Winter is usually a time where we take stock of the year, catch up with friends and family, huddle round a fire and approach the new year with optimism. However, for councils and local authorities, Winter presents significant operational challenges. For example, highway maintenance is both essential and very costly and that brings a unique set of challenges for the Local Authority, it’s teams and the community.
Changes in weather such as drops in temperature, increased rainfall and reduced light increase the risks to road users and our communities, with higher rates of accidents and disruption to core travel routes and pedestrianised areas of towns and cities meaning increased congestion and frustrated commuters.
Winter is coming…
The Highways Act 1980 states that “a highway authority is under a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that safe passage along a highway is not endangered by snow or ice.” which can lead to great expense if not sufficiently managed or mitigated. This is, therefore, expensive within itself. On a cold night with a frost forecast, UK highway authorities spread more than 35,000 tonnes of rock salt over 3,500 salting routes in order to keep the nation’s key roads open and safe, costing upwards of £50,000 per night for smaller cities.
And it’s not just ice that can creates issues. Flooding continues to cause huge disruption and highway authorities inevitably must also meet this challenge. Whilst the principle of flooding is natural, local authorities still hold liability with floodwater that escapes from its land. For example, if gullies get blocked and impact drainage capabilities, this leads to floodwater escaping onto neighbouring land, causing disruption and damage. If managed effectively through technology this can be prevented.
Let’s take a look at the current challenges around this.
Spiralling costs and inefficiencies
Many local authorities are struggling to cope with gritting demand. The process is riddled with inefficiencies and leads to continued increased costs. Alongside this and despite many Local Authorities declaring climate emergencies, these same inefficiencies cause spikes in carbon emissions and other environmental impacts.
The 2018 Winter Weather Survey highlighted that only 5% of respondent local authorities were planning to use less salt in the winter of 2018/19 than 2017/18, with 40% of respondents claiming that storage capacity was limiting the amount of salt they could supply and that they needed more. The 69% of councils that were increasing stocks were doing so to increase resilience, and with the winter of 2021 being the coldest in 10 years, there would be reason to believe that supply and stock has been stretched even further in more recent years. This is not sustainable.
Interestingly, 59% of respondent authorities stated that they were looking to share and distribute resources with other Local Authorities and members of the communities to support efforts to salt roads and monitor localised flooding. This suggests that highway authorities are looking for ways to support budgets and increase efficiencies. Despite the goodwilled nature of this approach, this creates new points of failure and limits operational capabilities.
Current system challenges
When it comes to how councils plan and prioritise winter maintenance there are challenges around the costs and effectiveness of current solutions. As shown, if the solution is just to grit more and increase salt stocks, there comes a point of diminishing returns where capacity becomes an issue and where other areas of concern rear their head. Moreover, Local Authorities are under pressure to deliver value for taxpayers; simply increasing the precept year on year is not a solution either
Many councils have investigated utilising technology to identify at risk areas from ice and flooding, often relying on weather station systems. Whilst these are effective in capturing data, due to the installation process, it can be costly to implement and maintain as well as cause significant disruption to citizens. Weather station systems are also expensive meaning significant upfront investment that does not meet the overall requirements of the Local Authority; it’s great technology but the wrong application.
Data collection and management across Local Authorities is often siloed and very manual. This results in teams losing time and being restricted in capabilities to deliver outcomes for residents in a timely, cost-effective manner. This inevitably means that wastage is significant; from raw materials to time, a blanket approach to the management of road infrastructure is not sustainable, especially in instances where community action is promoted. To mitigate this waste, to deliver value to communities, these actions must become more targeted and data-led.
Similar challenges are also applicable for flooding, drain and gully management, with an over reliance on manual, reactive intervention leading to increased maintenance costs but also inefficiencies in proactively managing potential risks or problems. Flooding, in the UK at least, is not exclusive to winter months and is becoming more and more important as flood plains are leveraged to grow housing requirements across the UK.
How IoT can help
Technical innovation based on Internet of Things technology has prompted many councils to stop and consider a new approach. Technology for the sake of technology is now a thing of the past.
