Underground resilience

A new approach to capturing, storing and sharing data on underground infrastructure is under way. Marc Hobell, head of public sector and utilities at Ordnance Survey, reveals the progress made so far

Beneath our feet lies a vast labyrinth of buried pipes delivering key products and services essential to our social and economic wellbeing. These networks of buried assets including mains and sewers are essential water industry infrastructure that requires regular repair and maintenance. The growing demands of the UK economy mean that in years to come these networks will grow significantly, as will the amount of traffic on the streets under which many of these assets lie. As a result, the buried assets will be progressively more difficult to repair and maintain.

Latest estimates suggest that utility companies dig around four million holes in the ground a year, and this does not include any work done as part of construction projects or away from the streets. A vast majority of the four million has significant impact on the local environment when it is dug, and can cause major traffic problems, due to works by highways authorities and utilities. Also, a proportion of holes turn out to be ‘dry’ – this is due to inaccurate information on the location of the underground assets.

Knowing what and where assets are is vital information to utility companies as it helps to identify critical infrastructure and vulnerability to risk. Managing detailed information on the location, character and risk profile of utility assets is not just good commercial sense, it is a regulatory requirement. It is also an essential first step for contingency planning, emergency response and minimising the potential impact on services.

The Traffic Management Act (TMA) encourages all those with underground assets to exchange information to facilitate better street works cooperation. However, there is currently no national approach to the way information on the nature and location of underground infrastructure is captured, recorded and shared. Accuracy of records and the referencing systems vary from operator to operator. Records are also not always complete. What is more, the time it takes to capture, store, retrieve and share data, how it is stored and policies and procedures followed also differ.

Even scales of drawings, level of detail and symbols used are not standard across organisations. Combined, all these factors mean reduced efficiency and effectiveness, and increased health and safety risks.

Following the work of the ICE/ICES Geospatial Engineering Board and UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR), the National Underground Assets Group (NUAG) was formed in 2005, by ten organisations including Ordnance Survey, Pipeline industry Guild and County Surveyors Society (CSS), UKWIR and National Joint Utilities Group (NJUG). Their aim was to deliver a new way of looking at the issues. In July 2007 the group published the ‘NUAG Approach’ for capturing, recording and sharing underground

asset information.

The NUAG approach forms the basis of a national high-level framework to deliver a set of minimum performance standards. It envisages a structured transition towards more comprehensive data capture at a greater accuracy using GPS-enabled methods. It involves more consistent data being held electronically in geographic information systems (GIS) as well as web-based enquiry and information sharing. It also seeks to improve the quality and consistency of legacy asset data through an opportunistic approach, with no requirement to convert all legacy data from a stated date; rather, the aim is for an improvement over time.

Using the NUAG approach as the basis for wider engagement with appropriate government departments, the group is making progress on key issues of ownership, legislation and resources. In agreement with the Department for Transport (DfT), and the Highway Authorities and Utilities Committee (HAUC), the July 2007 report formed the basis of a review of their Code of Practice for Recording of Underground Apparatus in Streets. The NUAG approach sets out standards to ensure data on underground assets is more accurate, consistent and complete, and made available more quickly. It also sets out a process for sharing and displaying asset information.

Looking to the future

Work has now started on the next phase of NUAG’s work, to describe agreed processes and protocols, for sharing asset data and displaying asset information. With wider support from the Health & Safety Executive, regulators and wider government stakeholders such as Defra and the Scottish Executive, the group is working towards an internet-based asset information sharing service for UK utilities companies.

With this new service, the group is aiming to improve access to asset information by putting those who need the information in contact with those who have it. The proposed solution will not be a central register or repository. All asset owners will remain responsible for managing their response to enquiries for information, and for the security of their information. NUAG’s proposal has received support from DFT and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Following consultation with both parties, the next stage will include a regional trial to prove the service, before nationwide implementation.

NUAG is seeking to have a system in place to allow the trial to start in October, with a national implementation 12 months later, to coincide with the launch of the revised Department for Transport code of practice for recording underground apparatus in streets. The group is trying to piece together a road map to enable everyone involved with buried assets to develop their organisations so that all reach a common point at an agreed date. Successful deployment of the NUAG approach is fundamental to this aim and to the delivery of significant associated benefits to utility companies, highways organisations, and society in general.


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