Cambridge Conference: how data can help determine our future infrastructure needs

Published: 17 Jul 2017

By: Phil Graham

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As the NIC prepares the country’s first-ever National Infrastructure Assessment, data will play a central role. But data is not only crucial in enabling us to predict our future needs; it is also playing an increasingly central role in how we manage and maintain our infrastructure systems to get the best out of them, and this will only grow in importance over future decades.

So I was pleased to have the opportunity to address the Cambridge Conference. Held every four years since 1928, this event is organised by Ordnance Survey and brings together experts from around the world on the fields of mapping and planning, and has a particular focus on how geospatial data can be used to enable social and economic progress.

Although the title of my session was, “building a national infrastructure for growth when choices are running out”, in fact the opposite is true – the ongoing challenge won’t be a lack of choice, but how to make the right choices, and in many cases how to keep options open for the future and maintain the flexibility we need to adapt to changes in circumstances.

Given the speed with which new data-driven technologies are becoming central to our lives, this will be vital. Google has already reduced the power it needs to cool its data centres by more than a third by using artificial intelligence. If even a fraction of those gains could be achieved on the grid, for example, it would make a material difference to how we meet our energy needs.

The quality and availability of data in the infrastructure sector, however, is patchy. And this is not a new problem – when Railtrack was privatised, its asset base was only partially mapped and understood, which was one of the root causes of its later collapse.

Even now, while the data we have on the demand for infrastructure is generally quite strong (we have a good grasp of how many people use a certain road, peaks in electricity usage, or the numbers of households accessing the fastest broadband speeds), there is still a lot of room for improvement on geographical data – on the condition and even just the location of many of our infrastructure assets, particularly those buried underground – and on the quality of our infrastructure and whether it is really meeting our needs.

This is not just important to the delivery of a National Infrastructure Assessment; it also affects how our infrastructure systems are managed and used. The NIC is currently undertaking a study on how technology can improve the productivity of our assets and data is emerging as a central issue. Already good data can help drive up the efficiency and drive down the costs of maintenance and operation. In time, accurate and comprehensive data may also support more ambitious developments, such as ‘digital twins’ of our infrastructure systems.

Radically improving the quality and availability of infrastructure data, and creating secure and reliable systems for storing and sharing it, will be a long-term game however. That’s where a permanent National Infrastructure Commission, independent of Government, providing strategic advice and a long-term plan, can make a difference. As this issue grows in importance, through our National Infrastructure Assessment, our studies programme, and our role in holding Government to account, we can continue to make the case.

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