Several years ago, three workers in the United Kingdom went out onto a road late at night to conduct a survey to find out where the drainage was.

At 2:30 a.m., a wagon driver fell asleep and drove through cones which had been laid out, and two of those men did not return home.

Not only was this event tragic, it was also avoidable. That drainage had been designed and installed by someone and its position should have been known. Yet the information had been lost and the men had to go into a dangerous environment to find out where the drainage was.

The above story, shared by Bentley Systems product manager and former UK road and tunnelling engineer Joe Rice-Jones at the Bentley’s Be Inspired conference late last year, demonstrated the consequences of poor data management on road networks.

“If you today are doing surveys of the road network for a design, you don’t keep those surveys and someone else has to go out at four, five, six, seven or 10 years’ time to resurvey that, that (an incident like that described above) is exactly what you are risking,” Rice-Jones said.

“That’s how serious this is.”

Speaking primarily from his background as a road and tunnelling engineer in the UK, Rice-Jones says practices on the part of many infrastructure professionals regarding information management are woeful and large amounts of asset information is being lost.

Part of the problem, he said, are data custody issues. With much of the data resting with third parties such as contractors and engineers, Rice-Jones says there is a risk of the data becoming lost unless either it is handed over upon practical completion or there is an agreement with the third party for them to maintain that data. Moreover, many asset owners have no idea who has the data or how they can get back at it.

This, he says, has financial costs as well as safety issues. In one area alone (UK roads management is divided into areas), he says the government is spending around 80 million pounds per year simply going around and re-obtaining lost data.

A further challenge revolves around distribution issues. In the past, Rice-Jones says UK roads management has suffered as there have been ‘bits’ of information all over the place. Whilst design houses collate information at the start, it is important to coordinate how information was going to be transferred to contractors and others along with how privileges in respect of that information would be managed.

Moreover, many problems which the UK experienced in respect of data management, Rice-Jones said, can be traced back to the 1970s and early 1980s, where many individual asset managers recognised the need for data and thus secured their own data for what they needed. Whilst these efforts were admirable, he said this led to the development of silos. On a related note, there was little in the way of enterprise modelling of the data. This meant that each area had charge of its own data management and there was little if any coordination about what data needed to be maintained at handover stage and where it needed to be maintained at the end of each contract.

Courtesy of sustained efforts to improve in this area, however, Rice-Jones says England now has a better system whereby data is centrally integrated and managed. Questions about who holds it and has access to it are now managed centrally.

The benefits of good information management are significant. As well as avoiding the need for costly and dangerous exercises to recapture data, it can help to manage assets more proactively. By installing sensors throughout the drainage network, for example, you can identify which drains flood more often and can focus maintenance efforts around these – thus reducing the number of incidents in which water spills onto roads.  With mixing contracts as well, you could use information from paving machines to determine the volume and quality of paving delivered not only to verify that your organisation is getting all that it is paying for but also to evaluate which contractors and teams are delivering the best results.

Rice-Jones says several steps are needed to continue to improve in this area.

First, each organisation needs a special information manager who needs to be able to handle different types of modelling, the structure of information and how information sits together. This manager needs to be able to manage a system which can handle where you are on the network and cope with nuances such as the interaction between the drainage network and the road network. This, he said, makes an instant link between data and operational efficiency. Good information managers can bring all this together.

After hiring this person, Rice-Jones says it is critical that they go out on site so they are able to better understand your business and operational needs.

Next, requirements for capture and maintenance of the desired information must be written in the tender documentation for design and construction contracts. Whilst it is possible to require that the relevant information be handed over upon project completion, Rice-Jones says it would also be sufficient to simply include requirements for the designers/contractors themselves to hold the relevant information for a set period – say 20 years.

Third, design should be performed with maintenance in mind and maintenance people should be brought into the design phase.

Fourth, it crucial to capture surveys performed as part of design activities as well as design deliverables – a strategy Rice-Jones says could save money and man hours. This includes geophysical surveys, topographical surveys, traffic surveys, archaeological surveys and more. These surveys, he says, can be reused.

Finally, it is important to move away from the idea of building enterprise systems and think about how systems work together.

Despite the UK’s progress, Rice-Jones still sees poor practices.

In a recent incident, he became infuriated when driving home along the M56 in the United Kingdom’s north and passing people doing borehole records next to a structure.

“Are you telling me that someone didn’t build that structure without taking borehole records? Are you telling me that the ground has changed?” he said. “No, it hasn’t. Those records are lost.

“Somebody took a brave move at 10 o’clock at night to put that first cone out on the Motorway network and go back on the road so that someone could go and get those records.

“Every time we do that, we put someone at risk. There is no reason whatsoever for that to ever happen for that type of survey.

“With the technology we have today, that should be a criminal offence in my opinion.

“It should never ever happen ever again.”