Mining tech under the microscope

Register allows digging with confidence

Image credit: Alamy

A team of government data experts want to map the world beneath 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 view of the entire Earth, to an ultra-zoomed in, street-level view of almost every major city. Individual buildings, paths and even traffic lights are sometimes visible, giving you full mastery of the built environment.

However, as detailed as the map is above, the earth below the ground is shrouded in mystery. Water pipes, electricity conduits, gas mains and telecoms cables form a tangled web of utilities and other services beneath our feet. And when the road needs to be dug up, it can be a nightmare.

According to one industry estimate, there are around 60,000 accidental utility strikes in the UK every year, caused when, for example, the broadband company bursts open a water pipe while digging. These far from rare incidents cause delays to construction and maintenance, sometimes incur huge expense – and can have potentially devastating consequences.

One dramatic example occurred in June this year, when CCTV in Derbyshire caught the moment that a worker who was installing fence posts accidentally struck a gas main below where his machine was drilling. In an instant, he was thrown into the air as the ground around him essentially exploded.

According to the local fire brigade, in this case the man was “completely fine, just a little shook up”, but it could easily have ended in tragedy.

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

utility piping

Image credit: Alamy

In simple terms, the NUAR will work a bit like Google Maps does today. The idea is that when a utility firm needs to dig up the road, before shovels hit the ground, works planners will be able to check and see what else might be lurking below the surface.

At the moment, this isn’t quite so easy, as while each utility company has its own maps and data on where its infrastructure is buried, there is no centralised map. This is the problem NUAR is trying to solve.

“It’s going to streamline the way data is shared between owners of the underground assets,” says Amit Slaich, head of product delivery at the Geospatial Commission, the arm of the Cabinet Office that has been tasked with building the system. And he’s clearly very passionate about how NUAR will make life easier for everyone involved in digging up roads.

“There’s minimal disruption to people, there’s minimal disruption to the local economy. And also, more importantly, it will reduce the chance of injury, because all the right information is there as well,” says Slaich.

And according to Cabinet Office modelling, NUAR could make a positive economic impact too.

“Accidental strikes cost the economy up to £2.4bn a year,” says Slaich, whereas NUAR will actually boost the economy by improving productivity. “We think there’s going to be an economic benefit of around £350m a year – that figure consists of benefits in terms of efficiencies, reduced asset strikes, and reduced delays to the public and business.”

Actually building the map is quite the technical challenge, as it involves wrangling datasets from around 650 asset owners, and squeezing them into one uniform database.

“As you can imagine, getting 650 different schemas into one format is challenging,” says Amy Manefield, NUAR’s head of data operations. “Obviously we wanted to make a model that would be suitable – not too complex, but also not so simple that it doesn’t allow for everything, because we don’t want to be excluding data.”

And making it more tricky is the fact that, in some cases, the data held by the utilities companies isn’t great to start with. So even if records are centralised by NUAR, it is unlikely the ‘finished’ map will be complete.

“We were brought in to deal with and divert an underground cable, and it transpired that it wasn’t just one cable, it was basically like Spaghetti Junction under there; there were lots of different cables that weren’t registered whatsoever,” says Edward Jones, director and head of utilities at specialist property consultancy Gateley Hamer, which routinely deals with the sorts of knotty construction issues NUAR is designed to fix.

“My worry is that this won’t pick up everything [...] because once pipes are finished being used, no one digs them up and removes them,” says Jones.

However, of the 650 firms feeding into the system, some are better than others. But the team-building NUAR do recognise this as a particular challenge.

“You’d be surprised at the accuracy of the old plans and how well they were mapped,” says Manefield. “But when they were digitised a lot of inaccuracies went into the data. Different companies have very different levels of accuracy in their data. Some are very, very precise... others don’t know where a lot of their network is.”

As a result, another critical component of NUAR is going to be the feedback mechanism that will allow utilities firms to feed back into the dataset and share what they’ve learned when they actually dig.

“I think that’s another reason why NUAR is going to be just so beneficial,” says Manefield. “It’ll bring it all together, and really help to highlight where there’s improvements to be made in data quality, and positively feed into that, as well.”

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

For security reasons, access to the service is being restricted, so that not just anyone can find the locations of important cables and pipes.

“It will initially be made available to statutory undertakers and their supply chain,” explains Manefield.

“The data will all be held securely,” says Slaich. “If you’re an asset owner, you know your data is going to be secure. And it’s also going to be secure for people who use it.”

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

There will always be some sensitive data related to specific sites which will need to be safeguarded, and no decision has been made in relation to future use cases and user groups.

The Geospatial Commission recently conducted a public consultation specifically asking for views on this and is analysing responses.

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

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

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

He likens the decision to keep NUAR closed to what he describes as the “historic mistake” made a decade ago when Royal Mail was privatised, taking ownership of the Postcode Address File – the detailed map of every household and business premises in the UK – into private hands. Which means that today it is only accessible to companies willing to pay hefty licensing fees.

He does concede there are legitimate security concerns in some cases though.

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

“I would imagine I could tell from some of the pipes and underground stuff where Liz Truss’s bunker is,” he laughs. “But there’s a lot more nuance and shade about stuff that might be sensitive and why it might be sensitive.”

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 malign intentions will just give up.

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

“A lot of security [concerns] are genuinely overblown, because when you get to the really hardcore terrorists and state actors, they can get to the information [anyway], because they’re motivated enough to get past most of your [controls] unless you have really, really locked down.”

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

“To maximise usage, it’s not just availability of the data, but it’s the ability to build tools built on the data,” says Wells. “We’re following 20th-century design patterns of using data to solve immediate needs, rather than looking at the 21st century and building with the internet and the web, and trying to unlock innovation and unlock growth.”

In any case, while there are concerns over the nuances, and there are some detractors, it seems as though NUAR will be a broadly welcomed development.

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

The current timeline has NUAR launching for real-world usage 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 programme has made me realise the amount of information we’ve got underneath our feet,” says the Geospatial Commission’s Slaich. “And actually how critical [it is] not just to people’s lives, but to actually just running the infrastructure of this country.”

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