Report on the joint BGS/Ground Board informal discussion, Geotechnics on the information superhighway, held at the ICE on 3 March 1999, by S von Roon, Kvaerner Cementation Foundations.
The meeting, chaired by R Chartres of Bullen Consultants, set out to give geotechnical engineers an insight into new computer technology and the geotechnical information available on the internet. It was presented by Melvin England, of Kvaerner Cementation Foundations and Andrew Bond of Geocentrix.
England manages Kvaerner Cementation Foundation's research and innovation department. He was responsible for the introduction of a relatively large internal intranet and the firm's internet pages and is also involved in the general development of the company's computer networks. Bond is managing director of engineering software developer Geocentrix.
Using computers in geotechnical engineering
England began by describing how the information superhighway has found its way into a geotechnical engineering company.
The well known applications of web design were described:
the intranet, which is generally made available only within an organisation
the internet, which is available to the public extranets, which are internet web sites that combine information from more than one organisation. Access to these can be made from anywhere in the world.
England referred to a recent analogy in the national press that the information superhighway is one of the biggest innovations since the motorcar and remarked that many people might not have even have noticed it, as we do not normally see much tangible evidence. The analogy was explored further: traffic is increasing, congestion becoming more common; and there are good drivers and bad drivers but most people eventually get to their desired destination. It is anticipated to have an enormous impact on all our lives in the future although to what extent is still unknown.
He remarked that the key to the information superhighway may be summarised as the ability to communicate digital data. There were many developments in this field, he said, for example, communications over the mobile phone network.
The particular use of the mobile digital communication infrastructure can be exploited by geotechnical contractors. Kvaerner Cementation has found this can be usefully employed in several stages of the 'engineering cycle' - in foundation design, installation, monitoring, testing and interpretation (Figure 1). Computer designs can be made available on site practically instantaneously, England said.
Rig-mounted installation monitoring computers are now being fitted to continuous flight auger and driven piling rigs. Kvaerner Cementation has automated the concreting phase in cfa piling and has just completed the development of a fifth generation rig computer which can communicate directly with head office, allowing immediate transmission of installation data for checking (Figure 2).
Testing is the third element in the cycle. England described Kvaerner Cementation's automated static load pile testing system which can be left unattended to carry out the test safely, according to a prescribed schedule, applying and maintaining constant load increments. Remote access to the host computer allows real time data to be viewed from any location worldwide.
Test data can be analysed to forecast, for example, when a particular settlement rate would be achieved. Further, interpretation of the complete pile behaviour can be made before the test is completed so that delays in making any adjustments to the design or subsequent piles installed can be minimised.
Geotechnical sites on the internet
The second part of the evening was presented by Andrew Bond. He described the growth of the internet in recent years and explained the prospects for future developments. Finally, he gave a guided tour of some of the more interesting sites.
Growth of the world wide web (www)
The use of the internet has grown astronomically in recent years. Regular surveys of internet use are carried out to provide feedback to the industry. Bond presented a graph (Figure 3) showing projected growth of users until 2000 and said this growth is expected to continue in the foreseeable future.
Writing web sites
Bond said there are now web site authoring tools available which make it simple to write web sites without having to master computer programming: modern graphical tools avoid the need to learn html, the rather arcane language of the web.
A guided tour of the worldwide web
Web sites are generally created to serve one of three purposes:
1. To make money (over 80% of web sites fall into this category).
2. To disseminate information or opinions (conference organisers, professional societies, publishers, research organisations, software producers, standards organisations and universities).
3. To stroke their author's ego.
The second category includes professional societies, such as the national engineering institutions (the American Society of Civil Engineers, the ICE and the Engineering Council), the national and international societies for geosciences, special interest groups and societies.
Geotechnical conferences are now using the world wide web to publish all types of information. The more sophisticated can be used to book places and accommodation online.
National research organisations that publish their work on the internet include the British Geological Society, Building Research Establishment, CIRIA, Steel Construction Industry and Transport Research Laboratory. Overseas organisations include CERF, the Laboratoire Centre des Ponts et Chausees, Pile-Info plus many others.
