What can data do for us?

We live in a data economy and technology is everywhere. How can we use the potential of data and technology to get better results from our infrastructure?

Data & Decisions

Talent & Technology

12 min read

Photography iStock

Infrastructure is generally big in scale - think highways and bridges - and lasts a long time. That long life risks locking in old tech and makes it hard to apply new systems.  

But if done right, the potential is huge. By gathering more and better data on our infrastructure, we can make decisions that get the most from it, whether it’s during the design process, helping to understand where we might need to build new transport connections or even just knowing when to fix potholes. Experience elsewhere shows there are massive gains in efficiency to be made in almost every part of the infrastructure system, whether in planning, building, operating or maintaining it, if we use technology well.

Seeing double: digital twins

One major possibility is the use of digital twin technology, which can create a virtual, real-time replica of a piece of infrastructure. For example, a digital twin of a highway would show the operators how well it’s operating at any point in time, allowing them to easily see where bottlenecks are or where speed limits might be lowered to avoid congestion, and identifying where maintenance is needed before it becomes a problem. 

Digital twins are a virtual, real-time replica of a piece of infrastructure.

This approach can be taken to whole areas, showing the performance of a region or city, so that it’s possible to anticipate how it will respond to changes like an increase in population. Planners could then model different options for where development and growth are most likely, and test options for transport connections and other key pieces of infrastructure. This is not frontier technology: digital twins are already in use here and overseas, and there’s a chance to make it a tool for the spatial planning process that many councils already do, where they develop plans for how they’ll grow and where they’ll need new infrastructure.

Open data for innovation

Collecting and sharing data about infrastructure is critical for New Zealand to adopt innovations like digital twins, and to help make better decisions. The more detailed the data, the more we can do. For example, by getting a good picture of how much water households use at different points in time, we could change the types of networks we build and conserve more water.

There will be major innovations that come from data that we can’t predict. It’s only by making it open and sharable that we give people the ability to discover what’s possible.

Getting there requires change. Strict rules for commercial confidentiality can be at odds with the aim of open data. There’s a need for common standards for the data itself so that it can be used and shared across different systems or alongside other types of data. It’s also critical that it does not impact on people’s privacy. In addition, there’s increasing recognition of the value of data as taonga and the need to ensure Māori have sovereignty over their data.

Government has a big part to play

We often think of technology innovations as the preserve of tech firms and start-ups, but if data and technology are going to help our infrastructure then the government, as the owner of much of our infrastructure, will also need to play a big part.  

Work is already underway on a national digital strategy, but the government could also encourage technology use and open data when planning or procuring infrastructure. This gives industry an incentive to invest and be creative in what it brings to the table. Government can help set the standards and requirements for sharing the data that industry collects. It just needs to build in flexibility to allow for technology changes when it does so.

It’s not all about the new

Open data and new technology aren’t just about what the future might bring. There’s plenty to be done now, with many existing technologies we could be making better use of to help meet our infrastructure challenges. These include everything from telehealth, helping to reduce the need for clinics in remote places by allowing doctors to treat patients remotely, to energy storage for saving electricity, to simply digitising some of the more repetitive parts of the consenting process for construction.  

By making the most of what’s already out there, we can get a head start when it comes to adopting the technologies of the future, upskilling our workforce and creating an infrastructure system ready to seize new opportunities.

Some of the changes we’ll need to make

Data and technology can be a powerful tool in helping New Zealand solve its infrastructure challenges, but seizing this opportunity means making changes.  

The New Zealand Infrastructure Strategy explores some of the changes we’ll need to make, including: 

  • Using data to optimise the use of existing infrastructure. 
  • Investing in understanding infrastructure performance. 
  • Making digital and data technology part of projects from the very outset. 
  • Making data open with shared and common standards that anyone can use. 
  • Making greater use of data that will open up future technologies. 
  • Sharing infrastructure intelligence to gain insights from a range of different users.