Jul 28 2016

Secure SaaS without passwords, via Secure Cloudlink

Secure Cloudlink logoUK-based startup Secure Cloudlink (headquartered in Leatherhead, Surrey) has a unique and US-patented product that eliminates the use of passwords and is designed to secure cloud / SaaS applications.

With Secure Cloudlink, each user is uniquely identified and authenticated, but as no user credentials are stored or replicated behind the scenes the risks of security breaches due to password interception or hacking are eliminated. The technology also eliminates the time costs involved in resetting passwords.

Eliminate security objections to Cloud

Secure Cloudlink CEO Brian Keats (ex ITExact, Colt Technology and Citi) says:

“Security is regularly cited by end user organisations as an objection to Cloud, so it should come as little surprise that it recently topped the list of end users’ concerns in recent research from the Cloud Industry Forum. According to the research 61% of end user organisations questioned stated that security was a significant concern in the adoption of Cloud services within their organisation.”

Password and identity sharing is also difficult to monitor and manage for SaaS application providers and end user organisations, and adds to costs. According to the Gartner report ‘Design IT Self Service for the Business Consumer,’ password resets account for as much as 40% of IT service desk contact value.

Although some organisations are investing in technology to automate password resets to reduce the number of calls, user credentials still persist, exposing the organisation to the threat of cyber attack. At Secure Cloudlink our approach is to eliminate the passwords and streamline the granting of access to applications, IT resources and on-line services.”

Conventional SSO (single-sign-on) password management and biometric recognition systems remove passwords from the user perspective, but, behind the scenes, user credentials are still stored, transmitted and replicated. This can make them prone to ‘man-in-the-middle attack’ (Wikipedia) or interception.

Secure Cloudlink diagramSecure Cloudlink provides anonymised authentication to SaaS, cloud or on-premise applications without storing, replicating or transmitting passwords anywhere outside of the directory services. Using a patented token security system that operates without the use of passwords, Secure Cloudlink – SaaS Providers Edition (a slightly clunky name!) includes a SSO service and optional biometric or multi-factor user authentication to improve the end user experience. Network users can securely access multiple cloud services wthout even appearing to have left the corporate network.

Company founder Dave Worrall told me the solution had been in development since the mid-2000s, and in the past three years had been rolled out in several early adopter customers.

“We have been on a journey with these customers. Companies might start with authenticating one or more mobile apps, then look at their Active Directory, and then some desktop client applications. We have learned a lot from these deployments – in government, with SaaS providers, and in financial institutions – working with companies with over 60,000 IT users, operating in B2C and B2B markets. In these organisations, password resetting is quickly a thing of the past.

“We provide an easy way for an organisation to switch rapidly from one method of authentication reliant on passwords to one in which no passwords are transmitted or stored on any devices. We have also been looking at how we can make our solution attractive to end-users. Some education is necessary to ensure end-user confidence, but then we want to make it easy for them to onboard.”


As Keats says, security has long been the main concern (often an objection) for potential Cloud customers and end-users, and ever since the advent of SaaS tools (or application service provision, as it was previously known) in the mid-late 1990s, SaaS vendors have had to educate the market about their security provisions. Working for a SaaS construction collaboration software vendor in the early 2000s, I wrote various briefing sheets and white papers outlining both the physical and digital precautions taken to safeguard the platform, associated data, and user interactions with them.

Passwords and SSL encryption became standard measures. Hosting on systems carrying BS7799 (later ISO27001) accreditation also offered an early marketing edge but gradually became the norm (achieved by, among others, BIW in 2006, Cadweb in 2007, Aconex in 2011, Kykloud in 2013, and think project! in 2014). But some organisations demanded more – for example, two-factor authentication using USB device RSA tokens has been an additional option offered by Conject and think project! (post). And customer and end-user security expectations are also influenced by advances in authentication provided by banks and other services, and by new hardware provisions such as mobile fingerprint or voice authentication.

