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Get a grip on your data The potential benefits of computer data management for site investigations are huge. Peter Whittlestone outlines capabilities for geoenvironmental work.

COMPUTERS IN GEOTECHNICS

Data management is playing a growing role in the site investigation process. Changes in the focus of investigations, especially those for contaminated land, have led to increases in the amount of data collected. These investigations typically involve more exploratory holes, increased sampling and laboratory testing and the use of modern instrumentation which can also generate data at great rates.

At a fundamental level, data collected on site is pivotal in decision making. But increasing the amount of data does not necessarily improve our ability to understand the ground conditions, mainly because more data is harder to manage, process and communicate efficiently. The geotechnical engineering industry has traditionally been inefficient in data management, which can have a detrimental effect on the investigation quality and render much of the additional data worthless.

The answer lies in the appropriate application of information technology, but it is noticeable that even when more IT is used in geoenvironmental projects, there does not seem to be a corresponding reduction in data management and processing problems.

For the data provider (the site investigation contractor) the main problems are reporting deadlines. These increase the pressure on data management during the crucial compilation phase of the investigation and any inadequacy in the IT systems can cause problems in data consistency and integrity. Such problems usually result in data loss.

Similar problems also affect the data adviser (the consultant), who frequently has to absorb data from unwieldy paper reports or from partially compromised electronic files and generate information for design under increasingly constrained project timescales and budgets. The problems for each party are often connected and are frequently transferred and magnified as the data is used.

Over the last two years CL Associates has been developing techniques to improve geo- environmental data management. Particular emphasis on improving data accessibility and communication has not only brought about changes internally but is also generating interest among clients, not least because of the obvious benefits created by improved data management and advice during data collection, access and presentation.

However, commercially available data management systems for geoenvironmental applications are limited and tend to be focused toward specific formats and project types, while general purpose office software does not easily produce the required quality and quantity of output. As outlined above, it is not sufficient merely to collate data in a computer; the ability to access, process and reach conclusions from the data is of paramount importance.

The in-house data management system developed by CL Associates is based in Microsoft Office and compatible software. The system exploits the possibilities of interactions between different packages; for example using databases to store data, spreadsheets to analyse and manipulate data

and publishing or CAD packages to present data. Customising these packages has created a powerful database management and processing system and the programming environment allows rapid development of bespoke solutions that can evolve to meet both internal and project specific requirements.

These systems are also now in the process of being united with those of CL Associates' sister companies (site investigation contractors Soil Mechanics and Exploration Associates). This will create a robust base for internal data management as well as for external data provision.

Alongside the development of the data management system, effort has been applied to data access and communication, especially visualisation of data. In particular, advances in computer aided design and the internet are showing benefits for geoenvironmental data communication.

For some years, CAD packages have been used to present data in the form of plans and sections but new generation CAD packages, such as Bentley Systems' MicroStation, now provide a rich environment for engineering data presentation and communication. Robust connections to other Windows packages and systems along with advanced internet capabilities permit data and drawings to be linked, potentially revolutionising the ability to receive and digest information.

Linking the data management system to CAD and using inbuilt features normally associated with GIS packages allows data to be plotted in any spatial coordinate system and linked to other mapping or design data.

A further development allows the data management system to be accessed through CAD drawings. Drawing elements, such as borehole symbols, can be used to access a variety of data, such as drilling method, installation information and test data.

For example, a report of all arsenic contamination readings in exploratory holes in a sector of a site, over a certain depth range, or a particular stratum, could be requested by visually selecting the required holes using CAD rather than carrying out complex searches within the data management system itself.

This combination of access to data and integration with other engineering information creates a powerful design environment and an effective communication tool. Automated plotting also removes some human error and significantly improves data integrity, although experience has shown that a flexible in-house system provides site specific solutions which reflect the variable needs of engineering in the ground.

This idea has been advanced by using the internet. Data and drawings can be published in internet compatible formats which allow other parties to access the data without the need for CAD packages or extensive GIS experience.

Drawings with fully functional internet links can be embedded in html format documents which can be viewed and manipulated in internet browsers such as Netscape. These links can be to local files or to files on servers connected to the world wide web or similar.

Working in a similar way to the CAD link, remote users can view various data from the data provider's web site by simply picking points on the site plan.

Recognition of the fact that geoenvironmental engineering is founded in site specifics, and responding to these specifics in both data management and processing, is fundamental to the investigation process. Integration of experienced engineering staff with flexible software resources permits an adaptable approach to the problems of ground data management and communication.

Clearly, this type of data access and communication will not suit all projects and requires a level of collaborative engineering that is not always possible. But this technology is available and usable and further improvement in its functionality is likely to revolutionise how data is managed and communicated.

Peter Whittlestone is principal engineer at CL Associates.

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