Building a new future for infrastructure with ITRC

Until recently planning infrastructure projects in a joined up way was not possible due to the size of the datasets and number of data providers involved.

Infrastructure is at the heart of the UK and global economy and productivity, running through transport, communication, energy, water supply and waste management systems. The processes of digitisation and electrification are leading to increased interdependence between infrastructure networks, whilst resource scarcity (e.g. water, energy) is also intensifying interdependencies, and therefore vulnerability to threats..

To prevent significant systemic disruption to our transport, economy, well-being or even loss of life, it’s essential that infrastructure is protected and scenarios explored to help counter threats such as cyberattacks, extreme climatic events, or accidents.

Substantial investment goes into infrastructure: the UK’s National Infrastructure Plan has set aside over £460 billion of investment for the next decade. This year’s budget includes £28.8billion pledged to a strategic roads investment package, £770m to improve transport infrastructure in cities, and new funding for fibre and 5G investment. Billions more could be spent if disaster struck major infrastructure nodes.

The Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC) has developed a unique and powerful set of computer tools, NISMOD (National Infrastructure Systems MODel), to bring infrastructure planning and modelling into new realms.

ITRC is based at University of Oxford and is a collaboration of seven universities plus over 50 industry and research partners from infrastructure policy and practice. NISMOD is the world’s first national infrastructure system-of-systems model to analyse long-term investment strategies.

An additional ITRC work programme focuses on Multi-Scale Infrastructure Systems Analytics (MISTRAL), working to develop an integrated analytics capability to inform infrastructure decision-making from local to global scale.


The world’s first national infrastructure system-of-systems model

In terms of computing the ITRC NISMOD solution is very different architecturally from what’s come before. It uses new database storage methods, new software and developments, and couples different database systems together through a federated database architecture, NISMOD-DB++. This allows it to ingest and analyse bigger datasets for big data projects, in real-time.

And as the data is stored more efficiently – in computing terms, the data is stored as a network not as a table – users benefit from faster access to datasets. The architecture has been designed to allow datasets to be stored in the most appropriate format and for them to be accessible through a single point.

In addition, as the system is not simplifying the data, it can be used for much more granular and fine scale analysis than was previously possible in big data projects.

It also allows researchers to use it to pose complex queries and to map relationships between data, something which was not previously possible within the database environment.


So what does this mean for government and public sector projects?

By 2020, the ITRC national infrastructure portal will be open to academia and industry as well as policymakers, providing access to infrastructure datasets, simulation and modelling results.

ITRC is already working with UK government, private sector, and overseas governments on projects including providing the analytical framework for the assessments carried out by the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission for the UK’s National Grid, HS2,  Department for Transport,  Defra, JBA on the risk of bridge scouring and floods, Caribbean Islands’ infrastructure needs with the UN, and Tanzania’s transport links with the World Bank.

This system-of-systems approach allows ITRC to explore a multitude of visualisation methods and technologies across sectors rather than being restricted to single sectors. Six different sector models are already in the database: transport, energy demand, energy supply, water supply, waste water, and solid waste.


Mapping interdependencies

The ability to map relationships between infrastructure assets also creates the opportunity to more easily carry out dependency and interdependency-based analysis.

This is critical for the Infrastructure Research Transitions Consortium as mapping and modelling systemic cascading failure across interdependent infrastructures or sectors is an essential part of its work to help safeguard the vital infrastructure upon which UK and global economy, health and communications depend.

For example, looking how the failure of electricity sub-stations would impact on other critical national infrastructure, including transport systems, water supply, telecommunications, health, education and business services.

The NISMOD-DB++ handling of infrastructure networks spatially allows models and simulation to be developed that can assess the locational vulnerability of infrastructure. This will allow new approaches to assessing infrastructure network resilience to be developed and to deliver new insights around infrastructure.

NISMOD will be used by governments, private sector companies, economists and researchers interested in the future of infrastructure systems and effects over time, from climate effects to economic scenarios and population dynamics.

The data will help inform the analysis, planning and design of national infrastructure in the UK and overseas, leading to more informed and economical decisions, and for modelling to be developed to help future-proof projects.


First published by Government & Public Sector Journal (pdf, 4.1 MB)