skip to content

Centre for Digital Built Britain

Guest Blog - Karen Alford - Environment Agency

In this month’s guest blog Karen Alford, Flood and Coastal Risk Manager for the Environment Agency, specialising in asset data and information, charts the organisation’s digital journey and looks forward to the next step.

John Haywood’s famous saying ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour’ sums up my digital journey.

The Government Strategy laid the foundation by mandating in 2011 that the six centrally-funded Departments work to BIM Level 2 on their contract and projects by 2016.  As a mandated department my digital journey started shortly after when I set about understanding the implication for the Environment Agency.

The first task was to examine and capture the existing processes for managing data and information within capital projects.  Initially the Environment Agency received support from the BIM Task Group and, as the PAS 1192 standards emerged, we set about working out how to implement them.  This involved making contractual changes, enhancing our project workspace application to be PAS 1192-3 compliant, developing the processes and tools to determine, procure, and manage data and information delivery across the project gateways.  

The Environment Agency’s portfolio of active projects in any one year exceeds 500.  The whole life value of these range from £250K to many millions with most obtaining financial contribution from local communities.  It quickly became clear that a project-by-project approach to implementing the standards was unlikely to achieve the mandate and a single organisational approach offered wider benefits.  One organisational approach makes it easier for smaller projects to buy structured data using the BIM processes.

Today we are nearing 600 BIM projects.  Capability is growing within the industry but is not where I would like it to be.  To improve confidence, I initiated a full independent assessment of the capability of the suppliers of the Water and Environment Management Framework, to deliver the requirements set out in the Employer’s Information Requirements (EIR) for the Environment.  I eagerly await the results later this month.  

Successful delivery of Level 2 has to be led by the client organisation.  As an asset owner we have spent time documenting and structuring our current standards, data and document requirements.  This helped to shape the Employer’s Information Requirements and the overall approach.  For example, the introduction of document classification codes to simplify the procurement and delivery process at a project level which has created the backbone for structuring asset information across the whole life of the asset.

The information management practices for Level 2 can be applied across the whole life of the asset.  Later this year we will be introducing the Common Data Environment into asset management to transform the electronic and remaining paper documents into a digitally-enabled system.  This will ease the movement of information between assets and projects and back again.  

Some six years after the mandate there is still confusion within the industry about the meaning of Level 2 BIM compliance.  It’s frequently confused with 3D design and the associated software instead of the application of the BS/PAS 1192 suite of standards within a project.  These provide the codes of practice and specifications for information management to create and manage the digital twin of the physical asset. 

The wider benefits and productivity gains achievable through adopting consistent data management practices are significant when applied across the whole life of an asset and the industry.  I call out to universities and professional bodies to embrace a data centric approach to engineering as a key component of the educational requirements.  They have a vital role in preparing our future leaders for a digital future.

So what is next on my digital journey? Sharing asset information. The Environment Agency asset data and information informs many other projects within England.  Last month we added API capability to our infrastructure maintenance programme for 2018/19.  Further developments are planned following feedback from our customers.  Infrastructure asset owners, in particular, have an essential role in supporting the Digital Built Britain ambition by sharing some of their asset data in line with open data standards to encourage the wider use of available data.

Learning from implementing Level 2 BIM and considering how to prepare for the delivery of the Digital Built Britain strategy has shaped a cluster of projects, known as DADI or Digital Asset Data and Information.  These include the options for moving towards 4D and 5D, object modelling and enhancing, model use in operations and enhancing asset data requirements amongst others. The emphasis is not on the technology as such but how to improve the connectivity by making better use of classification, standards, and alignment of data requirements across the whole life of the asset.

The word digital is used too liberally and can create confusion.  I have a very simple definition of digital – two way.  To achieve two-way communication, whether it be through technology, sensors, analytics or people, there needs to be a common language for the interfaces to move data seamlessly around with minimal intervention.   PAS 1192 suite of standards provide the first steps in delivering a common language within the industry.  The UK is recognised as a leader in this field and Digital Built Britain team outcomes are essential to support the transformation of the industry.

Karen Alford is Flood and Coastal Risk Manager for the Environment Agency, specialising in asset data and information. She is a member of the Steering Group for the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) and the HMG BIM Working Group.