Conceptual site models of the future

 #TLDR From paper and light tables to solution focused perspectives of big data – always in support of decision making


In the middle of the night in July 1969, a father wakes his young son and sits him in front of a black and white television with the words “Watch – you will remember this”.  In 2009 that son as he delivered the 10th Geological Society Glossop Lecture quoted the second phrase that Neil Armstrong spoke on setting foot on the moon – a description of the ground and its bearing capacity.  Earlier this year the son sat transfixed as the Mars 2020 mission landed a drilling rig and a helicopter with precision on the Red Planet. Over the past few weeks he has put together slides of the surface of the planet and applied the principles of terrain evaluation to a surface he will never visit, but others might.

In managing the risks from land contamination, the conceptual site model is pivotal.  It allows the competent contaminated land assessor and remediator to distil data and information and provide an interpretation to inform clients, regulators and communities and to support the decisions of “to remediate or not to remediate”.  Conventionally such models have been drawn as plans and cross sections on paper – physical or digital – in recognition of the adage that as Frederick R. Barnard in his 1921 Printer's Ink put it “a picture paints a thousand words”.

In recent years software dedicated to developing interactive and integrated conceptual site models have been developed – LQM’s Judith Nathanail worked with Keynetix and today with the British Geological Survey on KeyCSM and Groundhog Professional respectively.  Landmark’s Envirocheck Analysis assembles historical maps and environmental data at speeds and with accuracy unimaginable where such spatial integration was done on a light table or up against a window pane.  Such digitalisation of the early stages of the Preliminary Risk Assessment – to use the Environment Agency’s terminology in the Land Contamination Risk Management guidance issued late last year – provides an essential building block for evaluating risk and discerning the critical uncertainties that the intrusive investigation to follow will aim to resolve.

Augmented reality already allows us to look at ground and ‘see’ the underlying geological model.  If we are to manage land contamination better then understanding it and its potential to interact with the environment including our projects is essential.

Over the past three decades, computer aided decision making has relied on software, hardware and peopleware.  At different times, one or other aspect has been the bottleneck.  In the land contamination context, today the aspects would be big data handling (hardware), information processing (software ) and domain specific interpretation (data scientists and land contamination practitioners).  Perhaps this will take us to a place where we no longer need models as “simplifications of reality”. Rather we will be savouring the full smorgasbord of data focusing on those dishes of most relevance to the decision to be made – a non linear, challenge-resolving way of interacting with rich three dimensional, time series data of specified quality. 

Until then, risks assessments still need to be made, planning applications submitted, remediation projects verified.


Paul Nathanail is GHD’s Technical Director of Contamination Assessment and Remediation


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