Log allows you to dig with confidence

A team of government data wranglers wants to map the world below our feet, but is it really necessary?

If you fire up Google Maps on your computer or phone, in seconds you can go from a full-Earth view to an ultra-zoomed, street-level view of nearly any major city. Individual buildings, paths and even traffic lights are sometimes visible, giving you complete control of the built environment.

However, as detailed as the map above is, the land beneath the ground is shrouded in mystery. Water pipes, electricity pipes, gas pipes and telecommunications cables form a tangle of utilities and other services under our feet. And when the road has to be dug, it can be a nightmare.

According to an industry estimate, there are around 60,000 accidental utility strikes in the UK each year, caused when, for example, the broadband company blows up a water pipe while digging. These incidents, far from being rare, lead to delays in construction and maintenance, sometimes incur enormous expenses and can have potentially devastating consequences.

A dramatic example occurred in June this year when CCTV in Derbyshire captured the moment a worker installing fence posts accidentally hit a gas pipe below where his machine was drilling. In an instant, he was thrown through the air as the ground around him essentially exploded.

According to local firefighters, in this case the man was “totally fine, just a little shaken up”, but it could easily have ended in tragedy.

For this reason, the government is stepping in and building the National Underground Asset Register (NUAR) – essentially a brand new digital map that aims to make sense of our underground infrastructure.

Image credit: Alamy

Simply put, NUAR will work much like Google Maps does today. The idea is that when a utility company needs to dig the road, before the shovels hit the ground, the work planners will be able to check and see what might be hiding under the surface.

At the moment, it is not so simple, because while each utility company has its own maps and data on the location of its infrastructure, there is no centralized map. This is the problem that NUAR is trying to solve.

“This will streamline the way data is shared between owners of underground assets,” says Amit Slaich, product delivery manager at the Geospatial Commission, the arm of the Cabinet Office responsible for building the system. And he is clearly very passionate about how NUAR will make life easier for everyone involved in road digging.

“There’s minimal disruption to people, there’s minimal disruption to the local economy. And also, more importantly, no one gets hurt, because all the right information is there as well,” says Slaich.

And according to Cabinet Office modelling, NUAR could also have a positive economic impact.

“Accidental strikes cost the economy up to £2.4 billion a year,” says Slaich, while NUAR will actually boost the economy by improving productivity. “We believe there will be an economic benefit of around £350m a year – this figure is made up of efficiency benefits, reduced asset strikes and reduced delays to the public and businesses.”

In fact, building the map is quite a technical challenge, as it involves gathering data sets from around 650 asset owners and compressing them into a uniform database.

“As you can imagine, getting 650 different schemas into one format is a challenge,” says Amy Manefield, data operations manager at NUAR. “Obviously we wanted to create a model that would fit – not too complex, but also not so simple that it doesn’t allow for everything, because we don’t want to exclude data.

And what makes it trickier is the fact that, in some cases, the data held by utility companies isn’t great to begin with. Thus, even if the records are centralized by NUAR, it is unlikely that the “finished” map will be complete.

“We were brought in to manage and reroute an underground cable, and it turned out that it wasn’t just one cable, it was basically like Spaghetti Junction down there; there were a lot of different cables that weren’t registered at all,” says Edward Jones, director of utility compensation at law firm Gateley Hamer, which regularly deals with the kinds of gnarly construction issues that NUAR is designed to resolve.

“My worry is that it won’t pick up all […] because once the pipes are done, nobody digs them up and removes them,” says Jones.

However, of the 650 companies that feed into the system, some are better than others. But the NUAR construction team recognizes this as a particular challenge.

“You’d be surprised how accurate old maps are and how well they map,” Manefield says. “But when they were digitized, a lot of inaccuracies crept into the data. Different companies have very different levels of accuracy in their data. Some are very, very precise…others don’t know where much of their network.

Accordingly, another essential element of NUAR will be the feedback mechanism that will allow utilities to re-enter the dataset and share what they have learned when they actually dig.

“I think that’s another reason why NUAR is going to be so beneficial,” Manefield says. “This will bring it all together and really help highlight and positively contribute to data quality improvements as well.”

Despite the obvious comparison, there will be one annoying critical difference between Google Maps and NUAR: you’ll probably never be able to use it.

For security reasons, access to the service is restricted, so that not everyone can find the location of important cables and pipes.

“It’s configured only for use by utility companies that share data, and only by specific people with specific roles,” Manefield says.

“The data will all be kept safe,” says Slaich. “If you own assets, you know your data will be secure. And it will also be safe for the people who use it.

So don’t expect to fire up the NUAR app on your phone every time you see a white van digging up the road, to find out what they might be working on.

” I do not think so [NUAR] will never be an open data format, because of the criticality,” says Manefield. “It’s our national infrastructure. All this put together makes the country go round. That’s what it’s about. And to simply give free rein to the public on this information? I don’t think that will ever be allowed. »

However, not everyone agrees that keeping data locked up is the best approach.

“If you can reduce row strikes, and you can reduce it by increasing the data available, that’s really good,” says open data activist Peter Wells, who has spent his career working with organizations like the Open Data Institute and the Center for Public Data. .

“The risk is that what they end up doing actually creates a monopoly around the data platform, and it ends up not delivering on its promise, because there’s too high a barrier for users to access it,” says Wells. “That data should just be open, it should be freely available.”

He compares the decision to keep NUAR closed to what he describes as the ‘historic mistake’ made a decade ago when Royal Mail was privatised, by taking over the postcode address file – the detailed map of every household and business premises in the UK – in private hands. Which means that today it is only accessible to companies willing to pay high license fees.

He admits, however, that there are legitimate security issues in some cases.

“I’m not saying everything should be totally open. I say it should be designed to be as open as safely possible,” says Wells.

“I guess I could tell from some of the pipes and stuff underground where Liz Truss’s bunker is,” he laughs. “But there’s a lot more nuances and shadows to things that might be sensitive and why they might be.”

For example, he doesn’t believe that just because NUAR will be locked behind passwords and two-factor authentication, it doesn’t follow that anyone with malicious intent will give up.

“Terrorists can often find this kind of information anyway,” he explains. “If I was a highly motivated attacker, I would go get a job at Virgin Media and look for the information.

“A lot of security [concerns] are really over the top because when you get to the really hard-core terrorists and state actors they can get information [anyway]because they are motivated enough to overcome most of your [controls] unless you’re really, really locked up.

So he argues that apart from the most obviously sensitive places, making as open and available as possible will make NUAR more useful.

“Optimizing usage is not just about data availability, but also about the ability to create tools based on the data,” says Wells. “We follow 20elast century design patterns of using data to solve immediate needs, rather than leaning into the 21st century and building with the internet and the web, and trying to unlock innovation and unlock growth.

In any case, although there are concerns over the nuances, and there are some detractors (see sidebar), it looks like NUAR will be a widely welcomed development.

“I don’t think there will be any losers. It’s a good move that should help,” says Gateley Hamer’s Jones.

The current timeline calls for the launch of NUAR for real-world use in phases. The first regions to participate will be the North East, Wales and London in March next year – with the rest of England and Northern Ireland joining the map by September 2024.

“Joining this program made me realize how much information we have under our feet,” says Slaich of the Geospatial Commission. “And in fact, how [it is] not just to people’s lives, but simply to the management of the infrastructure of this country.

Sign up for the E&T News email to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.