We have an ever-increasing awareness that human actions have vast impacts on our planet, and so we cannot plan any major infrastructure projects without also considering the implications for the environment.

As populations rise in our towns and cities, the demand for new and improved infrastructure – housing, roads, electricity, clean water etc. – rises with them. Now, more than ever, we need to analyse every effect on the environment associated with building new infrastructure, including the impact on the quality of the air that we breathe.

Computer modelling now forms a vital element in infrastructure design but at present it is extremely difficult to consider all aspects of infrastructure and how they impact on one another at scale. There has been no central resource available for researchers to share knowledge and analysis expertise to build new analytics tools… until now.

The DAFNI team (Data and Analytics for National Infrastructure), part of STFC Scientific Computing (SCD), is making huge strides in an effort to bring together researchers, organisations and authorities for a joined up approach to data analysis for national infrastructure. DAFNI is building a common platform for data storage and analysis to encourage a smarter, more ‘joined-up’ system for infrastructure planning.

“We’re providing a facility where organisations can lodge their data on a secure platform, upload their models, and link to the data. This enables large scale analysis and, crucially, provides the visualisation tools so that results can be shared in a meaningful way. Keeping all the relevant data in one place with the models makes it easier to take all potential impacts into consideration,” Marion Samler, the DAFNI Partnerships Manager, explains.

“For instance, we are working with Urban Observatories run by researchers in six major UK cities. They are collecting all sorts of city and environment-related data from sensors placed in strategic spots – so they have information on things like local air quality, weather conditions, traffic flows and energy use.”

Recently, Marion and five of the DAFNI software engineers (Tom Gowland, Bethan Perkins, Dhiwagaran Thangavelu, Noel Vizcaino, and James Hannah) visited Sheffield where they spent three days integrating data from Sheffield University’s Urban Flows Observatory onto the DAFNI platform. The data from the observatory, which includes thermal and visual imaging as well as air quality, traffic and energy flows, can then be used within computational models.

Group photo: Marion and the five DAFNI software developers on a visit to Sheffield, with members of the Sheffield and Newcastle University Urban Observatories. In the front row are Marion (far right), Bethan and Tom (far left). James is behind Marion and in the back row are Noel (third from left) and Dhiwagaran (fourth from left).

“It’s like creating a digital image of what’s happening in the city and how resilient the infrastructure is,” says Marion. “We can look at what needs to be done to bring improvements to an area but at the same time look at the societal and environmental impacts the changes could bring.

“For example, if a particular street has excessive pockets of air pollution during the morning and evening rush hour and traffic calming measures or alternative routes are introduced, will that reduce the level of pollution in that area or simply send it somewhere else? The DAFNI analysis can look at all of the factors involved, such as weather conditions, volume of pollution and time of day. We can then model different scenarios to find the best solution for the air pollution problem. It’s almost a way to ‘try before you buy’ for planners and policy makers! ”

A DAFNI partnership that could bring environmental data-sharing to a new level is with CEDA (Centre for Environmental Data Analysis). CEDA and SCD jointly manage JASMIN that stores vast quantities of global environmental data records. JASMIN is a ‘super-data-computer’ with storage and networking technologies dedicated to studying the natural environment. An exciting prospect is to link JASMIN and DAFNI to consider how infrastructure might be affected by changes in the environment – and vice-versa!

Brian Matthews is the DAFNI Group Leader. He says, “Engineering researchers looking at infrastructure are finding they can’t make their models bigger or more complex to better reflect real life as they are limited by the computers in their labs. And better models need more data, which can be hard to share and access across organisations, especially when it needs to be handled in confidence. These were strong drivers behind the creation of DAFNI. Our team of dedicated developers has produced a system offering enough computing power to make it possible to run complex models in minutes rather than days, with secure access to a common pool of data.”

He adds, “We see an emphasis on infrastructure being sustainable as we decarbonise our economy. Electric vehicles, high efficiency buildings, new developments in energy generation, high-speed digital communications, and the growth of green infrastructure – like storm-water management systems or connected green spaces and wildlife corridors; these will all impact our lives and the environment around us. And we will want to work out what that impact will be so we can make the best choices. There are likely to be very busy times ahead for DAFNI!”

If you have an air quality or other infrastructure data challenge which DAFNI could help with, please contact Marion.

The DAFNI version 1.0 ‘system of systems’ is currently being trialled by universities, government and industry. DAFNI is funded by the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities (UKCRIC), a collaboration of 12 University partners, with Oxford University as the lead partner. It is hosted by STFC’s Scientific Computing Department in Building R89 at RAL.


2nd March 2020