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The Smartest Tool in the Shed
By Paul Wilkinson
October 7, 2016
In the conservative, risk-averse world of architecture, engineering, and construction, where attitudes of “knowledge is power” often prevail, the concepts of ‘open’ and ‘linked data’ may seem far-fetched, but they could be a powerful aid to more informed decision-making about construction projects.
Open data is data that anyone can access, use or republish as they wish. It is published under a license expressly permitting its access, reuse, sharing, and modification.
The drive to make some data freely available to everyone to use, without restrictions from copyright, patents, or other controls has parallels with other ‘open’ movements. These include ‘Open Access’ (making scholarly publications and sometimes associated data freely available), ‘Open Content’ (making text, images, or video freely available – like Wikipedia’s sister project the Wikimedia Commons), ‘Open Source’ software, and ‘Open Standards’ (being developed, for example, in relation to the World Wide Web, to Building Information Modeling (BIM), and to geospatial information).
However, it is important to recognize that the ‘open data’ movement does not insist that all information be made public. Of the huge volumes of data created daily (IBM reckon that 90% of all digital information has been created in the past two years), only a tiny fraction is made open. Other information may have security implications, or be confidential to organizations or individual citizens; it may be commercially sensitive or have commercial value, perhaps being subject to licenses limiting its distribution to prescribed groups or individuals; or perhaps it cannot be free as costs relating to its production may need to be recovered. The image above, from the Open Data Institute, shows the spectrum of closed, shared, and open data.
However, this still leaves scope for some other information to be made freely available––often aggregated and anonymized so as to safeguard privacy and security.
Proponents of open data argue that some data is too important to be restricted. For example, genome research and medical data, other information about living organisms, and environmental information should be shared for the benefit of society, they argue. Another argument is that the outputs of publicly funded work should be publicly available (i.e., what is paid for by taxpayers should be available to taxpayers); such data might be used for improved governance or to promote citizen engagement, or used to fuel innovation or economic development. Making data open can also be a demonstration of transparency and accountability, which can help build trust and improve relationships.
Open data, therefore, impacts everybody. It can provide people with improved access to healthcare services, allow cures for diseases to be discovered more efficiently, promote understanding of local, regional, and national governments, provide social, economic, and environmental information, and make traveling easier. It is also closely associated with many Smart City initiatives, providing citizens with rich data dashboards about how their municipalities function and how they can interact with city authorities, transport providers, and other civic bodies. And open data can be a powerful boost to businesses––both existing companies and startups––solving problems, fostering innovation, and promoting economic growth and job creation. For example, Transport for London’s release of public transport information has been used by 8,500 software developers, with over 500 apps developed, used by millions of London’s travelers.
Open data is also a worldwide movement, with the US and UK––both signatories of the International Open Data Charter in October 2015––the top ranked nations in surveys by the Global Open Data Barometer. And as BIM starts to focus construction professionals’ attention on collaboration and sharing data rather than sharing documents, global construction (helped by bodies such as BuildingSMART International) is looking to create a set of new international open data standards which would pave the way for easy sharing of relevant data both across the entire market and across the whole lifecycle of built assets.
In the near future, a typical construction project may be planned and executed using a combination of internal and external data sources, some of them open. For example, alongside design information captured in BIM, the client, designers, constructors, and other supply chain members may be using operational data held in internal financial, CRM, or HR systems, live feeds from sensors, meteorological data, data licensed from third party providers, and open data held by government agencies and other organizations.
Moving beyond the typical uses of BIM for visualization, clash detection, construction sequencing, and such, a ‘semantic’ or ‘linked data’ approach opens up a potentially huge web of related data. Alongside BIM data and other information produced by or sourced from project partners, teams might potentially have access to a wealth of open mapping data, city planning information, and building codes, details about river levels and flood plains, real-time environmental and public transport data, and local demographic information (crime, health, educational achievement, employment, etc). Using such open data and other linked resources therefore provides a much “bigger picture.” It will empower owners and their construction supply chains to make better, more informed, accurate, timely, and joined-up decisions.
In this context, Tim Berners-Lee, architect of the World Wide Web, suggests we are rapidly moving from simple document sharing to far more powerful data-sharing:
“If HTML and the Web made all the online documents look like one huge book, [the Semantic Web] will make all the data in the world look like one huge database.” (from ‘Weaving the Web’, 1999)
The successful construction businesses of tomorrow could well, therefore, be the ones which prove most agile in exploiting the Semantic Web to deliver value to their customers and to other stakeholders in their built assets.
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