Open data as innovation in the construction industry

Open data in construction

The construction industry has got a tricky job to do.

Whilst other industries can rely on the accuracy of computers, laboratories or factories to deliver their products, we produce outdoors. Our products have roots but, unlike agriculture, we cannot let nature in. Our products are many but, unlike car manufacturing, we cannot rely on production lines. Our products engage with our customers but, unlike most sectors out there, we do not know what they think.

The products we create can take a long time to prepare, and often involve a long and heterogeneous supply chain to the point where it is not always clear where we start from, nor do we know exactly where we are going to end up.

This is not because construction suffers from a lack of expertise: we lack in clean, complete, comparable information.

A less than perfect understanding of our context and briefing will result in the wrong demand; an inefficient communication will cause a patchy supply; and a lack of customer feedback will hamper improvement and innovation. And the wheel rolls on.

One of the reasons BIM has gained so much traction in recent years is the possibility to harness briefing, project and in-use data in a single dataset. This is good news for anyone involved in a specific project. But what about those not directly involved in a certain project yet still affected by it? What about the wider effect of the construction sector on the environment and society at large? Even the most adventurous consultant will think twice before trying to answer such a question; and rightly so. To measure and analyse the effect of the entire construction industry on reality may provide a great line for a sci-fi novel but would hardly form part of a reasonable scope of works. However, IT could help. Construction data analytics is a crucial aspect of innovation and the urgent need for evidence-based solutions is posing great pressure to all aspects of our industry.

IT may give us the tools (i.e. data science and app development), but we still need to find the resources. Who could possibly fund a cross industry data analytics project to map the entire universe of construction and performance data? Nobody, of course.

On the one hand, humans have yet not invented a machine capable to provide the required computational capacity, and on the other hand, the costs would be inconceivable – let alone the reach of R&D budgets of construction companies. But. Another world is possible.

Open source, open hardware, open content and open access are all applications, mainly related to the tech world, of a certain approach to knowledge by which allowing full access, to anyone at anyone time, knowledge itself is more likely to be improved than damaged.

The open data movement has emerged from the desire of individual citizens to gain access to public datasets and the need for public authorities to cap the cost of managing Freedom of Information requests. The story gets quite exciting once the data, made freely available, becomes the opportunity for unheard of new services. The public authority could not expect the flurry of new apps that have emerged from the use of data related to traffic, licencing, crime, amenities etc. Those new apps bring with them new opportunities for growth, paving the way to new products and services. Not just that, they also helped to reduce the management costs of public authorities in the first place. A new business model is born. Should anyone (public or private entity) possess a large amount of data, they can either sit on it and commission (when funds are available), ad hoc, non-integrated studies, or alternatively they may decide to release the data to the software development community. Once a new service is born, what tends to happen is that the original owner of the dataset then forms a commercial alliance with the software developer, which is normally a lean, small (cheap) company or start up. Should the data owner have decided to keep the data closed, they would have ended up with a less cutting edge, more expensive application. By making data open it is possible to leverage the intellectual skills of a global community of app developers with tangible benefits in innovation, visibility and efficiency.

Funded by the BRE Trust, BRE and Constructing Excellence, G4C have worked together to raise awareness on open data and increase the level of data literacy within the construction sector.

The project has focused three key topics of construction: Housing, Planning and Energy. For each of the topics Antonio Pisano, coChair of G4C, has interviewed both representatives of the construction industry and members of the open data community.

We recommend watching the videos we have produced, and start a conversation within your own organisation. Consider which datasets are already available, and how could these be made available for third party development.

The project will be presented publicly on the 18th June at the University of Westminster in London.

We would like to thank the ODI for their great support on this project.

If you wish to discuss the implementation of Open Data within your organisation or to organise an event on Open Data and construction please email [email protected]

I hope you will enjoy the results of our research.

Author: G4C