For the SaaS vendors, Secure CloudLink technology potentially not only eliminates the need for user password management but also eliminates password sharing. This practice has a direct impact on revenues if vendors are charging per user (as some SaaS construction collaboration vendors do – others operate per-project or enterprise licensing approaches).

More importantly, password sharing also undermines compliance regimes, so Secure CloudLink can provide assurance that a SaaS platform user is a known and authorised individual, helping ensure an accurate audit trail of user access and interaction – vital in many highly regulated industries. (And as an additional incentive, Secure Cloudlink also has a referral program with the opportunity for SaaS vendors to earn incremental revenues!)


Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2016/07/secure-saas-without-passwords-via-secure-cloudlink/

Jul 21 2016

Union Square acquired by Deltek

In an echo of an earlier US/UK acquisition in the construction IT space, ERP vendor Deltek has acquired UK project management software vendor Union Square.

UnionSquare-logoMostly, ExtranetEvolution focuses on Software-as-a-Service solutions and related applications in the architecture, engineering and construction sector. However, I do keep an eye on vendors whose software solutions occasionally either compete with or complement cloud solutions. Nottingham, UK-based Union Square is a good example.

The Union Square back story

In the early 2000s, when other construction collaboration vendors were establishing themselves as SaaS providers, Union Square remained focused on its niche: construction-oriented but locally-hosted practice management systems or intranets. Its core market was small to medium-sized design firms, and Union Square Workspace became a strong platform to manage a host of internal collaboration requirements, from drawing management to timesheets, while also enabling authorised users outside a company to share information.

It added project accounting to its portfolio in early 2010, and later that year acquired its principal rival, Glasgow-based Archetype Software (post). By 2013, its revenues had reached £5m, and it was also beginning to expand into Australasia and to develop mobile tools. In March 2014 (revenues then up to £6.1m), I attended a Union Square user group conference in London where customers learned about a contract administration module, an Android mobile app and externally-hosted ‘extranet’ functionality – partly driven by demand from Union Square’s contractor customers. At that time, BIM was rarely being considered by their largely SME customer base, but demand for this functionality has grown and I saw some BIM functionality described at a London seminar earlier this year.

Deltek expansion

Deltek logoFounded in 1983, Virginia, US-based Deltek has largely concentrated on project-focused ERP, with Costpoint becoming its flagship product in the 1990s. At different times, it has been publicly listed and privately held, and has also been acquisitive – in 2006, I noted its purchase of US-based Welcom, a leader in earned value management and project portfolio management software (Open Plan being its most well-known product), and the following year it acquired an Australia-based EVM vendor, WST Pacific. In 2014, it acquired Portland, Oregon-based ERP vendor Axium (on the doorstep of its similarly acquisitive US rival, Viewpoint Software).

In parallel with its M&A activity, Deltek has gradually expanded in the UK and Europe. Ten years ago (May 2006), it began to exhibit at UK construction events, and it has also been able to grow its footprint by capitalising upon US-based customers (eg: HOK) expanding in the UK and elsewhere. But it has faced strong competition from well-established UK-based rivals such as COINS, Redsky IT, Causeway and Eque2.

Union Square

Deltek’s product portfolio covers solutions for professional service firms and applications for government contractors. Today’s acquisition of Union Square (no value given) therefore strengthens its reach into AEC professional services, while also growing its footprint, particularly in the UK and Australia (it has some 450 customers in 15 countries). It says the acquisition:

“broadens and deepens Deltek’s portfolio of solutions for the AEC industry by enabling companies to organise and leverage a complete set of information around each project – ensuring that project teams can better collaborate on critical project data to successfully manage projects for clients.”

In some respects – US ERP vendor with Australian operation buys UK-based project management solution provider – the deal is similar to Viewpoint’s February 2013 acquisition of 4Projects, but the main difference is the software architecture. Union Square’s user base remains predominantly on-premise, while 4Projects was a pure Software-as-a-Service vendor, and it is some years ahead of Union Square in developing BIM ‘Common Data Environment’ (CDE) capabilities (showcased at the May 2016 Viewpoint 2016 UK customer summit). On the other hand, Deltek has also been pushing its cloud ERP offering, so it may well accelerate a transition for some Union Square customers towards SaaS-based systems, and increase competition in the cloud collaboration sector.

