Infrastructure: fitness for the future

Better data

11 February 2019

While the construction and infrastructure industries generate huge amounts of data, its full value has yet to be realised

The increasing ubiquity of infrastructure data sources, from installed sensors to serendipitous data from social media, gives us an opportunity to gain unparalleled insights into the way our infrastructure is performing, how we are using it, whether it is fit for the future and what new infrastructure we may need to invest in.

The infrastructure and construction industries generate a lot of data, but do not often extract or exploit its full value. The cost of storing, processing and transmitting data has fallen significantly in recent years, driving digital transformation across all industries and also presenting a timely opportunity for infrastructure and construction to work more efficiently, sustainably and profitably.

We must change the way we perceive, manage and value the data we generate

However, in order to realise the full benefits of this, we must change the way we perceive, manage and value the data we generate. We need to make the most of our data, and this requires us to identify what information we want from the data we collect, process it accordingly and make it accessible for future reference.

Currently, we often use monitoring data to assess whether a particular quantity or property falls above or below a certain threshold, which then highlights whether there is an issue with the asset. After doing so, we typically dispose of the data or archive it in such a way that it is not easy to retrieve. We are not looking beyond the task in hand.

This approach does not provide value for money; collecting data incurs cost, and if we used the data more fully – not just to establish proximity to a threshold but to identify trends in that data over a period of time – it would offer us a better understanding of an asset’s behaviour in terms of any rate of change and the speed at which a potential problem is developing.

Richer information enables better decision-making. If we have a fuller picture of the behaviour of an asset, we can understand how urgently an issue needs to be addressed and plan accordingly.

Analysing data in this way allows action to be taken before a critical threshold is reached. Crucially, it enables the sector to progress from the reactive maintenance and management of our assets to a more cost-effective, risk-based maintenance and management approach. If we treat or repair an asset before maintenance is required, money is wasted because there is additional capacity remaining; if we act too late, costs can rise due to the greater level of damage and the associated disruption to the network the asset serves. Using the data, we can identify the best time to take action.

Fundamentally, our industry needs to get much better at identifying the potential value of data and processing and maintaining it in such a way that allows us to retrieve it and use it again. That means establishing structured approaches to both collecting and storing data and having reliable metadata – knowledge of when the data was captured, and why and how, so that we can reliably assess its quality. Changing the way that we perceive, collect and curate data will unlock huge value. We need a shift in mindset from treating data as disposable to seeing it as an asset of value in itself, and as an important tool in maintaining a physical asset.

There are other issues to consider: being able to gain more from existing assets through digital enhancement of mature infrastructure is crucial because we cannot simply build our way out of a capacity constraint. Taking major pieces of infrastructure out of commission because they have degraded beyond the point of useability causes huge disruptions and potential safety implications. Increasing urbanisation puts greater pressure on resources and, in the face of climate change, we have a responsibility to manage our use of carbon-intensive materials effectively and efficiently.

Whole-life value

We must use the tools and technologies at our disposal to ensure that new infrastructure is designed and built with consideration for the value it provides throughout the whole life of the asset, not just for the lowest capital cost. This means considering the operational and maintenance costs at the design phase, and optimising for these costs as well as the cost of construction. Making better use of data throughout the infrastructure cycle is essential because it enables better decisions, which lead to better outcomes for those who will ultimately be using the asset (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: A model showing the main components of digital

Figure 1: A model showing the main components of digital infrastructure. Applying this model to physical assets enables them to become smart infrastructure

Our industry has made great strides in collecting monitoring data on some of our infrastructure projects. However, because that data has been considered only to be of relevance at the point of collection, it has not been maintained adequately for future use. The next step is therefore to think about the long-term value of that data, both in terms of managing the asset and improving our design and construction models and processes.

There are still barriers to overcome. Our sector lacks experience, and case studies attributing value to the collection and curation of data are few and far between. Additional investment in better maintenance of data we have already paid to collect would unlock significant value for relatively limited cost.

Integrating infrastructure information

Information management is critical to securing this long-term value. At the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction, researchers are developing tools for integrating different data sources to support whole-life management of infrastructure assets and systems. Asset information futureproofing for whole-life value helps organisations to understand their information retention requirements, assess the risks of information losses in the long term and identify ways of mitigating that risk.

The National Infrastructure Commission’s Data for the Public Good report is a call to arms, and its proposal for the formation of a national framework for infrastructure data – which the Centre for Digital Built Britain is leading through the Data Framework Task Group chaired by Mark Enzer – has been accepted by government. Many individual client, contracting and consulting organisations are already starting down this route and thinking about how they specify their data requirements and manage the data collected to enable maximum value. The challenge and the opportunity is to bring together people from the various points in an asset’s lifecycle to ensure the relevant data created during construction is secured, stored and curated for future use by asset managers and operators.

Driving change

Clients and asset owners have a key role to play in setting out their information requirements. They have the long-term interest in the asset, and are in the best position to specify the data that needs to accompany it through its lifecycle. This is essential because various organisations will inevitably be involved in maintaining the asset over this time, particularly in the case of long-serving infrastructure.

Momentum is growing. The Infrastructure Client Group’s Digital Transformation Task Group comprises a number of major clients and project organisations that are seeking to progress digital transformation strategies. Driving change is often difficult, but there are a lot of exciting and innovative initiatives emerging from this group, members of which are tackling different aspects of the challenge. Working together and pooling strategies will help build impetus and move us all in the right direction.

The intelligent use of digital technologies will enable us to design, build and manage our built assets to create a smart, digital economy that brings benefits to all society.

Dr Jennifer Schooling is director of the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) at the University of Cambridge, and chair of the Research Strategy Steering Group at the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB)

Further information