Managing Sustainability Below the Earth’s Surface

An Underground Infrastructure Mapping Scan, via UI Labs

This being Earth Week, I would like to take you just slightly below the Earth’s surface. Under our city, as a matter of fact. Why? Because the infrastructure that resides underground impacts the output of carbon above ground. To understand how this works, let’s do a little exploration down below.

Beneath the streets and alleys of our city lies a labyrinth that supports daily life and commerce. Underground assets include water pipes, fiber optic lines, gas pipes, electrical lines, cable and telco lines. It also includes legacy infrastructure (think telegraph cables…yes telegraph…and conduit).

We don’t think about the underground infrastructure because we don’t see it. We take it for granted until something needs repair, or new infrastructure needs to be added. When we are inconvenienced by the lane closures associated with the opening of a street, we see it and curse it. Car, bicycle, and foot traffic are routed around the construction. In the best of circumstances, the street is sealed back up and traffic resumes as normal. Except when it doesn’t.

Too often, when a crew is working on, say, repairing underground cable lines, they may run into unexpected assets such as electrical lines. They must stop their work, seal the street, move, and the process starts again. That means that the time that traffic is inconvenienced is effectively doubled. How often is too often? According to City Digital, In the US, an underground infrastructure is hit on average of every 60 seconds at a cost of $1.6B annually).

How does this keep happening so frequently? Don’t we know what is underground? Not exactly. Today, underground coordination prior to construction is based on looking at maps (sometimes non-digital). And those maps are often two dimensional (meaning that you do not know the depth of the assets they are mapping). Further complicating the situation, the maps can be inaccurate, incomplete, or outdated.

So how does what happens underground impact the carbon output above ground in our city? Run through this (not uncommon) scenario again where a project needs to be re-started because of interfering existing infrastructure:

  • The street or lane is blocked off, and slowed or stalled traffic idles (carbon)
  • Big machines come in and rip up the street (more carbon)
  • Shoot! Something is in the way. Big machines seal up the street (more carbon)
  • Block off another section of street and continue to idle congested traffic (much more carbon)
  • Repeat until mad

So, much of the impact on the environment comes from unnecessary idling, which produces climate damaging greenhouse gases. You might think “big deal, so I idle for a minute or two while waiting to maneuver around underground street construction”. Think about this: according to Natural Resources Canada, idling for just 3 minutes every day adds 1.4M tons of CO2 emissions. Removing that is equivalent to taking 320,000 cars off the road for the entire year.

The impact on climate change is such that some countries have created policies and guidelines for reducing idling. In the US, the EPA posted guidelines that recommend turning the engine off if you are idling more than 30 seconds. Reducing the need to idle is even a better solution.

Enter City Digital’s Underground Infrastructure Mapping pilot. Last fall, City Digital kicked off a pilot to create an underground infrastructure mapping (UIM) platform that is designed to reduce the expensive need to restart these intrusive projects. The platform generates, organizes, visualizes, and stores 3D underground infrastructure data that can be securely shared by those who have assets underground.

An Underground Infrastructure Visualization, via UI Labs

Using the City of Chicago as a testbed for the platform’s development, City Digital members are deploying this new technology to create accurate 3D maps of underground assets. An engineering-grade, cloud-based data platform ensures that critical infrastructure information is securely stored and shared at the right level with the right people. The result: having accurate information prior to breaking ground not only reduces carbon output, it saves cities and utilities millions of dollars in the construction and planning processes. It is a modern take on the “measure twice, cut once” approach to reducing carbon emission.

Microsoft is proud to partner with City Digital as we build on the success of the Smart Green Infrastructure Monitoring (SGIM) project, and move our focus to what underground. As underground infrastructure becomes more familiar to us, we’re looking forward to the next steps of reducing emissions and helping save the earth, little by little.

To learn more about Microsoft’s commitment to environmental sustainability, head to the Microsoft Green Blog.

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2 Responses to Managing Sustainability Below the Earth’s Surface

  1. In late 1992 when I first began to investigate GIS technology I was introduced to a project IBM was doing with the city of Chicago, to unite all of the city infrastructure departments, and their mapping, on one platform, so that when a project was being planned, it could be coordinated with other projects being planned for the same location. End result, fewer times digging up the same street.

    I’ve walked from the Chicago Ave Brown Line El, North on Franklin, to Walton, a couple days a week for the past five years. I can’t tell how many times the same sections of street have been dug up. Based on this, I’d say the city still does not have a system coordinating all of this work.

    Last night I toured the UIC Electronic Data Visualization Lab and experienced their 3D Cave. Reading the post above about mapping underground infrastructure, I can just imagine looking at this using 3D animation like is being developed at UIC and other places.

    Hope the city gets this right.

    • Thank you, Daniel. The city does have a department of underground coordination. The problem is that when you rely on 2-dimensional maps, you are not getting that crucial 3rd dimension! With the advent of new technologies that were not available in 1992, we can add this dimension and also do a better job of keeping the maps current and accurate.

      I heard from Tom Schenk that the Data Visualization event last night was a great experience. Glad you could make it.

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