Gas Leaks in 6,302 Miles of Underground Pipes? Better Call Big Data


It’s a serious and deadly problem.  Hundreds of gas leaks among New York City’s thousands of miles of underground pipes including the one that led to the explosion that killed eight people in East Harlem earlier this month in which pipes by Con Ed supplying two buildings were leveled by a natural gas explosion.

It turns out Con Ed has the highest rate of leaks in the country among natural gas operators due in large part to the fact that New York City’s underground pipe network is one of the oldest in the nation.   In 2012 alone, Con Ed reported nearly 10,000 leaks that included Westchester County.  There are over 1.2 million miles of gas main pipes nationally that experience a reported average of 12 leaks per hundred miles of pipe.

It is not only a human hazard challenge to contain and prevent such loss of life related to leads, but a costly one as well. To replace all the old mains in its network would cost as much as $10 billion.

Could Big Data help in predictng such pipe failures by facilitating quicker repairs at the most vulnerable old mains and thus reduced leaks and explosions?

As chronicled by Victor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier and their excellent book, Big Data–A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, in 2007 in response to exploding manholes caused by smoldering electric cables caught fire, Con Ed turned to Columbia University statisticians to help that predict which manholes were likely to have trouble.  The statisticians data-mined the records as best it could relating to the 94,000 miles of underground city cables where there are 51,000 manholes and service boxes.  They came up with 106 predictors condensed to a handful of the strongest signals and tested the data in a section of the Bronx.

Results? The top 10 percent of manholes on their list contained a whopping 44 percent of the manholes having severe incidents.  Big Data to the rescue there.

Question.  Can such use of Big Data help Con Ed again in solving the leaking gas mains?

Here’s the story on New York’s decaying gas mains:


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