The Coming Revolution in Digital Data Management
Long-term archiving of infrastructure project data has been a vexing challenge for owners, operators, contractors and other project stakeholders. Paper—in the form of plans, calculations, quantity sheets, schedules, punch lists, spreadsheets, maps, etc.—is difficult to index and manage physically, degrades over time, and can be tedious to consult. Consequently, there have been few successful attempts to store all relevant paper data in one physical location, using one indexing system. Instead, professionals archive only the information pertaining to their project role.
This can be frustrating. Many surveyors and engineers, for example, have had the experience of knowing that a particular map, or level run, or set of survey control coordinates, or soil boring logs has been produced by past experts … and simply being unable to find it. This often forces redoing of successful past work. Similar challenges afflict all the trades. Owners and operators of infrastructure facilities may be especially frustrated since it is not so common for important documents to be transferred to them in an organized way.
Fortunately, paper-based data is now being phased out in favor of digital products that improve on paper records in most ways. But this doesn’t mean that no challenges remain in infrastructure project data management.
Infrastructure professionals are enduring a time of transition; paper-based data management has been broken for a long time and is now disappearing, but true digital data management that takes advantage of current technology hasn’t yet arrived. However, things are changing fast, and we will soon see digital management that effectively serves all of a project’s stakeholders, at all phases of a project’s lifecycle, including operational phases.
In theory, of course, digital data is considerably easier to manage because it is not subject to the physical limitations of paper and—again, in theory—does not degrade over time. But so far, a complete solution for infrastructure project data management has not emerged. File formats are proprietary and may change over time, indexing systems can be as idiosyncratic and difficult to use as paper systems, and data is often available only to the contractors or subcontractors who originated it. Some information is in older storage formats, such as floppy disks.
There is also the question of motivation. Consider as-built documentation; it is vitally important to operators but is often left to the very contractors who perform the work being assayed. This creates conflicts of interest while gathering data, and contractors are not motivated to freely publish the resulting information. The value of high-quality as-built information, effectively archived, must be acknowledged for all large infrastructure installations.
In fact, all the digital data produced at any project phase is potentially useful for subsequent phases, especially for operators. Consider point clouds generated during pre- and post-construction laser scanning; tools that allow rapid visualization, precise measurement, and analysis of point cloud data by relatively unskilled staff are available now and becoming more powerful—surely this will lead to more efficient use of large facilities. Other data, such as buried utility locations, parts lists, construction photos, framing schematics, etc., can be equally valuable. So clearly, there should at least be a bias toward preserving the digital data created during planning and construction phases.
To index this staggering wealth of data (point clouds alone can have millions of points), an efficient method has already proven itself in GIS departments and architectural offices around the world: space. That is, by using 2D plans—or even better, 3D maps and/or BIMs—as the dominant organizing metaphor for digital project data, the data is made immediately accessible to any interested party. After all, just about anyone can use a mouse to click on a location of interest. And sophisticated users will avail themselves of all the powerful searching and filtering techniques pioneered by GIS innovators. Space is an obvious, intuitive, and powerful way to manage digital data.
A clearly superior technology for data publishing has also emerged in recent years: the cloud. That is, digital project data should be stored on distributed servers and published via the Internet. This basic idea has already proven to be nearly essential for design and construction of complex projects—cloud-based design is worth adopting simply for version management, let alone other advantages such as distributed collaboration or data accessibility. And cloud-centric data is secure, backed up, and can be more easily managed for continuing accessibility and format compatibility.
Putting it all together then, we can say that infrastructure project data should be:
• acknowledged as valuable for all project phases
• created and preserved in digital formats
• organized by geo-location in space
• stored on servers and published via the Internet
• managed for accessibility by relatively unskilled stakeholders, especially facility operators
When the above is true, surveyors, designers, contractors, owners, investors, government officials, operators and others will have a single, widely available source for all of a given project’s vital data, at all project phases. Such a resource would obviously be immensely valuable and lead to projects that are built more quickly and cost-effectively, and operated more efficiently. Everyone wins.
Still, it’s fair to ask how such a system might be adopted. Some stakeholders may feel that they are ceding power or control, or being asked to work in new ways. And there will, of course, be some extra work, at least initially, to get data into the cloud. So, will there be sufficient motivation for widespread industry adoption of this framework for lifecycle management of digital infrastructure project data?
A real-life example can be found in Dynasty Group, a Chicago-based firm that has experimented with the above ideas during several projects for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). We implemented a custom-designed system that stored point clouds, as-builts, control network coordinates, benchmark data, video records, geotechnical surveys, and other useful information in a geospatially organized interface. Specifically, we used an intuitive GIS system with aerial photo overlays of the route to store data at the locations with which it was associated. One could highlight a portion of the project, for example, and find all the control monuments and USGS data available in that area.
We found that this approach shortened project timelines, facilitated stakeholder communication across disciplines, and (a pleasant surprise) was greatly appreciated by non-technical stakeholders—CTA executives, for example, used the system’s video and imaging components to quickly grasp the proposed improvement and provide their comments to it. We further found that ‘buy in’ was quite high; it seemed that most of the contractors and other professionals working on the project immediately grasped the advantages of centrally-managed project data, and were willing to contribute the data they generated and look to the system for data they needed. Really, it was a pleasure to see people working together this way.
Given the increasingly obvious value of digital data for infrastructure projects that are successful during their entire lifecycles, digital data management protocols will soon be commonly addressed in contracts and initial planning phases, and commercial systems to facilitate management and use of this data will begin to appear in the marketplace. And that will finally resolve a serious logistics problem that has challenged infrastructure professionals since the construction of the pyramids.