98. Underground infrastructure - Geospatial's Great Unknown

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In an age where every natural and man-made object on the earth’s surface is now mapped to near millimetre precision, geospatialists could almost begin to believe that their job is well and truly complete. Almost.

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Earlier this week I attended the OGC’s Location Powers: Underground event which was held (appropriately enough) in the basement floor of the Geovation Hub in London. This event served as an eye opener to the reality of what most countries actually know about the vast network of subsurface infrastructure upon which their everyday functions rely.




The Great Unknown

The issue of underground infrastructure is best explained using analogies - like a pirate's long lost treasure, or the dog that buried its bone, or a company that outgrew its internal systems. The reason why the location of underground infrastructure is such an unknown is because much of it was buried at a time when survey accuracy was either a luxury or an impossibility. Hand drawn maps, poor data capture and management practice and a general lack of strategic foresight meant that today's authorities have inherited a complex web of buried utilities which are, in a worrying number of cases, largely accounted for.

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Many Secrets

If this were not a complicated enough issue, it is further confused by the fact that much of the infrastructure buried beneath our feet is owned by private corporations who guard their geospatial information carefully. The lack of authoritative central database systems to help safely manage and protect this infrastructure (largely due to a lack of onus on such companies to provide this information) means that unlike its overground counterpart, the underground world is likely to remain the Great Unknown for many more years to come.

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"But if knowing where this infrastructure helps make cities safer and more efficient why don't these companies just share their information with authorities?" you may ask. The answer to this question comes down to the issues of security and trust. Utilities is a valuable industry and sharing information about the location of assets can be risky and expensive - particularly if it slips into the hands of competitor companies, standards focused utility regulators, and individuals with bad-intentions.


Many Unknown Secrets

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However, there is another reason about why private companies do not share information regarding the location of their underground assets - that, like governments, they simply may not know the precise location of where their own information is either. The logic for not sharing this information is therefore because they need to protect themselves from providing potentially inaccurate data to people who blindly trust in the authoritativeness of maps. As one of the event's speakers highlighted - utilities such as gas pipelines "should be thought of as a chain of potentially devastating bombs which are located right under our feet!"

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The Location Powers event in London was excellent because it examined the issue of underground infrastructure from a geospatial angle. As per the invitation, the workshop explored "how better understanding of the relationships between underground assets with above ground infrastructure can be used to minimize service breakdowns, improve asset utilisation and mitigate the impact of disasters and how a tangible Return on Investment from a digital representation of underground infrastructure can be achieved."

Let's just hope that it doesn't take a serious situation to convince authorities and utility companies to take much-needed action.

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