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Hitting underground pipes and cables costs the UK £2.4bn a year. We need a data platform for that, says government

Atkins wins £23m deal to build National Underground Asset Register

The UK government has awarded management consultancy Atkins a £23m contract to help it get to grips with accidental damage to underground pipes and cables, which is costing £2.4bn a year.

The Geospatial Commission, an independent expert committee within the Cabinet Office, has awarded the work to help it build "a secure data exchange platform providing a comprehensive, trusted and secure digital map of where buried assets are located."

Documents attached to a competitive tender notice point out that when digging up roads or attempting any other subterranean engineering, workers suffer the considerable difficulty of finding out what other human-made structures might be down there.

But there is no uniform process for "asset owners" – the gas, water, telecoms or electricity companies who dig up roads to lay pipes and cables – to share their data about where exactly they have put everything.

All of this "means prior to excavating a site, operators are required to contact all organisations who own or may have owned assets in the area, wait for each to respond, then compile information so it can be read and understood by workers," according to the tender documents.

"This process is slow, inefficient and makes inaccuracies leading to accidental damage more likely," they say.

In 2019 and 2020 the commission carried out two pilots, one led by the Greater London Authority and the other by Ordnance Survey in the North East of England, in the hope of proving a national data-sharing platform was a feasible idea. By April 2020, the pilot concluded it was. It was also "highly desirable by asset owners and their supply chains," it said.

The primary use case for the "National Underground Asset Register" (NUAR) is to avoid hitting pipes and cables already underground – "strike avoidance" in technical language – and increasing the efficiency of project planning and data exchange, according to the commission.

The core platform is the part of the system where the system data is ingested, stored and exposed to other subsystems via APIs, subject to security controls and role-based access constraints.

The Geospatial Commission has committed in the UK's first Geospatial Strategy to preparing for the rollout of NUAR, which is also included in the government's National Infrastructure Strategy [PDF] launched in November last year.

In the DevOps style, it also expects the first release of the data platform to be available within three months of the contract award. It expects Atkins to begin national rollout 19 months after the contract starts, officially 31 August.

The commission estimates the industry could save £350m a year by avoiding accidental asset strikes, improving the efficiency of works and better data sharing using the platform, according to an accompanying press release.

In a pre-canned statement, Nigel Clifford, deputy chair of the Geospatial Commission, said: "Our National Underground Asset Register will be a momentous step towards providing the UK with a shared national data asset of significant value." ®

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