You can’t make it better until you make it work. In America, we don’t create bad infrastructure, we just fail to maintain it. The crumbling infrastructure of US cities and towns is often overshadowed by budget concerns, national turmoil, and global crisis. As a leader in your local government, you know this better than anyone but progress is possible.
In his new book, Mission Control, Ben Schmidt shares how you could join the data-driven revolution and lead the way in adopting new processes and technologies to save money, achieve better outcomes and make a tangible difference in your civil infrastructure management.
The book explains how to overcome the common obstacles and wrong turns that stop innovators in their tracks, demonstrating how obtaining the right data works as a foundation for informed decision-making. Sometimes a good idea just needs a push in the right direction to inspire progress and to disrupt the status quo.
Hey listeners, my name is Drew Applebaum and I’m excited to be here today with Ben Schmidt, author of Mission Control: The Roadmap to Long-Term, Data-Driven Public Infrastructure. Benjamin, thank you for joining, welcome to The Author Hour Podcast.
Benjamin Schmidt: Thank you for having me.
Drew Appelbaum: Ben, help us kick this off. Can you give us a brief rundown of your professional background?
Benjamin Schmidt: Sure. So, very briefly I have had a circuitous path on my way to writing this book. I actually, went to school, I did a Ph.D. in bioengineering, of all things. Left, went and did my first startup, in which we were looking at energy price forecasting, of all things. So, in the electricity and power markets, as I like to joke, the math was the same, it’s just the context changes from bio to energy and now, for the last five years, I have been working at a company looking at infrastructure.
We founded this company, helping local governments to understand more about their road infrastructure, sort of other assets and so professionally, I would say that I really like hard problems that have big meaningful impacts in the world and that has led me to quite a number of different application areas. Drew Appelbaum: Why was now the time to share your story? Was there something inspiring out there for you, did you have an “aha moment”? Is it just the infrastructure in this country bothering you so much that you needed to talk about it in a broader format?
Benjamin Schmidt: It probably won’t be wrong to say, all of the above plus a few more. So certainly, in the kind of national and in some context, the international environment is one in which infrastructure is all of a sudden becoming sort of top of mind, right? This kind of the usual quip around America’s crumbling infrastructure really keeps getting worse, I think people are focusing and seeing sort of impact on all of us. So I think that’s kind of one that’s sort of natural environment behind it.
Certainly, the second one is that for the last five years, I have been — well, for the first three years, physically sitting across from local governments, hearing their stories, talking to them about how they managed their infrastructure and of course, for the last two years, kind of digitally doing the same. But all of that really culminated in this idea to get the message and the story out there of how we can fix infrastructure, how we can advance it, how we can think differently about it and how that would have a really measured impact on sort of the outcome.
How many potholes there are, how many bridges are falling down, all those kinds of terrible things and make it better for everyone. So, that was kind of really what drove writing this book.
The Paradox of The Infrastructure Perspective
Drew Appelbaum: I think everybody knows this that writing a book is incredibly difficult but you’ve been in the business for a long time. So, when you dug into the book putting together chapter by chapter, did you have to come through any major breakthroughs or learnings, maybe just by doing some research or by digging deeper into a topic?
Benjamin Schmidt: Well, I’ve always read a lot of books and I wanted to be kind to my own readers and not have a 900-page volume. So, the hardest part actually was finding stories to not talk about because I think there’s so many little vignettes and I think, really exciting and sort of inspiring things that have happened to us that we’ve seen and we’ve seen governments working on and doing that you know, really couldn’t make it into the book.
So that was certainly one of the hardest but it was a massive undertaking. I do think the biggest, best part of this is that this is really my day-to-day. So, I’ve been focused in on this problem around helping local governments make decisions, make data-driven decisions and doing this kind off transformation for a lot of them using some of the products that we’ve been building.
Again, just lots of really great vignettes, lots of great stories in it and I think the hardest part was just making sure that it came across as a really genuine story. So I think that readers would like that they could be receipted to and not just, “Are you a local government official? Read this book, I really hope it helps” but also, for the broader audience, right? All of us are affected by infrastructure, by our local government’s decision making so hopefully, it can help inform general readers about what happens today, what it’s like, what government officials are going through and how they have to make decisions and see it’s really cramped and complex environments. So hopefully, it had some broad applicability there.
Drew Appelbaum: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up that it’s even your average citizen can have takeaways. You don’t have to be in government at the moment to read and understand the book but let’s dig into the book itself but before that, I do want you to just give you us an overview. Can you talk to us about just the state of America’s infrastructure as it stands?
