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‘Singapore and China are much more advanced in 3D underground utility mapping; Hong Kong is yet to catch up’

Oualid Ben Ali, University of Sharjah, UAE
Dr King Wong
Convenor, IIUS and CEO, UtilityINFO Group (TUG), Hong Kong

Hong Kong loses around HKD 6 billion every year owing to utility incidents. Proper and accurate underground mapping could help to save at least HKD1 bn each year, says King Wong, Convenor, IIUS and CEO, the UtilityINFO Group (TUG).

Please tell us about The Utility INFO Group and its area of operation.

The Utility INFO Group (TUG) comprises of five entities; Consulting (Management), Surveying (Location and Condition), Training & Education, Database (GIS with BIM) and Call Center. All these entities have different purposes. For Consulting, we help the major developers, contractors, or government to make designs for routing etc. We check on crashing systems by having maps at 1:100 scale and of course we also develop our own programme to check all the crashing, which is called IDMS (Integrated Data Management System). The system is in its second phase. For Surveying, location is an important element. One can answer questions like where, how deep, how big with the help of location. For Training and Education, we have certificate courses, diploma courses and we also helped setting up a degree course at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The degree course was launched in 2009, and now it is in its third intake. We also offer overseas courses for students from Sabah, Kuala Lumpur, Macao SAR, the Mainland China, etc. All the courses are given accreditation under the umbrella of HKIUS (Hong Kong Institute of Utility Specialists) and International Institute of Utility Specialists (IIUS). We also provide training programmes to government agencies.

The fourth one is Database, whenever we do a survey, to the best resolution is of +/- 165mm, because we also have 250-300, depending on which stage, we have the planning stage with +/- 300mm, confidence level to 80%, design stage +/- 250mm, confidence level to 85%, work stage +/- 200mm, confidence level to 90% and investigation stage+/- 165mm, confidence level to 95% the best. All these are requirements from HKIUS. Why we can do for investigation, but if you really on the planning stage, you don’t need that high precision, so why bother to pay that much.

Our database helps in conducting some analysis during the time of water pipe burst. If there is a pipe burst, which areas will suffer, where to shut valves, etc. We will not sell our data. We just provide consultancy and training services.

The Call Center is also our crucial element. The policy of ‘call before you dig’ is quite common in Europe, US and Australia. In Asia this is not so common. The policy encompasses an idea that if you have something urgent, you can dial the hotline number and someone will come within 2 hours before you start digging in a particular area. They will come with the right equipment, which we call 4R: Right Person, Right Equipment, Right Preparation and Right Price.

Has the Utility Info Group managed to create a full 3D map of the underground utility in Hong Kong?

Not entirely, we have completed about 30-35% at the moment. Hong Kong is a very congested place and we need data about our underground assets. We have around 40-50 Competent Persons on standby, whenever you call, they will go out and arrive at the site within 2 hours. We have divided Hong Kong into 40 different districts, so they cover a small area and understand all the areas well. We can complete the survey and give the draft plan in one day. Of course the draft (also final) plan will be different from the record plan. The record plan may not contain all the data. Our major customers include everyone from government agencies to railway utilities, from contractors to consultants, architects, surveyors, etc.

Over ground 3D mapping is quite fine in Hong Kong as we can collect data relatively easy but collecting underground data is difficult. What we can do is when there is data, we can try to have the 3D map. The technology is there. Building Information Modeling (BIM) for example, is not something new in Hong Kong. But when we talk about BIM for Utility or BIM for infrastructure, it is something new. And one cannot just dig out the road to get the data. BIM for Infrastructure is a new profession in HKIUS which was started in April 2013.

Countries like Singapore and China have made much more advancement in 3D mapping. Hong Kong is yet to catch up. In Shanghai there is a government directive to have all the maps in 3D. They want all their buildings to be mapped in 3D and they are paying private companies and universities for it. This kind of directive is not available in Hong Kong.

What other technology you are using?

We have our own system, the IDMS and also another system called ID Marker, they together becomes our utility management platform. We also use ground penetrating radar. It is not difficult to procure the equipment, but to operate it and then analyse the results is. A radar is not that expensive, it can cost us around $2,000,000. But to operate it and find results is very difficult, as one needs proper training and experience for it. We need someone who can do data mining and present it to the client.

Are you planning to take your expertise outside Hong Kong?

We already have. We provided training to the surveyors from Kuala Lumpur, Sabah, Macao SAR and from Mainland China other than those in HKSAR. That is why we helped to start the International Institute of Utility Specialist (IIUS) last year (2013). It was established on 1st November last year during our international conference (ICUMAS 2013) and was witnessed by some 300 from over 20 countries. We have our conferences every other year previously and this year (2014) we are going outside Hong Kong to China in Beijing. Next year we wish to be in Malaysia, maybe in Kuala Lumpur, in Sabah and then we can go to places like Taiwan or Singapore.

Recently we did an interview with Ron Singh, the Chief Surveyor of the Oregon Department of Transportation in US, who is active proponent of 3D modelling for utilities. He says that today’s highway construction work involves a complete survey of the area in the beginning. Instead he proposes that we should do the most extensive survey during the construction and post-construction phases rather than doing it upfront before design. What are your views on this?

Something like this is not quite possible as one cannot open the whole ground. So one has to rely on the non-destructive surveying, which is utility survey. In fact there are 3 levels. One is the planning stage, second the design stage and last the works stage. For the planning and design stage, one basically needs the whole coverage, but precision is not that high. During works stage one digs for a smaller area as they concentrate on that area, so they need high precision.

So maybe we can move at a process like this — keep the model open, so the initial survey is not only the most important one, every time a work happens, new data goes into the 3D model. Does that sound feasible?

I proposed this kind of model to the Hong Kong government some 15 years ago. But it was not feasible as Hong Kong utilities are owned by both private and government, and in government they are owned by different departments. I proposed the same for Kuala Lumpur and Sabah. The government should form an office, and we are willing to help in formulating the regulation, the standard and conduct trainings. And then they divide a city into different areas and survey up to the design stage, that is 85% within +/- 250mm and then they can open for use, however before they dig, they must come to ask for high precision survey by the authorised person, that is what I call the right person. Then the data will keep updating.

It has been difficult to quantify the cost and benefit of improving the location and other information about underground utilities. However some recent studies have begun to put an estimated figure on this. Have you done any kind of study or reached a conclusion regarding the benefits of having accurate information about underground utilities?

Yes, we conducted a study in Hong Kong in 2008. Every year utility incidents cost the city about HKD 6 billion approx. And every year we pay about less than a billion to do the survey. If we pay double, say HKD 2 billion, we can save at least HKD 3 billion. We will still have incidents to be honest, but losses will be half while your cost increases from HKD 1 billion to HKD 2 billion. So you still save HKD 1 billion. Also, the importance is your living standard will be increase dramatically. For example, if you will have less power outages or pipe bursts.

What is your opinion of the land management and information system in Hong Kong?

The basemap data of Hong Kong is quite good. We have maps at scale between 1:20,000 and 1:1,000. Information regarding buildings, streets, schools etc are all available on these base maps. However, such kind of information is not always available in the public domain, one has to pay for it. We have a website which is like a property agent. The site offers a Google Maps-like map which provides the details of all the land, property, railway lines etc of Hong Kong. This information is available for free. This website has been developed by a private programming company. However, these maps are not in a high resolution. Many private layers provide maps at a resolution of 1:100 which comes with a price.