tom Caulkins, the director of student-assignment services for the Nashville-Davidson County, Tenn., district, which is gearing up to use the EDULOG system, says the painstaking care needed to develop accurate digital maps frequently requires a massive investment of time. "One of the mistakes that administrators make is not to allow enough time to get it up and running,'' he says.
Transportation planners must build the system's integral digital maps from U.S. Census Bureau records and thoroughly crosscheck for accuracy in everything from the spelling of street names to the placement of intersections.
"If you don't have time to make it 100 percent accurate, it can be sort of a 'garbage in, garbage out' situation,'' Spears warns. "It's a complicated system, but it's a lot easier than pushpins.''
Information on these six transportation-planning programs is available from their developers.
KETRON Division of the Bionetics Corporation
Forth & Associates
Creighton Manning Inc.