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Software Infrastructure Is a Smart Investment

Posted by Infra on Thursday, July 30th, 2009

By Richard Borkowski, transit advocate and technology solutions consultant who resides in New York City.

With so much talk about rebuilding America’s Infrastructure, someone forgot to remind the politicians in Washington, DC that much of our “infrastructure” consists of software and circuit boards as well as girders and concrete.  Consideration of software should be a primary one as software has become embedded in our lives in a way that was unimaginable when much of our infrastructure was first built.

Perhaps first we should define what is meant by “infrastructure.” Typically, this word brings to mind large-scale projects like roads, bridges, trains, airports and our electrical grid.  To be sure, these things are all part of our infrastructure.  However, these hardware projects have been joined by the software industry, which was unknown to the average person in the 1950s when much of our infrastructure was originally built.

What has changed in the last 60 years, when much of this infrastructure was first built?  Namely, software has entered our lives in a pervasive way.  It’s difficult to mention hardware without mentioning a software component.  When talking about the electrical grid, there is talk about the “smart grid,” powered by software.  When talking about updating the airports, the air traffic control system, powered by software enters the conversation.  When talking about trains and transit, calls for better software to provide users more and better information quickly follow.  When talking about roads and bridges, there is talk about smartening these with software too.

Perhaps the best place to start is with smart bridge technology.   In 2004, the new Interstate 10 Bridge over University Avenue in Las Cruces became the first “smart” bridge.  Embedded within the bridge’s concrete beams are fiber-optic sensors allowing engineers to continually monitor the safety of the bridge.  120 sensors were embedded in each of the bridge’s six 90-ton beams when they were cast in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  These sensors relay data to a collection box about the size of a refrigerator that is located off the side of the bridge.

  Another example of a smart bridge is the I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed during rush hour into the Mississippi River on Aug. 1, 2007.  It has been rebuilt using sensors and other electronics that constantly monitor the concrete for any weaknesses or structural damage.  It even has sensors that monitor weather conditions and automatically trigger an anti-icing system to prevent the roadway from freezing over.

In addition to transportation-related infrastructure, we should extend this definition to other public agencies that could increase public safety through the use of software infrastructure.  Publicly funded social service agencies would no doubt benefit from spending on software to track their case loads and to schedule follow ups on clients that have been referred to these agencies.  Fire safety could be improved by allowing homeowners to purchase fire sensors that could communicate directly to the nearest fire department or to the homeowner, in case they are away.

These are just a few examples of the ways software is part of our public infrastructure as much as ‘hardware’ such as girders and concrete.  This round of infrastructure rebuilding will be dramatically different than it was 60 years ago.  Software will play a key role in these projects.  It will help keep our publicly owned infrastructure safer and provide better levels of service than was possible in the past.  Smart infrastructure will be a smart investment.

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