The Cambridge Analytica scandal and the EU’s GDPR legislation have increased the public’s awareness of data and the downside to the data sharing economy. But what impacts will these developments have on the emerging trend in the construction industry for collecting data to improve building performance and operational efficiency?

Research states that by 2050 there will be 50 billion connected devices and 19.5% or 9.75 billion of these will be linked to buildings. Add to this estimates that, by 2020, buildings will generate 7.8 zetabytes 1  of  data annually and it’s not hard to see why this information could prove a great resource for the construction industry; helping us deliver better assets, benchmark properties and learn how to do things better. However, despite the obvious benefits, adopting widespread data collection could pose a real challenge for the industry.

Although connected devices would not be collecting personal data, the information collected could reveal sensitive corporate information. Imagine you are a corporation who prides yourself on your environmental credentials, but the data shows that your headquarters building is an energy guzzling, carbon emitter, or you own a portfolio of buildings, which the data shows to be underperforming compared to your competitors in terms of operating costs, lifecycle maintenance or occupant satisfaction. Revelations that could cause real damage to the brand, share price or asset value. Issues such as this should not mean that we put data collection into the too-hard-to-do box; but it does mean that we need to consider how we treat the data that we collect. Currently we are at an early stage in terms of data collection, which makes it the ideal time to work together to determine a set of guidelines for the industry. These would set out a series of parameters in relation to the types of data we could collect and how we process and use it.  Anonymising the data may be one way to deal with the issue of privacy, whereby we could collect data types such as building age, usage, energy performance but not identify the specifc assets.

As an industry we also need to recognise that focusing on just building and construction related information won’t give us the in-depth insights we need to improve asset performance. Other data sets will be needed to give us a true picture of how and why things occur. Occupant behaviour is one such data set that will help us to determine how end users interact with an asset and the impact this has on its operations/lifecycle. However, tracking data such as occupant behaviours would place the industry right at the heart of the wider debate around personal data collection and privacy. After all, it is not hard to see why people might be uncomfortable with companies tracking their movements or monitoring how they are using a space. A 2017 survey by the Open Data Institute found that 34% of respondents would never feel comfortable sharing data about themselves with an organisation and that attitudes to data sharing vary markedly between the generations. However on the upside, the research also determined that most people would be happier to share their data if it was going to be used for the greater good. This would suggest that the construction industry would need to find a way to give occupants the ability to opt out of or limit data collection to meet their own comfort levels. In addition companies should also take the time to demonstrate the value that the collection of data will provide to the user i.e. the provision of a better office space to work in, easier wayfinding around a resort or a faster more comfortable commute.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal made headline news when it was discovered that millions of Facebook profiles had been taken without permission and used to target US voters during the 2016 election. Although it would be unlikely that building data would be used to target specific groups, it does have a value to others beyond the initial collector and client/end user. The ability to analyse data at a neighbourhood, city or building type level (e.g. schools, hospitals, grade A offices) would allow us to identify trends and lessons learned, which could be fed back into the design and construction process; creating better buildings that deliver improved outcomes. It would also allow city governments and estate owners to monitor overall asset performance and create and track the effectiveness of policies to address issues such as energy usage, biodiversity and sustainability.

However, the sharing of data poses a number of challenges that we would need to address, such as establishing who would own the information gathered. This could prove difficult as it raises a number of questions that would need to be answered e.g. does FM data belong to the FM team who operates the building or the client and what happens to any data obtained when a contract comes to an end?. We would also need to consider whether the data collected should be open source for everyone to use freely or come at a cost. It is even possible that some data would be free and other more valuable data sets would have to be paid for. All these challenges would need to be resolved as part of the development of a framework for data collection in the industry.

While it’s inevitable the construction industry will be impacted by data scandals and legislation to protect individuals, it does not mean that we should shy away from embracing data collection and usage. Instead, we need to work together to create a data framework that provides us with a strong foundation for data collection, analysis and sharing in the future. Getting it right now will make certain that we all adopt a robust, secure, trusted and transparent approach, which protects the rights of individuals and corporations and addresses many of the issues which have arisen in the past.

The UK construction and property industry can take a lead in this process, setting a standard for others to follow. Will we rise to the challenge?

1 zetabyte is 931,322,574,615 GB

About the author

Stephanie Whittaker

Senior Marketing Communications Manager for BAM Design

Stephanie Whittaker is the senior marketing communications manager for BAM Design. She is also the leader of ENCORD’s Foresighting work group which aims to provide construction industry leaders with the insight and knowledge they need to develop business strategies for the medium to long term.  

Stephanie has spent more than 15 years in the construction industry, working for Arup, Capita Symonds and Halcrow before joining BAM in 2013. During this time she has worked on a variety of projects with a particular focus on creating resilient communities, high performing buildings, sustainable corporate strategies, building information modelling and energy.    

Most recently she has developed an interest in smart cities and how this approach can be used to have a positive impact on the wider city agenda and residents’ lives.

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