Data Flow

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There's an old joke told by politicians that if you take all of the economists in the world and place them all end to end, they will still all point in different directions. It's a funny joke, to be sure--well, depending on whether you're a politician or an economist--but the same situation can be used to talk about data too, when it comes to the myriad of users and the very different applications they have for it. Building practically anything will cause sometimes a huge number of users to become involved, from design to build. Fortunately, thanks in large part to the ever-increasing amount of technology as well as techniques available to collect, use, display, and store data, it's probably never been of higher quality or more useful to more users than it is today.

When you consider the wide variety of data users, not to mention the disparate applications in the construction industry alone, it's easy to marvel at the fact that the quality of data being made available is hardly ever an issue anymore. There can be issues, however, with the flow, the ability of users to receive and use data for each of their intended applications.

Data—From Beginning to End
If you ask Billy Price, vice president of Roper Laser, it's the ability of data users to rely on and consult with data at any stage of the construction process that's the most important part when it comes to flow. "It doesn't matter when you need the data that you're using," Price explained. "What matters is that you can rely on it whenever you need it. Further, whenever you get bad data it's got the potential to really mess things up, wherever you're using it and at whatever stage you're using it."

Price illustrates his point with the models his company builds in order to allow for better bidding.

"The idea of design to build has become a watchword in recent years, and for good reason," Price said.

Price also emphasizes the need for project critical data to be kept on a single, scalable database, which improves the accessibility, reliability and flow of information wherever it is needed. With this type of setup, project managers can enter current information directly from the jobsite using a web enabled mobile device and send project data to the head office, where project executives can immediately access that information and make informed business decisions based on what they know is accurate data.

"There is so much going on in a construction project that anything and any combination of things can have a negative impact on the project's bottom line," Price explained. "It's also important to note that non-value added tasks such as duplicate data entry, allowing your field crew members to focus on high value activities.

The Price of 3D Modeling
If you ask Johan Larsson, general manager of Sitech NorCal, troubles encountered in building are rarely attributable to equipment and those who collect it. In his experience, these factors have progressed to the point where these are not the issue when problems occur.

"It doesn't matter where someone is along the flow of data and who the end users are," he explained. "If there's a problem, chances are good that it's with the data that the users have received to work from."

Larsson attributes most of the issues with data flow to the designers who most frequently fail to use 3D modeling in their designs for projects.

"Obviously, when contractors receive the data they need to build from and that data is bad or the details that are needed to build from either are not there or are not correct, everything suffers," he said. "Whether data comes to the job site directly from the designer, transferred in some way to the contractors, or set into a cloud for use later,

Larsson give California's Cal Trans agency as an example of the types of data problems he sees regularly when it comes to differences in the data that is received from a client agency and what is often encountered in the "real world."

"Obviously, in a perfect world, we would receive data from the designers that is as much as a "ready to use condition as is possible," he explained. "It's unfortunate, but clients often give us data for a project that just doesn't agree with the surveys in the field and other parameters of what is out in the job site. This creates a situation where we have to take the time to go back to the designers and ask what they wanted. Most frequently, when we show them the data that we have collected, they will tell us to use it, but it's unfortunate at that stage since we will have had to go back and verify the specs of a project. If the 3D modeling was started at the design stage and transferred to us in the same way we could have save time and money just using the data as we received it instead of going back for clarification. This is further complicated by the differing needs of the variety of users you have for a given job."

More Debate
Fortunately, if there is one matter that nearly everyone can agree on, it's the fact that continued work needs to be done to make data better, therefore more useful in a ready form in the field.

Another benefit of much of the equipment being used in the application of data is the unique field-specific needs of the industry when it was designed. Although the equipment and the software that runs it has a strong grounding in the construction field, it can bring the realities of the finance end of each job to light, making this very real impact of errors and omissions obvious to users. This allows financial applications that increase efficiency and cut waste from the building process. The net effect of this is to make practically every area of use, from job bidding to job costing more efficient and economical. This also allows for better collaboration between contractors and subcontractors, owners and vendors. Fortunately, these flexible applications also allow open infrastructure of the equipment and allows users to create connections with outside systems and increase communications within any aspect of a project administration.

All of this has a positive net effect in an increasingly competitive field which construction is, and provides a considerable amount of the solution to data flow, boosting productivity, accountability, and profitability--lower costs--during a project.

A Look to the Future
If there's one thing that everyone seems to be able to agree on it's the need for better education and lobbying among not only the users of data, but the creators as well.

"I think that if there's one thing that can help everyone involved in a project it's making everyone aware of what their needs are," said Andrew Donovan, vice president of Sitech Mid-Atlantic.

"Data needs change according to the needs of a job. In fact, they can change hourly, daily, and from job to job," he said. "Whatever the case, two things remain constant. First, the data provided for each job must be accurate and transmitted effectively between all users during the course of a project. In other words, data needs to be among the right users at the right time and in the right place. Second, data needs need to be communicated between all parties involved on a project and communications between data users need to be tracked and maintained."

At all of the stages of a project, good data assists in accurate forecasting of needs and simplifies the forecasting process. Good data management includes tracking and reporting functions outlined above. Even where specialty contractors are involved, an enterprise approach to data flow applications addresses the unique business needs of these contractors with advanced tools that can allow better management of labor and materials and grant greater control over finances. In particular, data's end user customization capabilities are made easier when data is both accurate and flows freely among data users in a project. Efficient data flow also permits better use of customization capabilities, which make it easy for specialty contractors to adapt the systems to their ever changing specifications.

Time sensitivity of a project is also better served when data flow is efficient and maintains the effective progress of a job.

Smooth data flow allows everyone on a job to work seamlessly with others and keeps every detail of what transpires on a project up to date and accurate. This makes the timeline of a project more meaningful and easier to maintain throughout the project. This also allows project managers to identify productivity trends during the course of a project, enabling managers to find and more quickly solve problems during and often before they occur.

Data flow that is in real time can be used in real-time, ensuring that project executives always have access to an up-todate snapshot of activities on a job. This is benefitted further when data is integrated across the enterprise, and information entered from a job site is accessible from the client's office, eliminating the need for multiple data entry.

Needless to say, data flow that is accurate and efficient can help to keep projects on schedule and within budget.

Keeping data flow that is associated with a given project can be a daunting task. The larger the project, the more parties who are involved in keeping the job on target, in terms of both the work being done as well as the management aspects of the project. As jobs get larger the need for efficient data flow becomes more and more important since construction projects are time-sensitive, organizations need to base decisions on the most up-to-date information available. Without this element, physical and financial disaster can await.

Michael W. Michelsen, Jr., is a freelance writer in Southern California. He has been a writer for more than 30 years, with the last 12 emphasizing geotechnologies. His greatest pride, however, is his family.

A 3.778Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

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