The increasing availability of IoT networks and their ease of deployment has led to several councils putting in place IoT infrastructure to meet operational improvements and enable sound business outcomes. By enabling “things” to connect to the internet via sensors, some Local Authorities now better understand their response to winter maintenance. Not only does this mean adopting non-intrusive temperature sensing, but also remotely monitoring grit bin levels, traffic behaviour and gritter tracking to monitor end-to-end service delivery. A targeted, outcome-led approach can lead to significant operational efficiencies and fiscal cost savings through; better understanding the salt volume required, fuel cost estimates, active operation teams required, time saved during deployments and an agile planning process that considers changing weather patterns.
The real benefits of collecting all this data are realised when it is aggregated together within a platform. Data is pooled and then analysed using artificial intelligence and machine learning to understand trends between data such as air temperature, road temperature, traffic flow and salt levels to suggest optimal gritting routes and salt usage to reduce disruption to citizens and ensure holistic efficiency in the use of resources.
In our experience, a highway authority can achieve a reduction of the salt levels they usually distribute through a converged, data-led decision-making and planning process.
Authorities also have the option to decentralise this data too to support local or rural communities that manage their own winter maintenance. Whether that’s sending out automated alerts to grit certain areas or clear gullies. Moreover, due to a new community focus, it’s possible to enable 3rd party reporting and dashboarding that enables stakeholders to act without the need for manual monitoring or maintenance.
Focus on outcomes
Whilst some of this can sound daunting and confusing, the best approach you can take as a highway authority is to focus on the outcomes you want to deliver. As proven with existing winter maintenance approaches, just collecting the right data isn’t enough, it’s about how you use that data to better understand how services are delivered and to discover the story that the data is telling.
Being clear on what it is you want to achieve through the Internet of Things will help you get results faster; don’t talk about technology, talk about the problem you need to solve. Whether your issue is increasing the efficiency of your salt stock, or even understanding which areas of your road network are likely to flood, having in mind the outcomes you want to work towards allows you to focus and prioritise your challenges, whilst your partners work in providing the solutions that enable it.
Leveraging proofs of concepts helps mitigate significant upfront investment and they are incredibly valuable at delivering proof points. Often, PoCs expand, and they encompass more than the initial use case as partners work together to leverage IoT technology to meet outcomes. Crucially they are the first step.
This is exactly what we did working with Hull City Council to help them monitor and integrate winter maintenance data into their Integrated Smart City Platform. HCC leveraged Connexin’s commercial flexibility and operational agility to ensure the solution met enabled their outcomes which is leading to significant operational savings for the council and the community.
Driving actionable insights for Hull City Council’s Highways team
Hull City Council have traditionally relied on data provided by East Riding of Yorkshire Council to carry out the gritting of roads during the winter. Whilst they are close geographically, it is invariably a few degrees warmer within the city – differing “on ground conditions” is common across Local Authority geographies. This means that there is unnecessary time and budget spent – Hull City Council were often over gritting.
Connexin’s challenge was to provide near-real time data to generate an ice warning that recommends the council to grit or not grit as appropriate and prioritise key locations. The key requirements to success were to provide accurate temperature readings from non-intrusive and cost-effective sensoring (to be measured against existing road sensor installations) and to have the sensors integrated within the Council’s ConnexinOS platform so that the data can also be accessed by other systems in a clear and timely fashion.
Using a LoRaWAN backhaul, Connexin used infrared thermometer sensors that are easily mounted on roadside infrastructure such as streetlights, CCTV columns or street signage to allow for ease of deployment. These sensors collected data on road temperature (by measuring the thermal energy radiated by the target) and ambient temperature at 10-minute intervals and a sensor battery life of 7 years.
Using a Low Powered Network allowed for non-intrusive and battery powered devices to be deployed across the city in a cost-effective way. Connexin utilised it’s ConnexinOS data engine and team of engineers to develop physics-based models to calibrate the infrared sensors, achieving an accuracy of within 1C of a contact sensor.
This project has helped Hull City Council transform a process that had the label of ‘that’s just how we do it. By having that conversation with Connexin and discussing their challenges, as a partner, Connexin was able to step back, bring our talented teams together and deliver a solution that enabled the outcomes HCC were looking for: operational efficiency, cost reduction, and build evidence around their hypotheses for what routes to prioritise for road gritting.