“Big data” seems to be everywhere these days, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate that the phrase means the same thing to everyone using it.
In fact, The School of Information at UC Berkeley asked more than 40 thought leaders across a broad spectrum of industries to give their definition of “big data,” and the responses were thought-provoking.
For purposes here, big data is defined as extremely large data sets, generated at a high velocity simultaneously across multiple platforms, containing both structured and unstructured information, which may be analyzed through advanced computer processing to reveal patterns, trends and other insights to enable enhanced decision making and business optimization.
What role does big data have in construction?
The most accurate answer to this question is: that’s still being figured out. With more variables, more inputs and more moving parts, a construction site is much more dynamic than a typical manufacturing environment. Add in the relative unpredictability of things like weather, and it’s clear that leveraging big data in the construction industry is not going to be as straightforward an endeavor as in other industries.
Collecting data is a challenge for any industry, although the process of collecting data is getting easier as technology advances. In construction, there are many means of collecting data from a jobsite. Personnel can utilize wearables, smartphones, tablets and other devices such as drones to collect data in the field. IoT (Internet of Things) technology can monitor and collect data from equipment and tools, machinery and other assets on the jobsite. In fact, data collection has come so far, so fast, that it’s more accurate to say that the challenge lies not in the data collection, but in managing the huge volume of data that’s collected so that decision makers – foremen, managers and executives – aren’t overwhelmed.
But perhaps the biggest challenge associated with big data in the construction industry is summed up with one word – sharing – that seems more apt when used to describe the challenges of kids getting along on the playground, not the challenges faced by construction companies working together on a jobsite.
The sharing issue is this: many different parties need to come together on a project, including architects, engineers, construction managers, prime and subcontractors, specialty tradesmen, owners and so on. How is the data that’s generated by one party supposed to be shared with and utilized by other parties on the project? The challenge here is two-fold: not only do construction companies have to get used to the counter-intuitive notion that sharing their proprietary data with other companies on a project is a smart business decision; often, technological roadblocks in the form on non-compatible information systems may also exist, making it difficult, if not impossible to share data even if the willingness on the part of management is there.
So where does leave big data in construction? In an industry where as much as 35 percent of the total cost on a construction project goes to material waste and remedial work, one area where big data can make a big impact is increasing output and efficiency and minimizing waste of both materials and man-hours. Other benefits of big data in construction should be the same as in other industries, namely, better and faster decision making, real-time problem solving and prevention, risk management, enhanced safety, quality assurance and more. As more construction companies put forth more effort in collecting data from throughout their business operations (and not just in the field), gradually the industry will learn how to harness this incredible volume of available information to support better decision making, optimize operations and increase the bottom line.