Deft with data

Strong management of data is as critical to today’s infrastructure projects as skilful engineering.

Engineers delivering major projects must ensure that their digital foundations are solid
Engineers delivering major projects must ensure that their digital foundations are solid
  • Updated: 17 August, 2020
  • Author: Rennie Chadwick, Major Projects Director, PCSG

Next year, construction starts on one of the world’s major scientific endeavours: The Square Kilometre Array.

The radio telescope, will be the largest, most sensitive in the world. The project, being delivered by the world’s finest scientists and engineers, will also take our concept of data generation to a new level. The machine, which will involve thousands of mid to high frequency dishes located in South Africa and Africa, will generate more than 70 times the amount of information moved over the internet every year.

The Square Kilometre Array radio telescope
The Square Kilometre Array radio telescope

This epic computation and data project - described by its Director-General, Professor Philip Diamond, as the project that will “dwarf everything else” - provides just one example of the huge volumes of data our world is now home to.

The data explosion

The rise of mobile technology, advances in capturing techniques such as laser scanning and photogrammetry, lidar and networked sensors have all contributed to this data explosion. A decade ago, capturing the aerial data of a project might have involved deploying a helicopter and a photographic team at great cost and time and with an enormous level of planning. Today we pop up a drone.

But while the rise of technology and falling costs has placed huge volumes of data at our disposal, it has also presented us with significant challenges: How do asset owners/managers and those leading delivery of major projects trawl though their data vats, sift the gems, filter out the junk, extract the useful/relevant material and most effectively spot the patterns and trends that will benefit delivery?

Take control

To exploit the rich treasure-trove, those delivering major projects or programmes of work must ensure that their digital foundations are solid; that the connection and aggregation of data from across multiple relevant sources underpins their work and that they have in place the systems and technology to enable that.

The HS2 project is an example of expert data control
The HS2 project is an example of expert data control

HS2 – Getting a grip of the data deluge

HS2 – Europe’s largest infrastructure project - has done just that and commanded the data.

Two years ago, it went to market to source a supplier with the cutting-edge technology necessary to develop a data ‘hub’ where the vast volume of data being managed and procured on the ambitious rail project would be aggregated.

This cloud-based 'integration and visualization platform' - which PCSG is delivering - is providing instant access to reliable and current data about the asset and its environment for the construction teams and others who need it.

Highly complex in its construction, on the surface it is simple – enabling users to intuitively search, surface and interrogate data about the railway – everything from health and safety and environmental information to BIM data.

The data is used to support key business decisions and processes including design reviews and co-ordination, interface management and progressive assurance.

Ultimately, it will become a ‘digital twin’ of the entire HS2 rail system – with real-time information fed to it through sensors on the asset to enable proactive maintenance and ensure the most reliable and high-quality passenger experience.

Highways and hubs

And it is not just shiny new projects that are embracing data. Those with existing portfolios of assets are also enthusiastically crunching data and developing strategies for exploiting and mastering their data streams as they seek to prosper in the digital age.

In 2018, Highways England, which operates, maintains and improves England's motorways and major A roads, set out,  under the stewardship of the Programme Management Office Director to develop its own data hub. The hub was part of its digitisation strategy for its Smart Motorways Alliance (SMA) contract.

The resultant data integration platform or Business Information Framework (BIF) – developed by PCSG - enables primary asset, design, operational and project control data to be advanced into a single platform, to be verified and integrated with all other relevant data streams.

The BIF will be used to analyse data, provide benchmarks, identify trends, monitor progress and provide early warnings and other insights to deliver productivity improvements. It will support high value decision-making on the Smart Motorway Programme, ensure the streamlined delivery of major capital works and the efficient ongoing operation of HE’s assets – all aligned to HE’s three key strategic drivers of Safety ,Customer and Delivery.

The challenges

Of course, with the huge upsides and opportunities of this proliferation of data comes challenges and pitfalls: Data relating to critical infrastructure must be readily accessible only to those who need it – not to all, making security a key priority.

Skillsets are another key area for debate. This was underlined at the recent, hugely well attended, ICE Engineering Rebellion webinar. One question posed during the debate, focused on ‘the future civil engineer’, was: “Will all civil engineers need to acquire programming and software development skills?”

Paul Sheffield, ICE President responded: “No, but clearly they need to understand the impact and influence that software development can have and who can do it.”

Katherine Bew, PCSG’s Managing Director and a panel member at the webinar, stressed that, either way, data would be a critical part of the picture for civil engineers joining the profession: “Civil engineers need to learn about and be tuned into all things data – That means keeping in touch with what’s out there and asking what data is available that’s useful to me? Analytical skills - What is the data telling us? Strategic skills - How can digital technology be used to best effect in this context?”

Managing data well

As the data deluge continues, controlling the glut of available data and managing it well, will become as important a factor in the delivery and management of our major assets as skilful engineering. As Johnathan Rosenberg, the former Google executive, once memorably wrote in his blog: “Data is the sword of the 21st century, those who wield it well, the samurai.”

PCSG is a built environment consultancy which supports organisations to deliver, operate and optimise their assets. For more information visit their website.

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