Delving deeper into subsurface data

This blog, by Rhiannon Law at the Urban Big Data Centre (UBDC), is reposted from the UBDC website. 

As you walk along city streets you probably aren’t thinking much about what lies beneath the surface of the pavement, but there is a lot happening down there. Everything from transport systems, utilities and even people’s homes are moving underground as space is at a premium on the surface of our cities. Working with subsurface data – such as that available through our data collections at UBDC – can provide vital insights into this valuable, and increasingly crowded, space.

Going underground

One reason for studying the subsurface is to identify and monitor potential hazards, such as disused shallow coal mines, land instability and existing utility infrastructure. This knowledge can help to ensure that construction projects are correctly sited.

For example, a recent BBC news article noted that mapping areas of subsidence and uplift could allow for risks to be factored into construction plans for the High Speed 2 rail link. The British Geological Survey (BGS) has also noted that “The Department of Transport estimates that street works account for an estimated annual cost of £4.3 billion. Meanwhile, the Treasury estimated in 2013 that greater cross-infrastructure collaboration can save the economy an estimated £3 billion.” This clearly demonstrates a need for more integrated surface and subsurface data that can be managed in a coordinated way to prevent unnecessary economic and environmental costs.

The human cost of not studying the subsurface could also be high. You may remember back in March 2013 when two piling drills broke through a railway tunnel near Old Street Station in London. No-one was hurt in this incident, thanks to the vigilance of a train driver, but it’s a clear example of the dangers of doing works above ground when there is an incomplete view of the conditions below the ground.

Under the surface of future cities

As well as assessing potential hazards, subsurface data can be used to identify opportunities in our cities. Glasgow is a perfect example of a city with complex subsurface issues. Its industrial past has left behind long-abandoned tunnel systems. Many of these disused mines could potentially find a new use warming homes in the city, according to scientists at the BGS. The first step in this £9m project will be to drill boreholes at various sites, which will then be filled with instruments to monitor variables such as temperature and water flow. This data will then be used to determine whether the warm water that exists under Glasgow can be used to heat homes and, if so, whether this can be rolled out in other urban areas across the UK.

It has also been suggested that the future of transport will be under our cities, rather than the vision imagined in films like Blade Runner where vehicles hover above the skyscrapers. Technology entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Boring Company has already started to create tunnels in order to test a system that could magnetically propel cars and pods through LA below ground using Hyperloop technology. Although Musk’s plan will be for private users, there is obviously an opportunity for more public transport systems to move underground.

Our Subsurface Dataset and your research

As the space below our feet becomes more crowded, monitoring and mapping the subsurface and ensuring the resulting information is shared will become crucial for the future of our cities. We understand this need at UBDC and we are able to provide access (for non-commercial research use) to the British Geological Survey’s Accessing Subsurface Knowledge (ASK) Dataset – an output from its Clyde Urban Super Project (CUSP) covering the greater Glasgow conurbation (from Motherwell and Wishaw in the east to Greenock and Port Glasgow in the west of the city). The data offers sub-surface descriptions of the Clyde valley, including both models and raw data. Individual datasets offer subsurface bedrock geology and uncertainty data as well as superficial deposits geology and uncertainty data.

As we’ve highlighted above, there may be many potential uses of subsurface data but we’d love to hear your ideas. What would you use this data for? What other datasets would you link to subsurface data?