Construction and Big Data

The construction sector relies increasingly on data. With new technologies – particularly information-gathering gadgets such as sensors – becoming more prevalent across the industry, how much of a role will big data play in companies’ fortunes?

The rise of big data in construction and beyond

Most are familiar by now with how modern industry is awash with new technologies and sophisticated information-gathering devices, which are transforming the way we all work: the Internet of Things, the cloud, artificial intelligence and increasingly, big data.

For some, big data sounds like Big Brother – a mysterious, all-seeing system whereby information of every description is collected, assessed and stashed away for some nefarious purpose.

But is it really like that? While many organisations collect lots of our personal data for marketing purposes – think of that supermarket loyalty card in your wallet, for example – big data is essentially just a large volume of vastly different information, the range of which is wide and diverse, its flow fast and ever-growing, requiring enormous system capacity to process, analyse and draw conclusions.

Big data has been used across construction for a number of years, though it’s only relatively recently that more firms have started getting to grips with it. Even then, it’s argued that it is not being exploited enough in every corner of the industry.

How is big data broadly defined?

The term big data goes back around 30 years, when John Mashey, a retired former chief scientist at Silicon Graphics, coined it to refer to handling and analysis of massive datasets.

In 2001, consultant and tech innovator Doug Laney took things a step further, characterising big data as comprising three elements, known as the three V’s: volume, velocity and variety. Others subsequently added another two V’s: veracity and value.

Whether you’re looking at it from a three V’s perspective or five, such categories make sense. Huge amounts of data, generated at considerable speed and comprising a wide range of information and content.

The accuracy of that data and what it can do for your business are covered by the fourth and fifth V’s.

With the right analytical resources, companies can use big data for insights into their customers, their operations, the way they intend to plan a project or taking other actions that will help them boost their competitiveness.

Adoption of big data in the construction industry

How is big data being used in the construction sector? The introduction of digital technologies across the industry over the past 20 to 30 years – CAD, BIM, robotics – has increased the amount of information required and being generated.

Its commonly accepted that the take-up of big data in construction has been slow compared to other industries, and it’s fair to say that construction certainly hasn’t embraced new technology as quickly as sectors such as finance, retail, media and telecommunications. Instead, it has relied more on traditional information gathering techniques and paper-based record-keeping.

Researchers from Australia and Germany concluded in their paper, Big Data in Construction: Current Applications and Future Opportunities, that the construction industry ‘is yet to reap the true benefits of using big data aptly’, while ‘data generation is much faster than the tools available for processing it’.

The researchers further argued that big data’s integration into the construction industry ‘is quite an uphill task even with the existing data processing tools’. Their paper urged the industry to do more to embrace the positive aspects of big data and the commercial opportunities it offers.

Unlocking its potential depends on the system

Another group of researchers from the UK and Pakistan pointed out when discussing using big data to help deliver road projects that ‘data from the design and construction phases of projects can be used to inform asset registers from an earlier stage [that] can be used to plan maintenance schedules’.

It can also be combined with a variety of other data ‘to develop a better picture of network operations and support key decision-making’.

Clearly, the more construction project data a company can get its hands on, the better it can prepare for and work on a project. But all the drones, robots and sensors collecting data won’t do you much good if you don’t have the systems to deal with it.

Big data’s storage, the processing and analysis involved and the ability to visualise what it is illustrating are all key.

Another important aspect, say experts, is not to be overwhelmed by the amount of data being assessed, which can cause distractions.

There is also a difference between structured and unstructured data – that data which has numerical worth and which can be stored, respectively, and things such as text documents, emails, images and videos, which require a deeper and perhaps more time-consuming investigation.

Big data in construction is only going to get bigger

While it’s a lot to take on board, being able to collate, handle and analyse big data can help with all stages of a construction project – from design by informing a developer where best to locate a building, to construction, where it can help with things like the best use of workers’ time via sensor technology.

And data-providing sensors can help a building’s eventual operators to run it efficiently, with incoming information highlighting variables such as lighting, ventilation and heating.

An example is the technology employed by workspace firm Convene at its office space at 22 Bishopsgate in London. There, sensors are used to detect whether a room is being occupied and adjust the air conditioning and lighting accordingly.

The construction industry is only going to grow – some predict by US$1 trillion (AU$1.5 trillion) worldwide between 2020 and 2030 – as demand for homes, commercial and industrial space and infrastructure increases.

The likelihood is that data, whether you want to label it ‘big’ or not, is only going to mirror that rising profile.

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