Not so long ago the thought of remotely monitoring the condition and performance of the UK’s 7,000km network of trunk roads and motorways would have been the stuff of fantasy.
Today it is not only a reality but an integral part of driving efficiency into the sector. Think drones that can photograph every inch of the network; think software that can turn those pictures into powerful digital models; think machine learning to transform CCTV pictures into useable real time information on congestion and delay; think embedded sensors and the Internet of Things to better understand asset condition.
As we saw at the 2016 Geo Business event in London this year, tech-savvy geospatial professionals sit at the heart of this revolution. While every business involved in surveying, constructing, managing and maintaining the highway network is racing to realign itself to meet the new demands of the digital world, the geospatial sector finds itself very much at the sharp end of change. Perhaps driven by this change, we are seeing a clear shift by network owner Highways England and its vast supply chain, away from a traditional focus on infrastructure towards a new and very exciting focus on customers. It is a focus that is underpinned by digital technology.
The world of highway asset management is transforming before our eyes, enabling organisations managing the network to focus less on concrete, steel and asphalt and more on the needs of the people and businesses using the highways. That means reducing congestion. Certainly, for operators like Highways England success means seeing the cost of managing the highways network fall. But it also means seeing less disruption caused by work to constructing and maintaining carriageways. Thus future success is no longer simply down to the design and construction of cheaper gantries or better blacktop.
Instead we are seeing a cultural shift across the sector. The power of the smart phone in every public and professional pocket makes it possible to instantly and positively exploit the vast amounts of data that is pouring from the highway network and its users. For geospatial engineers that brings huge challenges and opportunities. While once their challenge was to use technology to deliver accurate line, level and positional information, today the opportunity is to drive impact beyond the planning and construction phase. The ability to collect, manage and interpret vast qualities of data, enables their influence to span the whole life of assets.
It is an opportunity that should not be underestimated and one which every professional in the sector should be both aware of, and ready to embrace. The future envisaged by government programmes such as Digital Built Britain, where data drives all decisions across the built environment, will require a quantum leap in thought and action. Therein lies the challenge. The pace of technology change already being witnessed is rapid. When the sector gathers for the next Geo Business event in May 2017 we will doubtless see ideas that take us beyond what is currently thought possible.
Being ready to exploit these ideas will mean identifying and attracting the new skills and new talents needed to accelerate change across traditional sectors such as highways. It will mean embracing a new culture that is prepared to adapt to - and lead - a data-enabled future. It will not be easy. But get it right and geospatial engineers really could lead us into a new world of data enabled, customer focused and technology driven infrastructure.
Digital innovation and the impact that the geospatial sector will have on the economy will be a key theme at the Geo Business event in London’s Business Design Centre 23-24 May. GEO Business is the UK’s biggest geospatial event for everyone involved in the gathering storing, processing and delivering of geospatial information. Launched in 2014 and organised in collaboration with the Chartered Institution of Civil Engineering Surveyors (ICES), the Association for Geographic Information (AGI), the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), The Survey Association (TSA) and the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).