Benjamin Schmidt: Sure, I’ll talk about it in this kind of a paradox. So you know, every few years, the American Society of Civil Engineers comes out and gives an official report on America’s infrastructure and every year, it basically fails, right? It’s like a D-grade, on roads or bridges, et cetera.
You have kind of this national storyline and then certainly our own personal experiences. You hit the pothole and you have broken axel, you see too many road closures that water mains are breaking, right? We have our personal experience about infrastructure. So, all of that’s kind of that story, that’s the public story that you hear about. If you’re not involved in this industry, that’s what you hear about, right?
So, when I go to a family party or something like that, that’s the story that I’m told when I say what it is that I do every day like, “Oh yeah, roads are terrible” right? That’s what we hear. Interestingly though, on the other side of that is, I probably sat across from 200, 300 governments at this point. One of the absolute most fascinating things about that is that we help governments to basically create data-driven objective.
It’s a machine learning platform that assesses their road condition. Almost without fail, those governments don’t have anything like that. They do not have information about what the current status of their entire road network is. With the one exception being that, maybe if they just jumped into trucks and grabs a notepad and pencil, they might have some notes on that.
What’s really kind of fascinating to me is sort of a paradox that on the one hand, we’re saying four infrastructure is crumbling, we have report cards for it, we have our own personal experience and then on the other side, the people that actually manage it, doesn’t really have any insight into what its current status looks like.
So the real question is, how do we know that anything is actually in good or bad shape and I think that’s really where this book comes from is this idea of trying to capture real objective, right? Not your personal opinion but an objective understanding of what our infrastructure looks like and then, using that as a basis of making decisions, making policy choices, allocating budget dollars, making that sort of how we build up and create a better infrastructure environment.
I think that paradox is really what I think is just the most critical part of understanding of sort of why we’re in the predicament that we’re in right now which is, we think, we believe, right? All these very fuzzy feelings that are state of infrastructure and yet, the reality is, we don’t know. That is I think, the first thing that we need to fix here. Kind of get large at every scale of government, every level of government, that’s what we need to fix is we need to know, to really understand it, only then can we start to fix it.
Drew Appelbaum: So, what role does data play now in making decisions set at every level and how could it potentially help for the future?
Benjamin Schmidt: Sure, we dig into this quite a bit in the book and that you know, data, lots of people talk about like, “If I have data then everything’s sort of magical.” Data isn’t really natural. It actually — in some cases, it can hurt, in some cases, it can help. It’s about having the right data at the right time that it informs the decision and so, that’s really kind of this critical and sort of the complicated part about getting data.
Certainly, in the environment we’re in now, we don’t have a lot of data, right? As I said, we have a notepad and you know, a pencil driving around, taking a few notes and maybe you do that over the course of weeks or months on your tire road network or whatever sort of infrastructure we’re talking about here. It’s spotty, it’s based on you know, “Did you have your coffee this morning?” right? It has all those sorts of biases inside of it.
It is data but it’s kind of a poor substitute for I think the kind of data that you would want to make decisions off and so then, it becomes really critical to find the right data to get it at the right time. So we have a great story in there at the state level, so at states, the DOTs, they have reporting guidelines back to the federal government but the data takes nine months. So you know, I live in Pennsylvania.
So by the time Pennsylvania completes the survey of the entire interstate network in Pennsylvania, we’ve already had a whole winter. They’ve repaired some of the roads that have gone to hell and then several months later, they finally get the report. So, the great question is, what uses that data when it’s nine months out of data? Really, the answer is, it’s not of much use.
So timing’s critical, the kinds of data are critical, how it’s collected are critical and I think that’s really what this book is all about is how do we get a better snapshot so that we can make those data-driven decisions but not just saying, you know, “Oh, great, I’m data driven.” You know, everyone’s kind of data driven. It’s, what data do you have? That’s the real key and so, like I said, dig in heavily in this book on how do you find, what is the criteria for great data that you can start building those data driven decisions from.
Drew Appelbaum: You created a system called the “M3 Roadmap” in the book. Can you give us an overview of what that entails?
Benjamin Schmidt: Sure. So, there’s a couple of different components to sort how we arrived at this. One of the core themes of the book, for a lot of governments, the biggest drive or sort of how they measure the wrong success is going to be their budget, right? You hear a lot in government of, “Am I overbudget or am I underbudget?” There’s consequences to both of those and that’s mostly how a lot of governments, local city, state counties, here in the United States, really, around the world sort of measure themselves.
