Thursday, 21 November 2013

GI Beyond the AGI - My Foray into Geotechnics

I have talked before about taking GI beyond the ‘traditional’ user base that the AGI tends to represent. Well yesterday I put my money where my mouth is and went to a conference on ‘Slope Engineering and Geotechnical Asset Management.’ My thinking was that as GI is such a huge part of traditional asset management (utilities etc) that this could possibly transfer to geotechnical assets. Also it is always interesting to see how a different industry goes about solving problems. Anyway this is just a short report on what I found from by brief foray into slope engineering.

The first thing that struck me was that I had no idea how big an industry/issue this is. In the context of geotechnics an asset is effectively actually a risk to an infrastructure asset (slope overlooking a road, railway cutting, canal embankment etc). Now unsurprisingly there are an awful lot of railway cuttings, canal embankments, road tunnels etc so managing the risk across these is quite difficult. Also I did not know that there are actually a significant number of historic landslide complexes in the UK that have been built on but that are still active and moving. (I took the climatology modules instead at uni).

The upshot of all of this is that a number of organisations (infrastructure bodies and local authorities largely) have a massive amount of risk to manage. What I was surprised to find out is that only a few of the organisations use GI to help map and assess assets allowing things like risk based maintenance/inspection scheduling. All of these organisations have data on at least a significant portion of their assets but this is often held in many different areas and has no spatial representation. I think there is a significant opportunity for GI providers and consultants to take advantage of this gap.

Many of the people I spoke to were aware that a solution like this would help with the management of their asset network but they did not know how this could be achieved. In many cases the asset data already exists (eliminating a lot of the hard work) it just needs a spatial component added to it. With the increasing in the field availability of GI data (web and mobile mapping platforms) this could have a real benefit to the engineer. Obviously the issue that needs overcoming here is showing the potential cost reduction value of GI. The organisations managing these assets are facing the same budget constraints as everyone else and if ROI in terms of cost reduction can be shown there is definitely a strong case.

One thing that became clear at the conference is that this is not a sector afraid to innovate (which should bode well for pushing GI). There was an excellent presentation by Somerset County Council on the remedial work done following the collapse of the waterfront at Bridgwater in a landslip event. The collapse had led to the closure of a road, massive disruption to businesses and also a threat to utilities infrastructure if any further collapse occurred. The initial plan of action was expensive and time consuming however through innovative engineering, novel technical work-arounds and a willingness to accept a certain degree of risk (weighed against the benefits of course) they managed to stabilise and then restore the waterfront for £1.8 million and months ahead of the initial plan. This project was almost like a return to Victorian ‘improvise and get it done’ engineering combined with modern project management with one contractor improvising a concrete spraying nozzle from tyre inner tubes when the specialised version was not available (saving about £4000 a nozzle).

The scale of the challenges faced in geotechnical asset management combined with a willingness to innovate and adopt new practices combine to mean that this is a sector that is ripe to benefit from increasing its use of GI. I’m off to the event next week to see if this is another sector that can benefit, I’m expecting that they may already be using BIM...

As a final note slope engineers REALLY do not like the rain!

1 comment:

  1. Well done, Chris, this is what AGI and the industry need - think outside the box.
    It also reminds me of moving from engineering to geography a long time ago when, as engineers we dealt in measurement and numbers whereas the geographers were almost entirely text based! And still today my parish council has an asset register which relies on text descriptions for the position of lamp posts and rubbish bins - not a map in site. We still have work to do!
    Robin Waters, GIS Professional