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DUConnect #7: Improving the quality of subsurface utility information

For the seventh edition of Digital Underground Connect, we went back to the subject of information on underground utilities. While we have talked a lot about data sharing and making information available (yes - from you, the audience, too!), questions remain about the quality of such information. We were proud to welcome Geoff Zeiss - advisor to the Digital Underground project in Singapore, Principal at Between The Poles, and globally recognised expert on the topic of underground utility data capture, recording, and sharing - to our table to share his views on what organisations can do to establish the social and organisational changes required to make better information available.

A replay of the webinar can be accessed here.


Improving the Quality of Subsurface Utility Information for Increased Construction Productivity

Utility damages are costly, have a big impact on national economies, and may cause injuries or even fatalities. Central to this problem, Geoff argued, is the inaccurate recording and lack of sharing of information on the location of underground infrastructure. Due to a lack of reliable information, lots of money is spent locating underground utilities prior to and during construction. To make matters worse, information is rarely shared, resulting in the same infrastructure being located over and over again.

However, the low number of utility strikes in, for example, Japan suggest that something can be done about this. In fact, many jurisdictions around the world have begun to recognise the value of the availability of reliable information on underground utilities. Various initiatives have been undertaken to improve the recording and sharing of location information, ranging from nation-wide platforms for the mandatory sharing of information, industry organisation that collect statistics, call-before-you-dig systems, and regulatory rules aimed to ensure the accurate capture and recording of data for newly built and existing utilities.

Geoff underlined how liability for incidents or disruptions that are caused by a lack of reliable information is a key factor to be utilised to incentivise stakeholders to capture and share accurate information. While a traditional liability model makes the contractor the sole party liable for damaging underground infrastructure during construction, other jurisdictions have implemented alternative liability models that assign (at least partial) responsibility to other parties. For example, France has a system in place where liability for damages depends on the quality of available information: where the information is of low quality, the asset owner has at least some liability. And in England and Wales, the Water Services Regulation Authority (the water regulator) had made the asset owner responsible for any loss of service, potentially caused by damages.

"If you can’t measure it, you can’t fix it". Next, Geoff highlighted the importance of reliable statistics to assess the effectiveness of measures to improve the quality of available information and reduce underground utility strike damages. Organisations such as Heathrow Airport, the Common Ground Alliance in North America and the KLIC system of the Netherlands have been collecting statistics such as the number of incidents of pipeline damage, costs from damage, and number of damages per one call notifications. Interestingly, in most places, the statistics do not show a trend towards a reduction of incidents despite the measures taken, suggesting that additional measures are required.

Geoff ended his presentation with the conclusion that no silver bullet is available to solve all problems at once. Successful initiatives such as those from ROADIS in Japan and Heathrow Airport and NUAR in the UK are all supported by comprehensive programs that involve and promote cooperation between a variety of stakeholders and encompass a myriad aspects such as legal frameworks, regulation, guidelines, coordination, security, capacity development, and much more.

The slides presented by Geoff Zeiss can be downloaded here.


Improving information quality

In the remainder of the session, Geoff and the audience discussed what is necessary to improve the quality of information on subsurface utilities. The discussion was led by Jakub Wachocki (Bentley System).

Responsibility for data quality

Both the audience and the speaker agreed that not a single party can be held responsible for all aspects of utility information quality. Given the fact that the construction industry has traditionally been adversarial and litigation is "the rule of the day" and not easy to change, it will be beneficial to make a licensed professional (e.g. a surveyor) responsible for the quality of as-built records. However, this responsibility needs to be fulfillable. This is where Geoff believes technology can make a difference, by making it possible to collect accurate data with relative ease in the field, during construction, at little to no additional cost.

However, according to Geoff, another responsibility - for improving the quality of existing data - should most likely be assigned to the asset owners. Policies should be in place that encourage or incentivise them to progressively improve data quality. This led to the main conclusion of this discussion, which is that there should be an ecosystem of multiple responsibilities assigned to different or even multiple parties. Understanding who is involved is critical to do so.

Legislation, regulation, or collaboration - all are vital

What will have the greatest impact to the improvement of data quality? Geoff and Jakub discussed how no silver bullets exist, but that good examples from overseas typically have started out with a strong mandate or legislation. A proper mandate can drive asset owners and government authorities to establish the proper regulation and establish collaboration mechanisms among each other. However, Geoff reminded the audience that collaboration with non-governmental stakeholders such as engineers, contractors, and surveyors should not be overlooked.

Understanding the quality of available data

A very good question was raised by the audience on how the quality of existing available data could be assessed. Geoff confirmed that it is indeed extremely important to understand this in order to direct improvement efforts or mitigate the effects of a lack of data quality. There are ways to do this without surveying all existing infrastructure, depending on statistical approaches that are based on sample measurements from trial trenches or geophysical techniques such as GPR and EML.

We thank Geoff and all participants for their contributions!

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