Improving Access

This blog series Technology Highlight will explore some of the ways that investments in innovation lead to better outcomes for infrastructure and public safety. When technology advances, it often becomes cheaper, more widely available and accessible, and helps facilitate faster, safer, and greener projects.

While technology is critical to every industry, the damage prevention sector is the primary focus of this series. That is because much of the rise in technology has implicated damage prevention on both sides: more underground facilities and better technology to avoid damage. In 1994, government and industry experts estimated that around 20 million miles of pipe, cable, and wire ran underneath the ground in the United States. Since that time, the Internet has matured into a vast network of cables and wires of its own, possibly expanding the mileage of underground facilities by the millions.

Damage prevention is the process of protecting and avoiding harm those critical underground pipelines, cables, and wires that may be struck in digging projects. Because these facilities are hidden beneath the surface of the ground, we rely on sensors and mapping technology to reveal them, and the locator process to spray paint and mark their presence. The technology needed to safely and effectively locate these hidden facilities has improved as well, with advanced ground penetrating radar, radio frequency identification, global positioning systems, and more, not to mention smartphones and tablets to display and share information.

Perhaps the most important feature of technological evolution is the way that it improves access. What may have been a mere prototype or high-dollar gadget last decade is often now widely available. Consider that cell phones began as tools for corporate businessmen and now find themselves under the ownership of elementary students, parents, tradesmen, and everyone in between. This is possible not only because costs fell dramatically, but technology improved the design and functionality.

Bulky cordless phones were once held in bags and briefcases, but can now slide inconspicuously into a pocket. Moreover, phones were once devices with the limited intent of providing voice communication. Today the word “phone” can include anything from a device for high-definition photography and video to a GPS mapping tool, not to mention a facilitator of text-based communication and perhaps incomprehensibly – a full-service encyclopedia of virtually all digitally recorded human knowledge.

Improvements and access to cell phones have made the world a better, more efficient, and safer place. On the work site, cell phones, tablets, and laptops allow for realtime communication with engineers, architects, boardrooms, regulators, and emergency responders. The obvious benefits include ability to clarify ambiguities, improve the quality of work, and if needed, report incidents within seconds.

Modern mobile devices – cell phones, tablets, and laptops – also include high quality cameras and photo libraries, which allow excavators, locators, utility operators, and 811 One-Call centers to share information and store data. Utilizing these low-cost and widely used tools helps everyone in the damage prevention process arrive and stay on the same page and eliminate confusion about the presence or location of underground facilities at a work site.

Through One-Call centers, electronic and enhanced positive response allows excavators to check on the status of a locate job to ensure all known utilities have responded and marked the site. Participants can also share or view photos, ticket data, sketches, and other information about the site to improve understanding about what lies below. Amazingly, these can be completed and viewed through common mobile devices.

Because of innovation and competition, phones and other mobile devices are low cost, widely available, and reliable. Virtually no one in the damage prevention process is without a cell phone today, and that has led to the ability to quickly and safely communicate with other stakeholders in the process. As technology improves, even elsewhere in the economy, it is likely to make an impact on damage prevention.

Corporate, military, and government research and development engineers likely did not contemplate damage prevention stakeholders as end users of devices for digital photography, information sharing, or GPS mapping. Yet because of these innovations, access in terms of cost and availability has been improved. Today, excavators and locators can complete a phone-based positive response, clarify information about a dig site, pass along digital photographs, and provide additional notes about a site. The world is safer because of it.


Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy


Interested in other technology highlights? Stay tuned for more ways technology is making damage prevention safer.


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.