Building the Evidence: Open Data and the Future of Construction

Who would use our Open Data? This bemused question from one of our Local Authority clients has always struck me as deceptively simple. On the one hand I can provide pat answers about the social value of Open data for transparency or the long-term benefits of a data-rich society but few of us are wired to work that way, least of all a busy executive trying to deliver a 21st century local government on a falling budget. What my client cared about, what most people care about, is the tangible, short-term benefits of Open Data. If Open Data can’t meet the ‘elevator pitch’ test of delivering an eye-catching impact in a short timeframe, we are not, as an industry, doing a good enough job of articulating the value.

The experience above is by no means unique to government. While our public authorities may be one of the largest data owners and often have the clearest imperative (we pay our taxes now give us our data!) to publish, the rising tide of this movement is now raising the ships of industry and third sector too. More and more businesses are waking up to the fact that releasing information gets a customer more engaged with your brand. Only one problem with this picture: Company data is just one side of the story. What about the information the consumer is feeding back to the company; shouldn’t that be open too?

Here Open Data blurs a line with crowdsourcing. By harvesting the opinions of hundreds even thousands of people about a company, a product or a campaign; you can gather hugely useful information. Combined with Open data from the company and the Government, these three sources have a supercharged capacity to generate new insights that can deliver economic value. So far, so abstract, so lets take the best example of an industry coming to grips with the power of Open data: the construction business.

Construction is, by its nature, a data-driven craft. From the exact measurements of a building to the numerous regulations that govern every aspect of a project, construction is a quantifiable business. The industry has also made giant leaps forward in recent years through the introduction of the Building Information Management Task Group. When 21c president Julia Glidden talked with Mark Bew, BIM’s Chairman, recently, what became clear was just how much work has gone into standardising the data of this industry. The rigorous models of a building BIM has created mean that everything in a neighbourhood or a city can be mapped, calibrated and explored using a single interface; a great leap forward for a data-driven industry.

Yet strangely, the construction industry has historically underweighted one of the key data sources in any building project: the way people respond to the finished product. When I say underweighted, I do not mean to suggest that painstaking work has not been done to survey and gather the views of people on a project; they most certainly have. But often, such surveys are qualitative, relatively small-scale and kept as closely held secrets by the companies who gather them. This approach makes little sense for two reasons: 1) The tools exist to gather large-scale quantitative evidence of people’s views and responses to building projects and 2) Construction is an industry where many companies work of similar types of projects, so collecting and sharing such data would be of mutual benefit.

So here is my suggestion to the construction industry: Create a system-level model of your next project, based on BIM standards, and then start filling in the gaps with Open Data from government and crowdsourced information from the general public.

The first of these points, Open Data from government, is easy. As an example, the Local Government Association’s recently concluded ‘Release of Data’ scheme got many local authorities to release their full planning application datasets. A construction company with access to this information could build a system for identifying where in the country similar projects have been successful and what the common characteristics of their applications have been. They can also do all this while slashing the overheads on lawyers and consultants needed to vet, shape and hone each application. The data provides a clear, evidence-based jumping off point for making smart planning applications. Also, government has a rich variety of information that augment a model. For example, if you knew detailed demographics about those surrounding a new development, you can make more informed predictions about how the community is likely to respond. An area of older, wealthy long-term homeowners may be more likely to favour low-rise developments that match the architecture of the local area, while 20-something professionals may be more receptive to a cutting-edge block. Simply by harvesting the government resources at their disposal, construction companies can get access to a trove of no-cost insights for their next project.

The second point, crowdsourced information from the public, is more of a challenge. What is needed is a system of capturing the response of people to their built environment and a way to feed the results into your next project. Thankfully a suite of techniques are helping to make this a reality. Social Media Analytics can provide a general sense of the reception of a discrete building or development by monitoring sentiment around mentions of the space. Likewise, advanced techniques like those being researched by Stuart Chalmers and the BRE are attaching headsets to people before walking them around an area to measure their emotional response to the architecture. Such techniques are staring to drive a revolution in Open Data and one which architecture can take full advantage of.

The best part you can explain this to anyone who asks in a single sentence: Open Data cuts your design costs, lowers consultation time and increases community acceptance of projects

21c is a specialist ICT innovation firm with an unparalleled track record helping companies and governments to use Open Data to deliver results.

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