Three ways better data management improves outcomes on infrastructure projects

Digital systems and processes are becoming the norm on major infrastructure projects, creating a wealth of valuable data. However, for infrastructure owners to get the best outcomes from new technologies, this data must be properly managed.

In the first of a series of articles on data governance and management, AECOM’s digital experts James Colclough and Paul Wilson demonstrate how asset owners can benefit from a robust digital strategy.

The adoption of digital tools and systems is increasing as infrastructure owners and public sector organisations seek to manage the complexities of large infrastructure projects. There is an ever-expanding amount of data collected, yet all too often this valuable information can be hard for stakeholders, supply chain, design and constructions teams to access; this is due to both siloed data stores or inaccessible formats and structures that require technical expertise to decipher.

The antidote is a robust digital strategy that includes standardization, data flows and a connectivity of systems. Without one, improved outcomes such as enhanced asset lifecycle, reduced carbon footprint, and reduced operations costs are much harder to achieve.

The first step is for organisations to take stock and ask: are we managing our data properly? Are we leveraging all the collated data in the most effective way to get the best possible outcomes? Action now to implement positive changes will result in benefits and efficiencies across entire pipelines of work.

In this article we draw on our global experience of helping clients progress to a ‘digital by default’ position – where a digital-led approach is the norm – through the application of industry leading governance, best practice tools and systems to share three outcomes that better data management can bring to complex infrastructure projects and pipelines.

Why a robust digital strategy matters

From spreadsheets and reality capture to remote monitoring and smart assets, we are collecting vast volumes of data. Well managed, data can help improve the design and build of infrastructure through more complete and more precise information that is technically focused, automated where necessary and outcome-based. For example, data can be organised and structured to automate the prioritisation process on important tasks, introducing major time savings.

At a time when organisations need to demonstrate value for money and cost efficiencies, proper data management and ontological mapping – a way of clearly showing the interconnectedness and hierarchy between all aspects of a project or pipeline – is critical if infrastructure owners want to do more with less, and truly optimise the potential of a data-led approach. Only then can designers, contractors and the supply chain move towards a ‘digital by default’ position and operate as a single, committed collaborative team, sharing risk, improving delivery outcomes – on specific projects and on a wider portfolio level – and harnessing those benefits that will drive sustainability in the longer term.

However, to allow the next generation of infrastructure to harness these benefits, industry needs to lock in and build on the progress already made. This will bring challenges. Resources will need to be invested in new systems, and staff will need to be upskilled. The shift in mindset away from traditional working practice is hard to implement, but it has already begun.

Acting now to connect systems, data and processes and upskill staff is an investment in the future – particularly given the uncertainties of the ongoing pandemic and the resonant impacts. These investments will leave a lasting legacy both for individual organisations and the infrastructure they create. But strong organisational leadership is vital if this ultimate outcome is to be realised.

Three positive outcomes from better data management

1/The end of information silos

If data isn’t managed effectively and properly connected, information silos can persist. This can lead to delays, disruptions and ultimately a disintegration of working relationships. Supporting clients to connect these systems effectively and manage their data is therefore a core responsibility.

A large infrastructure project can use multiple pieces of design and construction software in its high-level system architecture alone. The creation of connected common data environments (CDEs) to process and share data from all these sources creates a single source of trustworthy, reliable, real-time information for teams to use, making it easier for designers, contractors and supply chain to collaborate.

For example, it’s much more efficient if the data gathered by environmental teams on GIS mapping systems is fed directly into design software for engineers to use, rather than it being saved to separate formats which then need to be actively sourced, referenced and the data added in. We adopted these processes on the A303 Stonehenge scheme and major programmes in the Middle East, resulting in better collaborative working practices.

Well-managed data is also essential for effective digital project management as data from different systems can be connected so that key questions can be easily addressed.

2/A connected system that brings consistency and value to an entire pipeline of work

What does a fully connected system look like on a large multi-phase infrastructure project? If we start at the mobilisation stage, all the project information to date would be held in a CDE and each team member across all disciplines would know how to navigate, store and collect data within it, including contractors or supply chain who are new to this phase of the project. When work begins, data is captured right from the get-go. The properly prepared teams can hit the ground running giving them a better chance of getting it right first time, increasing certainty of delivery and increasing efficiencies

The only way to achieve this across a complex infrastructure project or a pipeline of work is to dovetail systems and processes. As Technical Advisor on the A1 dual carriageway upgrade works, one of the UK government’s Project Speed schemes, we are taking a collaborative approach with the multiple organisations involved.  Defining the key principles and functions upon which we are developing the connected digital ecosystem has been important.

3/Data that flows freely between asset lifecycle phases

As we have seen above, data works best when freed from the confines of a departmental silos.  Likewise, data shouldn’t be limited to use in design and construction. Managed well, data should flow freely between asset lifecycle phases through to operations and maintenance (O&M). Indeed, placing an emphasis on O&M stage often leads to the gathering of better data early on so clients get the most out of the digital twin in the longer term.

Our digital specialists are currently working with transit authorities across the globe to support the connection of their asset management systems and implement best-in-class technologies. This includes ensuring data is captured effectively during works and is accessible and live within the central database. We have recently worked with local authority in the UK to assess how they can obtain information from the supply chain ready for use in their asset management systems. Requesting data in the right format and meeting an organisation’s Asset Information Requirements improves data quality and efficiency of input.