One of the things that we’ve really wanted to drive as, that if we truly wish to sort of obtain this data-driven environment, we’ve got to start thinking of how we measure our own success in a different way and that is really where this M3 program came up with. So there’s three different components to it. The first one is having kind of a shared mission, so this is — think of almost if we are going on a trip here, the mission is sort of the horizon.
It is where your destination lies but you are not quite sure about it, so it is a little bit fuzzy but it points you in a direction. The next component of it is having strategic milestones. So again, if the mission is over there on the horizon, the milestones are sort of the individual pieces that you need to go, the big leaps you need to make in order to make progress towards that horizon. So that is really setting up those milestones.
Then of course, the core of all of it are metrics. So here, we’re kind of taking a little bit of a nuance on data is really the raw input to a lot of these processes. It is raw, it’s unfiltered sometimes, there is usually a lot of it. As I said before, some of it is relevant to what you are trying to achieve, some of it is not that’s kind of what this book is about. It helps that operator to sort of filter through it but ultimately, you want your data to bubble up into these metrics.
Metrics are how you are going to, you know, maybe it is minute by minute but it could be hour by hour or day by day. It is the fast sort of feedback loop that you are going to use to help your organization move from milestone to milestone and ultimately, hit that mission. So it really kind of builds on top of each other, right?
Lots of different metrics, helping you make short term decisions guide you on whether or not those decisions are sort of moving you in the right direction or not and then setting up this kind of intermediate and long term plans that go along with it but as I said at the outset, a lot of that is trying to shift away from the concept of only measuring ourselves on budget, right?
So I think one of the critical takeaways from that concept of America’s crumbling infrastructure is that most of the way that we determine whether or not our infrastructure is in good condition is whether or not we meet the budget and I think using this kind of M3 framework is a way to transition us from thinking not just about budget, budget is still important. It is still a factor but to now start thinking about what are the core ways that we want to measure our success and infrastructure.
Is it the number of potholes? Is it the smoothness of roads? Is it how walkable the city is, right? Trying to focus government attention, policy attention and ultimately budget on hitting these alternative ways of measuring success and this is really the framework that we put forward to help governments guide themselves along in that path.
Drew Appelbaum: I like you actually mention this in the book, you say that by going through these steps it can actually lead to more funding.
Benjamin Schmidt: Absolutely. So again, if you think about this in the reverse direction, you know usually most of us think from the perspective of a resident or a citizen, right? We think about is the government doing the right thing? Are they sort of doing the policies that I want, right? Us kind of talking to our officials. Much of our government, much of our infrastructure funding is actually in the opposite direction, right?
Where maybe it’s the federal government giving money to the states or maybe it’s the state government funding local projects through grant programs, et cetera. Some of this is also about creating an environment for this level of government, whichever level that is to help them unlock or show the promise or the plan for the government above them, right? For the granting programs above them to sort of unlock more funds, access more sort of opportunities that way.
This is really kind of a, it is a little bit wonkish in terms of its policy directions but that is one of the mechanisms that we’ve seen practically in the day to day basis at my company, really make it enabling to sort of unlock the potential for additional funding, additional grants to sort of by having a really good program in place for managing your infrastructure.
Scrutiny: The Average Citizen’s Contribution
Drew Appelbaum: Now, when somebody starts implementing the M3 system, does big change happen right away or is this something where you celebrate the small wins while on your way to bigger wins in three years, five years, ten years? What is a general timeline look like while you’re transitioning?
Benjamin Schmidt: I don’t think I can speak to a general timeline but I would say probably slower than whatever the person would like it to be, is generally going to be the answer and there’s a couple of different things to it. One is that it really is sort of a fundamental shift, right? There is a culture in government around budget, focusing on budget and data-driven, you know, we tend to talk about it but we tend not to really have the practical application of it.
So all of that is going to shift and that’s not easy, that requires sort of changing hearts and minds and that work. The other part here is that we are talking about government and for whatever sort of ills it may create, governments are designed not to change, right? Generally, we don’t want them to, right? We want them to be nice and stable, to continue to do what they are doing.
When they do things badly, we would like it to change but overall, government really is focused on not changing, right? That it’s kind of core purpose. It’s because it’s stable. What that means is that for this kind of a change to happen, it will require a lot of time, attention, many different stakeholders at different levels of that government potentially members of the public; it could be staff, it could be elected.
All of them sort of working together and moving this needle towards it. Now, one thing I will definitely say sort of absent this book, absent the philosophical change, et cetera is that technology is going to drive this anyway, right? So we are getting access to more kinds of data, better kinds of data about the subjects that we are talking about. So even my company really shows some of that promise.
