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Private lives, public data

Innovative tools like digital twins can have incredible benefits. But what is the trade-off when it comes to privacy concerns and data sharing? How can we balance the benefits of leading-edge smart tech with strong data governance, protecting our privacy in an increasingly digital world?


In 2020, we have shifted toward leading digitized lives at an incredible pace. In the midst of COVID-19, our lives have migrated online — and with today’s technology, almost every aspect of our day-to-day can be hosted, replicated or simulated as pixels on a screen.

Our digital lives aren’t limited to Zoom meetings and Facetime; even the physical assets in our public space are beginning to get recreated digitally. Digital twinning of physical assets has become a growing trend for business in recent years, with a long list of potential benefits. Traffic apps like Waze or Google Maps are just one example of how digitally twinning a physical space and injecting real-time data can quickly become an indispensable tool for a large swath of the population.

This year, more than half of manufacturers with annual revenues over $5 billion are predicted to have launched at least one digital twin initiative. According to research by Gartner, 24 per cent of organizations that have IoT solutions in production or in progress already use digital twins, with another 42 per cent planning to use digital twins by 2022.

What is a digital twin?

A digital twin is a virtual replica of an asset that incorporates real-time data while it operates.

It provides an immersive and integrated visualization of previously siloed information and lets us use modern digital analysis techniques, such as condition-based monitoring and predictive analysis, to plan maintenance, to inform decision-making and to support longevity for assets. With new, smarter technologies, the digital twins of today can make our infrastructure more intelligent than ever before. To become more intelligent, an asset shifts from having a mere replica of itself, to being able to proactively manage itself. It can also recognize its performance as part of an entire ecosystem of assets, users, and environment.

The “asset” that is digitally twinned could be almost anything: a water pump, a bridge, a highway, a building, a site with numerous buildings, an airport, even an entire city. For example, in 2015, WSP advanced the first phase of a digital twin of Chicago to support the O’Hare express rail project. This allowed the analysis of multiple rail routes within a 3D model to better understand and optimize the factors that affected express rail routes to O’Hare International Airport.

The potential uses for digital twins are expanding. The COVID-19 crisis has called attention to digital twins as a means to simulate the movement of people in buildings, transit stations and other public places, and enable heightened analysis of situational health risk—thereby highlighting digital twins as an indispensable tool for infrastructure planning and design.

Interconnected systems

The ultimate goal for digital twins of physical assets is to create an interconnected system where separate parts can collect and share data in a centralized way. Having access to all of this data in a single, big-picture snapshot allows decision-makers to make predictions, model usage and behavior, and optimize their assets like transit systems, traffic arteries, bridges, buildings and more. Today’s digital twins can be used to predict and improve the flow of people and goods; to manage water supply and demand; to predict the lifespan of a bridge; to assess the vitality of neighbourhoods; and even to analyze human and planetary health.

As you might imagine, this involves an incredible amount of data. Digital twins can use numerous tools to support data collection, including satellites, planes, drones, sensors and robotic devices. These are only some of the geospatial tools that now provide cost effective, automated and continuous data collection beyond human capability.

By collecting and connecting all of this data, digital twins can provide an integrated perspective to inform decisions and help support sustainable outcomes for communities. By seeing infrastructure as an ecosystem, or a complex system of interconnected and interdependent elements, we can consider how multiple factors might affect outcomes for the asset, the environment and everyone in the community.

Privacy, security concerns

Collecting this immense amount of data may seem relatively innocuous at first glance, when we’re mostly thinking about building HVAC systems or water pump functioning. But despite the many benefits, digital twins and the associated data they collect open the door to significant privacy concerns. If sensors, satellites, drones and robotics are continuously tracking asset usage, traffic movements, and even making predictions about people, behaviour and health, it becomes much easier to see the potential areas of concern.

As an emerging area for many companies, conversations about privacy, security, legislation and data governance are still evolving. Managing the sheer scale of the data is an enormous undertaking, and organizations need to make sure the information is secure at every stage of the process. This requires detailed attention to risk management, likely through a partnership with a consulting group with the expertise to act as advisors in smart technology and data management and security.

It’s also imperative to consider how secure the data is against potential breaches. Digital twins rich in data, even if it concerns assets and not people, need enhanced security measures and data governance. The wealth of data may be incredibly valuable to potential hackers and competitors, and it should be protected with the same rigor as other valuable intellectual property. Information security experts sometimes call this degree of rigour “crown jewel protection,” which means gaining a strong understanding of:


Modelling and predicting behaviour

Organizational risks if an attack does occur

Response and resilience plan if a disruption occurs

Finding the balance

Of course, most companies would agree that when properly managed, the privacy concerns do not outweigh the benefits that digital twins have to offer. In many organizations, digital twins have already become a business-critical element in daily operations.

The ease and cost effectiveness of big data collection and IoT does intensify the need to manage data well, to implement strong security and risk management processes, and create resilience and response plans to maximize the value and minimize the risk of data flowing into a digital twin.

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