Data: the solid foundation of infrastructure projects

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The Productivity Commission is investigating investment in Australia's public infrastructure. It has been told that open access to government and industry data will be ‘transformational’ for major infrastructure projects.

Last November the Government asked the Productivity Commission to undertake a six-month public inquiry into ways to encourage private financing and funding for major infrastructure projects, including issues relating to the high cost and the long lead times associated with these projects. A draft report was released in March on which comments were sought and public hearings held. The Commission's final report will be provided to the Government in late May 2014.

On release of the draft report the Commission said it had "found an abundance of flaws, mythologies and forgone opportunities in infrastructure financing, funding and procurement." It outlined a proposed process for improving infrastructure investment across all levels of government that it said would lead to increased private investment.

Almost 200 submissions were received, one of which came from National ICT Australia (NICTA), a government funded information technology research body. NICTA CEO Hugh Durrant-Whyte told the Commission's public hearing that open access to government and industry data would revolutionise the way infrastructure projects are planned and implemented.

“Making all the relevant data freely available would not only change the way we approach large infrastructure projects, it would also make larger supply chain planning possible," he said. "This is particularly crucial as state and federal governments look to accelerate infrastructure investment over the next five years in the midst of tough budget environments."

According to NICTA, "Technological advances over the last three years have created a fundamental shift in how infrastructure should be planned for, built and maintained in the future. New data analytics and optimisation techniques, for example, can now provide unprecedented insight into major projects at critical points."

NICTA argues that public infrastructure investment can be better informed, funded, designed, constructed and operated by using Smart ICT. This, it says, would lead to better value for governments, business and taxpayers and greater productivity from the assets themselves. "Smart ICT can also optimise the use of existing infrastructure and enable better decision-making about which new infrastructure to invest in the future."

One example given by NICTA shows how smart ICT could reduce the costs of maintaining Australia's 140,000 kilometres of network of water mains. "Each year, around 7,000 breaks occur, costing taxpayers roughly $1.4b in reactive repairs and maintenance and consequential damage," NICTA said.

In collaboration with several water utilities NICTA has developed a new approach to predict the likelihood of water pipe failure. "The software creates a statistical model of each pipe within a network using multiple internal and external data sets including current and historic data related to the age, type, material and size of a pipe, as well as soil composition, external pressure and other factors. By using all the available data this enables a greater number of faulty pipes to be identified and repaired before they break, leading to significant cost savings."

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