Project to build digital picture of the ground beneath our cities

A new digital concept has been launched by the Ordnance Survey, British Geological Survey and Future Cities Catapult that would give planners, utility companies and developers a better idea of what lies beneath our feet and allow a more complete picture of our cities to be realised.

We rely on land beneath cities to build on, to house our critical transport and utility infrastructure and to provide natural resources to sustain urban growth. Yet when it comes to planning, we often focus on the visible parts of our towns and cities and overlook the value of the ground beneath our feet.

Recognising that this is a national-scale challenge, and the need to collaborate across sectors, the British Geological Survey, Ordnance Survey and Future Cities Catapult have been working together on Project Iceberg. Project Iceberg has the long-term aim being to help increase the viability of land for development and de-risk future investment through better use of subsurface information.

To realise the full potential of subsurface data, Iceberg has investigated ways to join up data and services delivered by a range of organisations and integrate it with other city data.

Today there is a great deal of data about the subsurface and there are various standards that set out how information should be captured but the information is dispersed amongst many different parties. This lack of coordination and collaboration has costs. For example the direct costs associated with ‘normal’ maintenance of underground electricity, gas and water assets runs into the billions of pounds a year without considering indirect costs such as increased road congestion during ground works.

Project Iceberg has found that there is a need for a public data-exchange framework for the subsurface that can be integrated with existing city data systems. This isn’t a single map of the subsurface but a consistent framework into which data is supplied, assured, stored, accessed and analysed by a multitude of users in the short term, whilst appropriately safeguarding privacy and security.

The National Infrastructure Commission report ‘Data for the Public Good’ released in December referenced Project Iceberg as an example of leading practice in the field. With a national subsurface data exchange framework integrated with surface city data the potential of new technologies and approaches to urban planning can be realised. Would we see augmented reality being used to view the accurate location of pipes before they dig? Sustainable drainage schemes being modelled to help manage surface water and reduce the pressure on the water pipe network? Quicker and more accurate estimates of the costs of remediating land for housing? An acceleration conveyancing for homebuyers? Project Iceberg aims to explore these opportunities and potential benefits to support integrated urban planning.

Rollo Home, Content Strategy Lead at Ordnance Survey said: “The absence of standards governing the collection of underground data means decision makers working on cross-sector domain projects face a challenge to untangle the web of data that is available.

“Not knowing what’s buried and where it’s buried causes significant disruption, wasted time, delays in street works, possible damage to other utilities and unnecessary extra repair and compensation costs. This lack of knowledge also presents very real health and safety risks to utility employees and the public.

“It’s in the interests of Great Britain to resolve this by getting a detailed and accurate picture of the subsurface space and to combine it with the above ground data model for shared operational and innovation activities.”

Stephanie Bricker, Urban Geoscience team leader at British Geological Survey said: “The ground beneath our cities is a complex and highly variable environment but extremely valuable – we use the ground for a wide range of applications.

“We need to consider the interaction between the natural and built subsurface environment and utilise data-driven processes and new technologies to apply novel approaches to urban planning – whether that’s to support brownfield development, new infrastructure or urban resilience. There are lots of potential benefits for us to explore collectively.”

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