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What Is The True Value Of Data?

Data exists everywhere in the construction industry and when mined correctly can be pivotal to informing the decision-making processes of both project delivery and asset maintenance. The industry builds and monitors everything from information that is collected, enabling communication, mitigating risk and assuring greater clarity in terms of the future. Yet, which data is of true value, and how important is it for clients to have ownership of information that is meaningful and not redundant in use?

Data history and handling

The construction industry’s digital transformation is a new phenomenon, even though a great deal of change has occurred, and swiftly, over the past decade. Whilst technology’s benefits are significant, the speed of this change has unfortunately lulled us into a false sense of where we actually are as an industry. For instance, at present we don’t have much historic data to enable us to learn from the past. We can’t go back ten even five years’ time to look for project data, as the majority of the industry is only in the first stages of its digital journey. As we lack this data, we haven’t got a clean baseline to compare or benchmark other pieces of data against. Therefore, it makes it harder for the industry to ask crucial questions such as: ‘What does good look like?’ and ‘What is the norm?’ Whilst this will change as time unravels, at the moment there is little in the way for us to analyse current data against the historic.

As we don’t have the history to learn from, the value of new data becomes all the more important. To drive for value and clarity, it’s essential to ask plain language questions including: ‘What do you want to know and why?’ Once this knowledge is established, analysis can begin in terms of what is needed to answer those questions. Around 15-20 questions will go some way to painting the picture of which data is required and what will be of true value.

Yet if data is to deliver true value, we should understand the purpose of why it will be used before it is collected. It goes without saying that we have to be careful as to which type of information we ask for. It’s not sufficient to say the information might be useful in the future as we don’t have any history to say this will be the case! And if data is mined for data’s sake without clear intent, supply chains might feel confused as to the information’s purpose. As can be imagined, this will create problems in terms of looking at a piece of information’s current and future use.

An example would be an IoT sensor which is continuously monitoring and producing data regarding the performance of a chiller in a building. An asset owner will want to have a picture of how their building is operating to see if any changes need to be made in regards to efficiency and sustainability. In this instance however, it isn’t necessary to use all of the data that is being produced. It is why a data hierarchy can be established to sift through pieces of data; to reach the valuable information that is needed by the client to inform decision-making. It’s important to bear in mind that this kind of value doesn’t end with the asset owner. It can be reaped by contractors and developers earlier on in the process. These parties are usually working on tight project margins, meaning that the level of information must be of an amount which assures value and prevents any confusion or delays.

What about risk?

Whilst the construction industry’s digital journey is still in its early stages, it nonetheless operates within and contributes to a wider society which is becoming increasingly aware of the ethics that come with data handling.

If misused or pooled selectively data can misconstrue reality. It is why any information that is produced should come from a collective, informed perspective so that its use is justified. Mining pieces of data without any clear and just motivation can be risky.

With this in mind, construction companies should be mindful of GDPR and the purpose of collecting personal data. In these cases, relevant parties need to be informed as to why their data is being used. Will you be using it to keep a record of their safety; is it for their benefit or exclusively your own? Companies have to be very clear on why they are selecting certain pieces of data and to what end. 

If of course data has to be reused at any point, then permission from the data owner must be granted, whether it is personal data or project data regarding subcontractor performance. We also need to be conscious of cultivating the right behaviours and not the wrong ones, particularly in terms of mistakes that are made onsite. Data regarding the number of snags for instance might be withheld, as the parties responsible for reporting said data might fear the repercussions. Here, data owners need to be very clear on what the data is for and why it will be used and whether it is really adding value across the supply chain. Even though the industry can’t rely on history when it comes to knowing which data to collect, certain approaches – such as plain language questions and continuous support – can be adopted to ensure all information that is collated is of true value.