Has Keynetix hit upon the elusive internet 'killer-application' with its new web-based geotechnical monitoring system?
The heady days of the dotcom boom may by a distant memory and very few people have got rich on the back of it, but the internet has certainly not gone away.
Use of the internet is still increasing exponentially, more people have broadband connections, and the web-based applications beginning to emerge have such major benefits that you genuinely wonder how you ever got by without them.
One such case is monitoringpoint. com, a web-based remote geotechnical instrumentation monitoring system developed by Keynetix.
Development started four years ago, when researchers at the University of Southampton were studying ground movements during construction of the Ashford box as part of the first phase of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.
The project generated a huge volume of monitoring data which, partly because it was a research project, had to be shared by a large number of organisations based in a variety of locations. Initially the Southampton team uploaded the data loggers into an Excel spreadsheet and this was simply emailed to the interested parties.
But after six months, as the database built, the shear size of the spreadsheet files made emailing and interrogating the data very slow.
Southampton's Dr David Richards mentioned the problem to former postgraduate research colleague Dr Roger Chandler, now managing director at Keynetix. Out of this, Keynetix and University of Southampton started looking at the potential of storing the data on a web server, accessible through a browser to anybody authorised to do so.
The advantage of the approach is not just instant accessibility from anywhere with an internet connection; but anyone looking at trends and generating graphs need only pull down the relevant data. Critically this means the whole dataset does not have to be pulled in first.
Initial development was 'on the basis that it seemed like a good idea' says Chandler, but this sowed the seeds for what has become monitoringpoint. com.
With the database for the Ashford box project now in excess of two million data readings, the benefits become obvious.
Like most really good ideas, the principle is very straightforward - the trick is making sure it is well executed. The technical aspects of uploading the data from site to the web involves a 'mediator' computer which automatically rings up the site data logger, collects the data, runs a quality assurance check and turns the data into AGS format, before it is uploaded on to the web server.
The system certainly proved itself early in its development, when Richards took a sabbatical to the University of Western Australia. He was able to keep in touch with the Ashford project by accessing the data directly, available almost in real time, through the web.
One morning, logging on from Perth, he noticed the piezometers in Ashford were going crazy, and surprised his site-based researcher by immediately ringing to ask if it had been raining heavily or whether something more troubling was happening. As it happens, it was just exceptional rainfall.
Unsurprisingly the commercial manifestation of the program includes standard alarm systems by text or mobile phone. The beauty is, when an alarm is triggered, monitoringpoint allows a considered judgement to be made on the spot on whether it is a real emergency or a non-urgent problem, without users having to hotfoot it to site or office.
According to Chandler, two things have been pivotal in developing the software from the original collaboration agreement between Southampton and Keynetix First was interest from dewatering specialist WJ Groundwater. It had already developed a basic web-based data distribution system, but had gone down the route of uploading regular updates of Excel files on to its website.
But it too had encountered the problem of large unworkable spreadsheets and felt the system was not sufficiently interactive. Perhaps more importantly WJ found that very few of its clients were using it.
As a result, it got involved in monitoringpoint. com in early 2002 and has provided the input to commercialise the original software.
WJ now uses the system to keep track of its projects around the world, the benefits of which were demonstrated earlier this year during dewatering for the Crossrail ventilation shaft constructed below the Moorhouse development in central London. In the past six months, 15 different engineers have accessed the Moorhouse piezometer database - which now has 64,000 readings - including engineers from Arup, Crossrail, Skanska and WJ.
As Chandler says: 'It is a very good example of how monitoringpoint can be used. Lots of engineers have needed access to the data, and they've been able to do so when they've needed it, without having to request the most up to date readings and then waiting for a response.'
The second major 'external' boost to monitoringpoint's evolution was University of Southampton securing a DTI e-science grant to develop a 3D viewer which will fit within it. The facility to view a 3D model of the ground, showing the position and readings of instrumentation relative to the construction, should significantly improve engineers' ability to visualise and understand the significance of the instrumentation. This level of sophistication in monitoring has previously been available only through expensive bespoke instrumentation contracts, unjustifiable except on mega projects. Keynetix plans to launch the viewer by the end of the year.
For small projects, Keynetix has launched the system on a monthly fee basis of just £90, which includes storing up to 10,000 data readings. As Chandler says, this could happily run a couple of small projects.
Being web-based also means the service is software-free, so users do not need to install programs or upgrades. And as Chandler says, 'because people are comfortable using websites they get to grips with the functionality quickly and have few problems compared to most specialist engineering software.'
The flip side of the internet platform is security-related nervousness among some clients over putting data on to a website and in storing it on a remote internet server.
But as Chandler says, 'we place top priority on the security and safety of our clients' data.All our servers are housed in proprietary facilities with maximum security and protected power supplies.' Additionally, he says, the company employs 'third party professionals' (read 'poacher turned game-keeper' hackers) to attack the site and expose potential security weaknesses, so they can be remedied.
Concerns have also been raised that should something go wrong on a project, data held on monitoringpoint. com may become highly sensitive even among those with authorised access.
This might be seen as a sad reflection on present attitudes to partnering, but as Chandler says 'the idea is you use this system to help prevent things going wrong. Clients spend a lot of money setting up instrumentation systems, but don't always think about who's looking at the data and who's responsible for disseminating the information.'
So far, growth of monitoringpoint has been by word of mouth. Mott MacDonald has started to use it and other companies have expressed strong interest in its potential.