Industry round table: Controlling the data

01 March 2024
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By Belinda Smart

An outcome-led approach to data capture could revolutionise the way infrastructure assets are constructed and managed over their lifecycles, but barriers persist.

Digital tools for capturing data are increasingly seen as a vital component in the building of infrastructure and the management of assets over their life cycles.

To date, the focus has been on data capture, with data often dictating project and asset management programmes. However, there is a shift towards making outcomes the starting point for procuring digital solutions. Successfully making this shift comes with challenges.

NCE recently teamed up with Amey to explore these challenges and to discuss how organisations can devise and deliver best practice in data capture and integration.

Arcadis UK tunnelling lead Andrea Gillarduzzi notes that data capture can replace time-consuming and labour-intensive processes.

“Before, if I wanted to have general inspection level data on a bridge, I would send a person to that bridge. By the time the desktop study and inputting of information are complete, that’s a day’s work hours, which could equate to a thousand pounds,” he says.

By contrast, using digital tools such as connected sensors, engineers can monitor key parameters, detect structural problems early and plan maintenance, saving time and labour.

But barriers to the proactive, outcome-driven use of data remain. Gillarduzzi says that one key issue is that the way data is currently used is affected by the diversity of systems available.

“One of the complications is that the contractors on [asset management] projects operate as separate entities with different stakeholders setting up their systems. The solution they’re using is often the bare minimum and not aligned with others’ solutions, so there is no overarching strategy.”

He says that changing this model requires “a deep-level cultural shift in how organisations approach data capture and integration.”

National Highways principal engineer for geotechnical asset management Jon Durnell, agrees. He notes that his organisation is increasingly interested in understanding how data solutions can be procured to support better outcomes.

“We can use data to intervene at the right point in a proactive way to maximise the asset’s lifecycle,” he says, adding that the data framework for an asset should be an integral part of its design and should be thought of with operational longevity in mind.

“I think it’s about having that joined up approach, from concept design to the construction handover, whereby data is handed over the same way the asset is, so we can understand how to maintain it and use that data effectively.”

Amey strategy director Mark Brown points out that many organisations invest in digital solutions without a clear idea of how to use them.

“Some companies will buy a digitally-enabled asset management system and then continue to make decisions in the way that they’ve always made decisions. If they don’t change the way they make decisions they’re not going to get different outcomes.”

He cites Amey’s 2023 work with Transport for Wales to transform the Core Valley Lines in south Wales from an ageing network into an electrified metro-style service as a project where a data-driven, outcome-led approach resulted in success.

Amey had to work with legacy infrastructure such as historic bridges and tunnels that were too low for standard electrification.

A considered approach to data capture helped to drive the solution which was to have discontinuous electrification so trains could switch to alternative power sources and catenary-free sections to avoid contact with sensitive structures.

An outcome-led approach to data capture requires a collaborative mindset, says Brown.

Oxford University artificial intelligence (AI) spin-off Mind Foundry’s senior research scientist Julia Bush agrees. She says collaboration and an open source data culture data are critical.

Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), the frameworks that enable different software applications to communicate with each other, are areas where collaboration would be beneficial, she says. 

“On APIs, maybe we need to let go of this mentality that we’re all special. As organisations, as a country, we can look for a shared solution because the networks are shared, whether it’s roads or rail or anything else. So, to bring all of this together, what if we have a procurement strategy that allows specialists to come in and collaborate?”

This would also protect organisations from the problem of software consultants having undue influence on the products selected by engineering and asset management organisations, she adds.

Mott MacDonald senior associate Ben Gough agrees that standardisation could help progress.

“If we can standardise how we capture data across all assets, that’s where we’re going to get the analytics and the insight. It should be part of the design of infrastructure. Data collection and modelling are part of how you’re going to deliver those capital projects.”

Freelance principal engineer Kate McDougall says that another key problem is the rapidly changing skills required for the digital transformation.

Arup associate Ben Gilson adds: “The rate of change in digital solutions coming into the market is accelerating,” putting further pressures on skills requirements.

Amey highways director Emily See notes that many experienced senior professionals were not educated about data and digital tools when they underwent their professional training.

“We suddenly have all these expectations that they must change the way they’re working; it’s a real challenge,” she says.

But Bush says that AI solutions should be there to support the value of experienced engineers’ expertise. 

She says AI can make sense of data “and provide those extremely valuable engineers with the guidance and the ranking algorithms that are going to prioritise critical structures.”

Gillarduzzi adds: “This is a phenomenal opportunity for our industry to start to pick apart the role of AI. AI has been around for 30 years and yet we have not yet learned to use it optimally. It has the potential to take us into a new era for engineering.” 

Originally published by New Civil Engineer.

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