Where we are now using AI, machine-learning, to understand better our roads, so that is happening. That progress will continue to happen and that’s going to happen no matter what the government really tries to do. So that will shift because of that technological change, we will also see generational changes within governments. Younger folks are going to come in more tech-savvy, more aware of these kinds of newer technologies and emerging technologies that will continue to push as it always has.
That is the theme for all time of new technology sort of push out the old ones. So this will happen, I will hope though this book can help accelerate that kind of change or help to focus in on where we need to make those changes or where to start with but you did nail it, it will be slow, it will be methodical. It would be slower than we would like it to be but it is critical that it happens but rest assured, it will happen no matter what perhaps just slower than if we tried to do it ourselves.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, is there anything that the average citizen can do if they are not in local government right now to help with this?
Benjamin Schmidt: Sure, so I mean the absolute first one here or really the highest priority is to question, right? So a lot of the data-driven mechanisms, when done well, survive a lot of scrutiny. If you have a plan that is based around data, how you collect the data, it’s assumptions, it’s biases, good practitioners know their strengths and weaknesses, know where they do and do not have information and can answer those readily and honestly.
Because they can say “we don’t yet have this and we’re working towards it”. Programs that don’t survive scrutiny are usually based on a bunch of not great data-driven methodologies, not something like the program we’re advocating for. So certainly, the easiest way for the public to get involved is to really scrutinize how we’re arriving at the programs we’re arriving in. You know, how are we generating the report card, the grading report cards of our roads?
What is the mechanism? How are we getting to this road will be repaired and not that one? How did that happen? Just explain it. It doesn’t have to be a question in terms of like, “I think you’re wrong.” It’s just how was it created and that could be a large driver for moving this kind of change externally from the government is what can we do, you know, show me how you are arriving at this? What is the basis behind it?
Because I think a lot of these again, just don’t survive scrutiny mostly because we haven’t really scrutinized that before. Why is this road paved? Because that one is up this year. Well, why was it up this year? Now, go down that path and you will find that most of the time there really isn’t much of a program.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, what impact do you hope the book will have on readers and are there any immediate steps that you hope they’ll take either while reading or after they finished the book?
Benjamin Schmidt: Well, I certainly am not shy about dreaming big. I mean, I do hope that there will be one where several or many folks that read this book that are in the government context, in the right sort of position to see these kinds of changes and can start implementing and moving forward with it immediately that they can see a real tangible benefit from moving in that direction, setting up the right kinds of metrics and dashboards and things like that, we’re advocating for here and start to drive a measurable change in how we do things.
So that is certainly the best outcome. To me, the more subtle, perhaps more realistic version is that I hope this is one of many on that same, what I was talking about before this kind of technological inevitability. We are going to move here, this is how governments will operate in the future, which is a more data-driven, a more information based internal decision making and we will move the policy side to kind of what we do with that information higher and higher up in kind of the abstraction, right?
In terms of more decisions will be made being informed by a lot more information. That is just the inevitability here. You see this in businesses already making data-driven decisions, making KPIs, key performance indicators and dashboards and that’s how they’re run, that is how my company is run. I think you’ll see that same exact trend with government. As I said, it will just be a little bit slower.
So my hope is that this book really contributes to moving our minds into that sort of new framework of reference as we move forward and that little by little, myself and a lot of others can really drive that change. I want to see a government that is really, “Hey, tell me what’s going on over here and here’s all the information they have at their disposal about how they’re arriving at that.”
We will still need to make decisions, policies, et cetera but I will be so excited they have in the short term, we could see more of those decisions have data as the basis for why they were done.
Drew Appelbaum: Well, Ben, we just touched on the surface of the book here. There is so much more inside. I just want to say that putting this book out there to help empower local folks, local governments and just to be able to help the infrastructure locally and around the country is no small feat. So congratulations on having your book published.
Benjamin Schmidt: Well, thank you and thank you for having me. This is great, great questions and I very much hope everyone enjoys reading the book.
Drew Appelbaum: Ben, this has been a pleasure. I am excited for people to check out the book. Everyone, the book is called, Mission Control, and you could find it on Amazon. Ben, besides checking out the book, is there anywhere else where people can connect with you?
Benjamin Schmidt: Sure, I am pretty active on social media and my company, I’ve eluded to a few times called RoadBotics, so we help governments make decisions about their roads, certainly, a large driver of all of this is, pun intended.
Drew Appelbaum: Absolutely. Well Ben, thank you so much for coming on the show today and giving us some of your time and best of luck with the new book.
Benjamin Schmidt: Thank you and thanks for having me.