Chicago is trialling a 3D underground infrastructure-mapping platform that could slash the time spent on construction projects by half. Tests are currently being done on the system, which allows users to log, request and view data on the location and condition of subterranean pipes, water mains, power cables and other installations. The platform is updated in real-time by converting crowdsourced photos of underground utilities into machine-readable data that can be displayed using the 3D map, helping construction workers avoid costly damages.
Results & Impact
The Underground Infrastructure Mapping Platform could halve the time span of construction projects, saving between four and 14 months. The system is currently being trialled at a Chicago construction site with testing expected to be completed at the end of 2017.
City of Chicago, UI Labs, City Digital, Accenture, Cityzenith, Esri, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, ComEd, HBK Engineering, Microsoft
Cityzenith, a data visualisation firm, and Esri, a producer of mapping and analytics software, helped produce a platform showing a 3D landscape of the city and its subterranean infrastructure. This was supported by a cloud-hosted data system built with help from Microsoft. The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign developed an app-based data upload system that converts photo images into Point Cloud files. In Point Cloud Modelling, scans or photographs of an object are broken down into data points representing positions on its surface and joined together using a coordinate system, creating a 3D digital image. This system allows key information, including the depth and size of pipes, to be recorded in the database and displayed on the city map. The platform also converts common drawing files, used to digitise construction plans, into a single data standard so they can be integrated into the system. To obtain data, users log in and request information by drawing a square around the blocks they are interested in. The data is displayed through a colour-coded system, with each type of piping and utility line a different colour. Users can also view core information about each installation, including its owner, construction material, size, depth and information about how far it has decayed.
Entrepreneurs, city dwellers
Cost & Value
Over $1.5 billion worth of damages is accrued every year from construction workers striking underground infrastructure. Tracking below-ground installations could return more than 20 times the amount invested.
Pilot since 2016
The cost for cities of adopting the technology could increase if they lack a centralised administrative system for cataloguing and distributing underground infrastructure maps. In this case, implementing the system might require the city to create a new infrastructure management body.
Chicago is trialling a 3D-mapping platform for underground infrastructure that could halve the time span of urban construction projects.
Developed by UI Labs, a public-private innovation network based in Chicago, the Underground Infrastructure Mapping Platform (UIM) provides a 3D visualisation of cityscapes and subterranean infrastructure. Users can upload data and request the location and key information about all installations in a given area, which is then displayed on the map. The system aims to help cities overcome the problem of recording, locating and maintaining underground utility data by converting photos, digital drawings and existing mapping information into a single format and storing them in a central database linked to a 3D city map.
Currently, a lack of information about where subterranean infrastructure is located causes construction workers across the US to accidentally hit underground pipelines once every minute, resulting in more than $1.5 billion worth of damages per year.
“A key pain point here in the city of Chicago – that’s quite common to a lot of other cities – is that utilities often have limited, inaccurate or just very old data on underground assets,” said Alex Frank, Program Manager for City Digital at UI Labs.
According to Frank, government research suggests that the return on investment from efficiently tracking underground assets could be as high as $21 back for every $1 spent. At this rate of return, the platform could deliver significant savings.
The problem for cities is that data is frequently split between different agencies, making it difficult to efficiently locate, and maps often fail to accurately note the depth of subterranean infrastructure. Even where this is documented, the information may not properly record their condition. In 2016, Chicago construction workers made contact with a live gas pipe they believed had been shut down, leading to the closure of several blocks.
“Maybe the city or utility owners of the data are very good at supplying drawings and digital data on where they think their assets are – but that is not always the case,” said Frank. “They might say something is in one spot, but when you get out in the field you may find it isn’t. Your drawings might not then be updated to reflect adjustments you have made.”
To deal with the problem, Chicago officials partnered with City Digital, the urban arm of Chicago-based innovation accelerator UI Labs. Bringing together representatives from the public, private and academic sectors, UI Labs develops new tech-based, marketable solutions to policy problems and uses the city of Chicago as a test bed.
The end result, the UIM platform, is a web-based system that connects real-time monitoring of underground assets with people seeking the data. The platform encompasses a cloud-hosted database, a 3D digital map and a data upload system that allows asset locations to be logged via smartphone apps as they are discovered. The system provides a single point for users to request and share data on underground assets, which is presently lacking in many cities, and simplifies the request process even where cities have a single repository of utility maps.
Beginning by incorporating existing city data on underground assets, the platform will steadily build a thorough picture of cities’ utility infrastructure by sourcing information from new construction sites.
In Chicago alone, more than 100,000 digs take place every year. One option is for cities to make excavation permits conditional on companies supplying photographs of all the underground infrastructure they uncover, creating a continuous flow of information.
“By collecting the pictures whenever a new hole is being dug we can crowdsource updates to the map. Over the course of a year or two, we can have a real robust vision based off a lot of site-collected data,” said Frank.
UIM converts all digitised information, including common drawing files and picture formats, into Point Cloud files, creating a single data standard which can be incorporated into the database and 3D map. Photo images can be uploaded via an app by construction workers as they uncover new asset data, with key information, including size and depth, extracted from the images and logged.
As the level of data within the platform grows, the system will be able to make predictions about other areas that haven’t been excavated, showing the movement of underground assets through them. It also helps to correct old mistakes by recalculating asset locations where they are based on information that is contradicted by new photo images.
“If the data collected from a photo doesn’t line up exactly with old paper data, we assume that the photo data is the most accurate and the platform will kind of logically correct errors that might be in old paper data,” said Frank.
The platform itself will be maintained by a city agency, with users able to view data only once they have received permission. Users must first register and then log onto the web-based platform, where they will see a 3D landscape of the city. To view underground infrastructure data, users select the blocks they are interested in by drawing a box around them and requesting permission through the platform.
Once permission has been granted, underground infrastructure is displayed on a user’s map through a colour-coded system, with each type of utility asset denoted by a different colour. Core data about each installation is displayed, including its owner, construction material, size, depth and information about how far it has decayed.
Because of the value of this information to construction firms (it is thought it could reduce the length of construction projects by between four and 14 months) one option for cities would be to charge businesses to receive the data, potentially creating a new and lucrative revenue stream for government.
The UIM platform is currently in the testing phase, and is being trialled at a construction site covering a two-block area in Chicago. The aim is to complete the platform testing by the end of the year.
Key to UIM’s development has been the coalition behind the project, which came together and built the prototype over a six-month period. Chicago based Cityzenith and Esri played a key role in developing the mapping platform and database. The University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign created the data extraction and upload system, converting photos to Point Cloud files that can be inserted into the database. Microsoft provided support with data hosting while local city utility firm ComEd and construction company HBK Engineering helped test the platform from the perspective of end users. Accenture helped manage and oversee the project.
Although no formal agreement is in place with the City of Chicago for them to take on the platform once it has been completed, several cities have expressed an interest in adopting the tool, which, if successful, will be made available for purchase.
(Picture credit: PublicDomainPictures.net/Alex)