When digital data began to “come of age” as the dominant information management paradigm of our computerized age, archivists and librarians were at first elated by the possibilities. It seemed that clunky, bulky indexing methods based on card files and bound ledgers were a thing of the past, and that the retrieval of stored information would soon be nearly frictionless.
It’s true that much of that vision has been realized—digital data has, by and large, proven to be a better way of storing and managing vast amounts of information. Digitizing movies and television programs, for example, has made them available on demand in households all over the world. And these large digital files are likely to be available in some digital form for decades, or indefinitely. By contrast, many early films and TV shows have been lost forever, even though they were recorded, because they were made by some physical means.
But the storage and retrieval of digital data is hardly frictionless, and effectively archiving digital information has proven to be a complex task. Establishing protocols and standards for digital information management often requires international conferences and committees and even, in some cases, the involvement of national and international government agencies.
One of the main sources of complication is the way digital data is formatted, and this issue seems to disproportionately affect infrastructure projects. Extracting information from early CAD files, for example, can be extremely frustrating, and many projects have been basically “redrafted” with modern software so that digital plans are available for asset management, rehabilitation, expansion, and other uses. Digital plan recreation is tedious and expensive, but often worth doing—accessible spatial information is so incredibly useful that the effort is financially feasible. Still, converting data from one format to another, or for use on new hardware platforms, is costly and time-consuming, and is often the source of errors or inconsistencies in the newly converted data.
So the management of digital infrastructure data for long-term utility has emerged as one of the pressing issues of our time. It’s not an exaggeration to say that successfully establishing good standards and protocols for construction project data is necessary for the creation of a truly sustainable civilization.
Fortunately, in the field of infrastructure and construction, there is an obvious and logical underpinning for all the many types of digital data created. This underpinning can be summed up as: “Everything is somewhere.” That is, all digital data created in connection with infrastructure projects is tied to a particular physical location on Earth. This obvious fact can serve as a superb organizing paradigm for infrastructure project data. After all, whether a project is on local control, a globally georeferenced datum such as WGS84, or some regional datum, it is ultimately on some sort of grid or coordinate system. And translation from one datum to another has proven to be a nearly trivial problem in today’s computerized world.
For this reason, georeferencing has the potential to be an effective, long lasting data standard underlying the collection and management of all infrastructure project data.
The clearest application of this concept is in interfaces; that is, a spatially organized interface—an onscreen map, basically, of a region, city or individual asset—is usually the easiest way to organize and retrieve data. Clicking on a location of interest (LOI) is, after all, easy, intuitive and effective, so why not organize data this way?
This doesn’t directly address issues such as the format incompatibilities described above, but it does nearly eliminate location and retrieval complications. Georeferencing is already becoming an important part of CAD software, asset management solutions and GIS. And since underlying coordinate systems are easily transformed, this creates considerable overlap between digital solutions—overlap that can be used to resolve data format incompatibilities.
Organizing data such as plans, survey control data, video, inspection reports, point clouds, soil data, etc., by selectable LOIs acknowledges the simple fact that projects exist in space—that is, everything really is somewhere. Project managers and engineers involved in infrastructure projects are already seeing the benefits of this concept. One example is the Chicago Transit Authority, which relied on geospatially organized infrastructure project management to improve decision-making and streamline the design and construction process in the recent rehabilitation of 10.5 miles of the Red Line. Other clients are looking for similar solutions.
Surveyors have been gathering truly new and powerful data for a long time, but they haven’t really been using, organizing, or publishing that data in new and powerful ways. It’s time to put technology to work to capture the full potential of digital infrastructure data.