Underneath the feet of every American are millions of miles of buried cables, electrical lines, pipelines, water systems, and more. This vast network of underground utilities is coursing with the information, power, and resources we rely on every day.

But because it is buried under our yards, sidewalks, gardens, parking lots, ponds, and buildings, we cannot see it. This is a major problem when construction crews and excavators need to break ground for a grand new project or simple maintenance job. Almost every day in America, someone digs into the earth and strikes a critical piece of infrastructure – sometimes causing power outages or Internet loss for a community, but often striking hazardous material pipelines and leading to gas leaks and explosions.

If only the ground were transparent, we could save money, time, and human lives.

The bright side is that while we cannot see underground with our bare eyes, technology and communications platforms give us such vision through virtual maps. But to take advantage of these technologies, cooperation and best practices are essential.

The national Call Before You Dig program directs all people – backyard diggers to construction – to call 811 before breaking ground. This reaches the state One-Call center, where 811 personnel contact utility companies so they can go mark the ground with spray paint and flags to designate where their cables, power lines, and pipelines are.

The problem is that sometimes the markers are not accurate, they are manipulated by weather or passersby, or the digger does not heed them well. This leads to dangerous circumstances. Even when all the proper procedures are followed, accidents happen.

Often though, the proper procedures are not followed. Not calling in the first place is almost a guarantee that some type of incident will occur. But after calling, a chain of events leaves room for error at every stage. This is where technology comes in. With detailed virtual maps, streamlined communication, site photos, and other data to support spray paint and flag marking, the potential for error drastically falls.

It is incumbent on everyone to have safety at the top of mind when deciding to dig into something opaque like the earth. Especially knowing how many things may be just under the surface. Calling 811 is a matter of personal and public health and safety. And improving technological and communications practices throughout the process will save time, money, and lives.


Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.