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Centre for Digital Built Britain

Blog: Challenges and Opportunities of Data in Construction and Infrastructure by Jennifer Schooling

While the construction and infrastructure sector generates huge amounts of data the full value of that data is yet to be realised. Dr Jennifer Schooling, Chair of the Research Strategy Steering Group at the Centre for Digital Built Britain considers the opportunities and challenges ahead.

The infrastructure and construction sector generates a lot of data, but it does not often extract or exploit the full value of that data. The cost of storing, processing and transmitting data has reduced significantly in recent years and is driving digital transformation across all industries. This presents a timely opportunity to optimise infrastructure and construction to work more efficiently, sustainably and profitably. 

However, in order to realise the full benefits of this opportunity 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, curate it accordingly and make it accessible for future reference.

Currently we often use data to assess whether a particular measurement falls above or below a certain threshold, which then highlights an issue with the asset. Then we typically either 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 deliver 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 the trend in that data over a period of time – it would offer us a better understanding of an asset’s behaviour regarding 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 is serving.

Fundamentally our industry needs to get much better at identifying the potential value of data and curating that data in such a way that allows us to retrieve it and use it again. That means establishing structured approaches to both capturing and storing data and having reliable metadata about that data – knowledge of when the data was taken, and why and how it was taken, so we reliably know the quality of that data. Changing the way we perceive, capture and curate data will unlock huge value. We need a shift in mind-set from treating data as disposable to seeing it as an asset of value in itself and as a very important tool in maintaining a physical asset. 

There are other issues to consider. Being able to gain more from existing assets via the digital enhancement of mature infrastructure is crucial because we simply cannot build our way out of a capacity constraint. Taking major pieces of infrastructure out of commission because they have degraded beyond the point of usability 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. 

We have 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 at which it is collected, it has not been curated adequately for future use. The next step is to think about the long-term value of that data both for managing the asset and for improving our design and construction models and processes.

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

The National Infrastructure Commission’s Data for the Public Good report provides the call to arms that is needed, and its requirement for the formation of a national framework for infrastructure data – which CDBB is leading through the Data Framework Task Group (DFTG) 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 and curate their data requirements to enable them to get maximum value.  The challenge and the opportunity is to bring together the people from the various points in an asset’s lifecycle to ensure the relevant data created during delivery is secured, stored and curated for future use by asset managers and operators.

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 the asset through its lifecycle. This is key because inevitably a series of organisations will be involved in maintaining and delivering the asset over that lifetime, particularly in the case of long-serving assets like infrastructure.

Momentum is growing. The Infrastructure Client Group’s Digital Transformation Task Group (DTTG) is made up of a number of major clients and project organisations that are seeking to progress digital transformation strategies. Driving change is often challenging but there is a lot of exciting innovation and initiatives emerging from this group who are tackling different aspects of the challenge. Working together and pooling strategies will build impetus and move us all in the right direction.

Contact:  Jennifer Schooling