IN April, the Geospatial Commission (GC), part of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), launched a new digital service that is revolutionising the way we install, maintain, operate and repair the pipes and cables buried beneath our feet – the National Underground Asset Register (NUAR). NUAR is a government-led programme creating a single, standardised data-sharing platform on the location and condition of underground assets in England, Wales and Northern Ireland1.
It is helping to improve efficiencies in construction and development, reduce disruption to the public and businesses from extended road closures and congestion, improve workers’ safety and is envisaged to deliver at least £350m economic growth per year once fully operational.
There is estimated to be around four million kilometres of buried pipes and cables in the UK, and a hole dug every seven seconds to install, fix, maintain or repair these assets that are critical in keeping the water running, gas and electricity flowing and our telecommunications lines connected. Approximately 1 in every 65 holes dug results in an accidental asset strike (c. 60,000 a year), causing around £2.4bn worth of economic cost while also putting workers’ safety at risk and disrupting our day-to-day lives.
There are 650+ asset owners across the public and private sectors (including energy, water and telcos) who hold data about their own assets, which they are required by law to share for the purposes of ‘safe digging’. However, currently there is no standardised method to do this with multiple organisations having to be contacted for each dig, providing information in varied formats, scales, quality and on different timelines.
Launch of the first phase
Viscount Camrose, who oversees the GC, recently launched the first phase of NUAR, known as the ‘minimum viable product’ (MVP), which is now live in North East England, Wales and London. This release includes data for all of the major energy and water providers in the regions, such as Northumbrian Water, Wales and West Utilities, Southern Electric Power Distribution and National Grid, as well as smaller providers of these services, telecommunications companies, transport organisations and local authorities.
The MVP release contains the initial versions of core functionality to meet the ‘safe dig’ use cases, as well as comprehensive security controls to ensure that data is protected while allowing appropriate role-based access to data required to work safely. Functionality includes an interactive map, so that each asset and site displayed can be selected and queried to view detailed attribute information. It also includes an ‘isolated view’ such that a single asset owner’s assets can be viewed in isolation.
The platform allows assets and sites to be flagged as ‘sensitive’ and to have ‘enhanced measures’ attached to them to let users know about special guidance or contact requirements related to those assets.
While NUAR will improve the speed and efficiency of the excavation planning process, one of the key challenges is in improving the quality of data which organisations currently hold about the location of their assets. In an upcoming release of NUAR, the functionality to log observations about data inaccuracies and other aspects such as ground conditions will be added. In this way, data owners will receive regular feedback on their data, including from excavators in the field and be able to update their datasets accordingly.
Therefore, good survey practices and the logging of observations will lead to the improvement of data quality over time. NUAR is initially available to asset owners and their supply chain organisations in North East England, Wales and London, who have signed up and shared data with the programme, and with those working on their behalf. As a MVP, it is intended to complement existing business practices at this stage, allowing users to plan for future adoption and provide valuable feedback to enhance the service further.
In all cases, workers are to adhere to safe dig practices as set out in HSG47.
Future of the service
With the MVP now live, work has begun to enhance the platform both in terms of functionality, data and the currency of data while rolling the service out to remaining regions in England and to Northern Ireland by the end of 2024/25. Over 100 additional organisations are already participating outside the initial regions, including over half of all remaining major energy and water companies.
The GC is also working on refining the future operating model for the service based on views submitted in response to a public consultation it held in 2022.
Key among the consultation findings was a preference for data access to be expanded for other user groups and use cases, the need for legislative reform to ensure workers have comprehensive access to data through the service, and a potential opportunity for the wider commercial market to access NUAR data to enhance existing offerings and/or provide other value added services, dependent of course on asset owner appetite.
In the coming year the GC will also be publishing information related to the NUAR data model which may be of significant interest to organisations who provide data services to utilities and public sector bodies, as the information will include the target model asset owners will use when sharing their data to NUAR. Information on the future cost model will also be released.
Collaboration at the heart of success
NUAR started through two proof of concepts, run independently of each other miles apart. Through the early efforts of asset owners in North East England who challenged the art of the possible in a tent at Northumbrian Water Group’s 2018 Innovation Festival, to the innovative work of asset owners in London, led by Thames Water, who tested the concept through the Highway Apparatus Data Exchange System, success to date is solely owed to owners and users of asset data who have been involved from the start in identifying, refining, testing and providing feedback on requirements.
Through this work, NUAR may become the most transformational data initiative the utility sector has seen in decades. If you work for a utility or public sector body, please encourage them to sign up and supply their data to NUAR at the earliest opportunity as this will enable them to carry out work as safely and efficiently as possible.
Alicja Boryn, NUAR Project Manager, Geospatial Commission
The NUAR Onboarding Team can be contacted by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Scotland already benefits from a system of this kind - VAULT - which is operated by the Scottish Road Works Commission and the Geospatial Commission has worked closely with colleagues in the Scottish Government to ensure alignment.