Using data for the public good requires a whole-system approach

ICE’s new data and digital community advisory board gathered recently to explore how data and analytics could be used to benefit society.

The Covid era has brought a new perspective to how data can be used for the public good. Image credit: Shutterstock
The Covid era has brought a new perspective to how data can be used for the public good. Image credit: Shutterstock

A whole-systems approach to digital infrastructure will be needed if data is to be truly harnessed for the benefit of society, it was argued at a recent ICE roundtable.

Mark Enzer, head of the National Digital Twin Programme at the Centre for Digital Built Britain, said: “If all we look at is construction and the delivery of new assets, it’s nowhere near enough. If we reckon that we have something like 99.5% of the assets that we already need, 99.5% of the built environment that we need, and each year we add 0.5% to it, at that rate if we’re only delivering the new stuff in a digital way it would take 200 years for it to spread across the whole of our infrastructure assets.

“I think we really need to see the whole system and apply digital thinking to all of it. It’s the system that delivers the services that enable the outcomes we want – if we’re aiming for these good outcomes, it doesn’t come from an individual project.”

Enzer was speaking at a roundtable discussion on how data and analytics could be used for the benefit of the world and engineering. It was attended by members of ICE’s new data and digital community advisory board, of which he is co-chair.

ICE is building a knowledge programme that addresses establishing data and digital technology at the heart of global infrastructure, with the board spearheading this work. In this, it is being supported by the programme’s strategic knowledge partner, Bluebeam, a leading developer of technology solutions for architecture, engineering and construction professionals worldwide.

Automatic for the people

As roundtable chair Mark Hansford, ICE’s director of engineering knowledge, pointed out, the Covid experience has brought a new perspective to what we can use data for, with people using technology such as tracking apps like never before.

Participants were positive about the growth in “democratised data” and making it available on open source platforms for the public to make decisions about, for example, when they travel.

Rikesh Shah, head of commercial innovation at Transport for London and fellow co-chair of the advisory board, said: “By releasing our data, the likes of Google Maps, Apple Maps and Citymapper are able to drive the behaviours we want for our city.

"With Covid, we were looking at how much capacity we had at a given time at, say, a particular station and could then control demand based on the information we were providing, so dynamically we were able to direct customers around before they even got to the station.”

Enzer pointed out the need to distinguish between personal data that is subject to GDPR and systems data.

“With personal data the name of the game is to protect it, but with systems data we should be doing a lot more to release the value from it,” he said.

James Rowntree, vice president for people and places solutions at Jacobs, cited health and social care as a particular area where data could be used for the public good.

“We talk to a lot of local authorities and for some time there has been a real interest in how data can bring benefits to the way a city operates and how citizens experience it,” he said. “That has been accelerated through the whole Covid period. If you talk to any local authority, they are concerned about the increasing numbers of their older population who are going to be reliant on the state for support.”

He highlighted the Liverpool 5G Health and Social Testbed trial as an example of how data could be used to help look after people in their own homes and improve wellbeing.

Outcomes approach

So how can we truly start to harness the transformative power that data and analytics can have? Enzer called for the profession to have a clear discussion on the results it wants to achieve.

“Outcomes have to be the starting point – that we would be using this data in pursuance of better outcomes for people, society and nature. But we should discuss and agree together, in a democratic process, what those outcomes are and then we can use data in pursuance of it.”

He added: “There really needs to be ethical frameworks that underpin our use of data for the public good. If we believe in that and we believe in driving outcomes then it should be driven by principles, standards and ethics, and those should be out in the open and discussed rather than implied or hidden.”

Heba Bevan, CEO and founder of Utterberry, a provider of AI wireless smart sensor systems for infrastructure monitoring, called for greater collaboration between data providers within the boundaries of privacy regulations. “[My company] generates a huge amount of data a day – it would be good to work with all of the different groupings and make a benefit of it instead of sitting on it. If we can correlate the data that I and someone else are providing it would be a richer set of data.”

Bringing in expertise

More enterprise and data architects could be placed on project teams, suggested Lydia Walpole, digital operations and performance director at Costain.

“In construction you wouldn’t start a contract without an engineer and an architect if you were building a bridge,” she said. “It’s the same with embedding some of these technologies and digital tools – you shouldn’t do that without an enterprise architect and looking at that overall operational model with digital. We’re starting to have a team of at least two enterprise architects on all of our contracts.”

The profession also needs to look at other sectors for inspiration, said James Chambers, Bluebeam’s regional director for the UK and Ireland.

“In my position I cross a lot of boundaries and disciplines in seeing how technology works,” he said. “I love to look outside industries at [how things such as] gamification have had an impact on construction. I think things like that have to be found and developed to help draw new people into this industry.”

Accelerating the pace of change

James Dean, chief executive of software company Sensat, suggested encouraging asset owners to embrace new digital solutions rather than relying on older, more time-consuming methods for projects.

“A lot of the technology we have access to, it’s already there and it’s proven,” he said. “We need to have that conversation to prompt client organisations into pushing for that – until they do, it’s going to be difficult for everyone else to fully utilise what’s already available.”

Hansford acknowledged that the pace of progress could often be slow: “We’re aware that in our industry things rarely change if the codes and standards don’t change because ultimately engineers work to codes and standards.”

He said ICE was keen to look at “that kind of interrogation of the way things are done, the codes and standards, and ensure that they are taken forward and changed where relevant”.

Mark Enzer maintained that soft standards were equally as important. “We need the hard technical solutions but we also need the soft non-technical solutions to make things work – the soft standards and frameworks are where the humans are, and if the humans don’t adopt this stuff then it doesn’t happen,” he said.

He added: “I think digital transformation across the whole of the built environment is a sociotechnical change programme and we should treat it as such. We should see how the machine works and which bits we have to turn to make the whole change happen.”

Appointing a public body

Enzer highlighted the “interconnecting cogs” that would be part of this work, with individual, organisational and sectoral change journeys all needed if the industry was to move up the “information management maturity curve”. He suggested a public body could take responsibility for helping this to happen.

“In many ways it’s a form of levelling up, it’s making the rest as good as the best, because the best is already out there, but the rest needs to catch up,” he said. “It needs to be done on purpose, with strategy, because then we’ll get it done quicker, and therefore I think it needs a body to do it, some kind of centre of excellence that will help the industry to move up this curve.”

For more information on ICE’s new community advisory boards, click here.

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