Another category includes major geotechnical projects, including the UK's Jubilee Line Extension and the Boston Central Artery project site - 'BigDig'. These sites are updated regularly and users can keep track of the project as it progresses.
Bond said that the quality of information varies widely. Expensively produced sites can lack depth and carry little technical information, whereas there are enthusiasts' sites which are run on a small budget but offer very detailed information. Examples of these are the liquefaction web site and the CPT site.
Finding sites on the internet
Bond said the biggest question was how to go about finding sites of interest?
'Surfing' the web, he said, took some knowledge of how the web works.
The most obvious way to find an item of interest on the web is to use one of the many search engines available. The 'big six' are:
Alta Vista, Excite, HotBot, InfoSeek, Lycos and Yahoo!
Other types of search engines are the meta-search engines. These poll the 'big six' engines when a search is submitted, which in theory removes database biases. The problems with this type of search is that information is second hand and is less focused than that obtained from search engines. The most direct route to sites is through subject based 'gateways'.
Publishing on the internet
The internet can provide information in a completely new format. Bond used a page from an article on the New York subway on the National Geographic web site as an example (Figure 4):
This page can be scrolled up and down and provides 'added value' over the printed article because additional media can be accessed by clicking on icons on the page. Animation can also be used on web sites but the speaker said that these concepts have yet to take hold on geotechnical sites.
Bond said the problem with internet publishing is that information is generally provided freely. The fact that it can be obtained so cheaply does not however mean that it does not cost anything to produce. One way of getting around this problem is to provide extracts of articles as 'tasters', which encourage interest in the reader who may then buy the hard copy, or pay for a more detailed electronic copy.
Several journals, including Geotechnique and ICE Proceedings are now available electronically, at a cost. There are also journals which are only published on the web.
These include Pile Buck, the Electronic Journal of Geotechnical Engineering and Pileline Online.
Top geotechnical sites
Bond then presented a list of, in his opinion, the best geotechnical sites:
1.Boston's Central Artery Project (www.bigdig.com)
2.London's Jubilee Line Extension (www.londontransport.co.uk)
3.Electronic Journal of Geotechnical Engineering (www.ejge.com)
4.Hong Kong Geotechnical Engineering Office (www.info.go.hk/ced/geo)
5.Pile-Info (now incorporated into the Geoforum web site on www.geoforum.com)
6.12th European Conference on SM&GE (link on www.wheretogeo.com)
7.ASCE's Civil Engineering Research Foundation (www.asce.org)
8.Geotechnical and Geo-environmental Software Directory (www.ggsd.com)
9.Pile Buck (www.pilebuck.com)
A quick poll showed that most of the audience had used the internet to find geotechnical information. Questions fell into categories:
Is the Internet going to change scientific conferences?
Video links are already used via telephone lines and ISDN lines and one member of the audience described an internal company conference via a satellite link between the London head office and the Hong Kong office. Travel cost savings were considerable. Another participant described a conference where one of the delegates was unable to travel to Canada and presented his paper via a video link from eastern Europe.
Will publishing be done electronically?
There was a lot of interest in electronic publishing, with discussions on whether electronic journals would replace hard copies, because of the advantage of speed at which material can be published, the ease with which it can be archived and the detail that can be given.
Recently, internet bookseller Amazon.com has taken a large share of the market from traditional booksellers by offering big reductions for ordering books online. The bookshops' failure to respond to this threat has meant that they have lost part of their market place forever.
The speakers pointed out that the internet is just another medium of communication and therefore will find its own place without superseding previous accepted media, such as books. An example was given that television did not replace the newspaper.
Can the internet be used for 'networking' of civil/geotechnical engineers?
Worry about the use of internet address lists for mailing lists was expressed. Bond explained that most people's details are probably already on several databases and that the impact would be minor.
Development of the internet
Concern about overloading of the internet was expressed. There have been plans for creating a 'second internet', purely for the use of academics. Bond said that this would go against the ethos of the net in its current format, which is the spirit of a 'free' problem-solving community for the dissemination of knowledge.
There was also concern regarding the constant threat of catching viruses. The opinion was that these can be controlled by using the appropriate software, which does however need to be regularly updated.