Buried Services – making the invisible visible


On the 2nd March the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE) is hosting a seminar “Improving visibility and resilience of our Buried Service” because “there remains no central repository of data for buried services and underground apparatus, nor any consistent means of sharing it

The introduction of a data standard for underground assets is a positive initiative in facilitating information sharing. However a central repository isn’t the only option and this blog briefly considers a federated approach. A future blog will comment on a hybrid system.

Federated Systems

Centralised, national solutions have a chequered history of success whether for adoption in a single organisation or across multiple organisations each with their own priorities and pressures whether they are commercial, financial, legal or security related.

For example, many will remember the national CSRWR (Centralised Street and Road Works Register) which was due to be implemented across England and Wales before being cancelled. CSRWR was replaced by a standard communication protocol called ETON (Electronic Transfer of Notices).  ETON enables street works software developers, and organisations with their own systems, to exchange data directly among themselves – a federated environment.  Originally intended as a temporary solution it’s so successful it continues in use today removing the need for a central system.

Federated multi-academy maintenance data
Federated systems communicating over the web in an ETON style solution.

ETON is an example of coopetition competitors working together on a common cause while retaining the ability for them to innovate and compete for market share. This is good for industry and good for customers.



Another example of a federated approach is that used in Open BIM which uses IFC (Industry Foundation Classes) as an “open, neutral data format”. Open BIM:-

  • Supports standardisation
  • Maintains choice in the market for users as “small and large software vendors can participate and compete on system independent, ‘best of breed’ solutions.”
  • Doesn’t restrict competition nor innovation

These Open BIM principles could be the foundation for a federated systems approach to managing buried services and underground assets. As well as the physical exchange of data though we need to consider how some-one wanting information about a particular location would achieve that without a central system.

The answer is that data standards and protocols enable organisations to exchange information and make enquiries without needing to be initiated by, or routed through, a central system. This also has the advantage of retaining control of asset information within the federated systems (whether in-house or commercial products) which asset owners may prefer for commercial, security and other reasons. It also ensures there’s no single point of failure.

Finally, The ICE agenda also describes how a system could be – “Easily accessible and free, with charge-able data/services downstream”.  Our initial focus should be on the need for an open standard and not the commercial model for the implementation of a central system.  The private sector has led the way in the development of freemium services and some existing service providers already offer free at the point of access services in this sector.

We should keep the market open and let free market forces influence how suppliers offer their services. Customer choice should be maintained. I wouldn’t want to be at the behest of a single supplier determining chargeable services – would you?


A standard framework and protocol for data exchange will help make the invisible visible. The physical implementation of this standard is another consideration and other alternatives such as federated systems:-

  • Encourage a vibrant and disparate software and services industry;
  • Stimulate innovation
  • Preserve customer choice.