It also marks yet another rationalisation in the construction IT space – overdue consolidation in this sector being something that Viewpoint CEO Manolis Kotzabasakis talked about when I interviewed him in May. It also potentially forms another player able to combine collaboration and financial management in the cloud – Aconex has been growing its financial functions (as well as the Viewpoint/4Projects deal, in 2015 Aconex acquired Worksite and the more recent Conject deal added to its capabilities).


Meanwhile, Richard Vincent, managing director at Union Square Software says:

“Our organisation is thrilled to become a part of Deltek. Together, we have nearly 50 years of experience working hand in hand with AEC firms to make their businesses run better. Our two companies share a common focus, a common culture, and a deep knowledge of what it takes for AEC firms to be successful. That’s the foundation for a bright future as we come together. Our combined forces will deliver an even more powerful solution to the fast-growing AEC industry. We look forward to working closely with Deltek in the days ahead.”

Mike Corkery, president and CEO of Deltek says:

“Deltek continually looks for ways to deliver more value to our customers through product innovation and acquisition, and that’s why we have acquired Union Square. Managing data and collaborating on information to make smart decisions is critical for successful companies, especially in the AEC industry. We acquired Union Square to meet the acute needs of Architecture, Engineering and Construction firms to organise the many emails, documents, drawings and other artifacts that are produced in the course of successfully delivering a project. In Union Square, we have found a company that shares our passion and dedication to helping AEC firms run better and deliver on-time and on-budget projects to their customers. On behalf of our global team, I’d like to welcome Union Square to the Deltek family. Together, we will continue to set the pace within the AEC industry.”


Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2016/07/union-square-acquired-by-deltek/

Jul 15 2016

Collaboration, BIM and FM

Last week’s ThinkBIM conference focused on the transition of data from construction to facilities management. FM is getting more involved with BIM from the earliest stages of a project, and will collaborate more frequently during project delivery.

The latest ThinkBIM half-day conference (on 6 July at Squire Patton Boggs’ new offices in Leeds, and sponsored by Trimble and construction collaboration vendor GroupBC, formerly Business Collaborator) looked at the use of building information modelling by those working in facilities management, operations and maintenance for owner-operator organisations, and yet – on a show of hands – only a small handful of attendees were actually employed in FM. The day therefore repeatedly returned to what government and industry needs to do to get more FM professionals engaged with BIM.

The government push on BIM for FM

ThinkBIM July 2016The business case for BIM has been well made by the UK Government’s BIM Task Group since 2011. Keynote speaker Deborah Rowland (currently director of FM at the Ministry of Justice) has been at the forefront in pushing the BIM for FM message in the public sector. Citing Government Soft Landings (GSL), she underlined how asset management is fundamental to BIM-enabled project delivery, with client facilities managers involved from a project’s inception in helping to define the employer’s information requirements (EIR) and asset information management (AIM) needs.

PAS 1192-3 covering information management in the operational phase was published in March 2014, and since then advice, standards and protocols covering FM inputs to BIM and beyond have expanded. Deborah highlighted recent useful additions, notably a RICS-developed NRM3 dLCC (digital lifeycle cost) toolkit which aligns BIM with SFG20 maintenance information needs (more about SFG20 here). The MoJ’s BIM2AIM group also recently launched a suite of documents providing clear and concise instruction and guidance on how to define, procure and deliver Level 2 BIM projects (read BIM+ news).

The MoJ’s strategy envisages such tools providing, among other things, much-needed transparency and evidence of value for money to taxpayers, while providing the MoJ with key information to make strategic decisions on its asset portfolio, to innovate, and to continually improve. Surely, many other client organisations will want to reap similar benefits?

“Keeping the BIM live”

ThinkBIM July 2016The second keynote came from CAFM software vendor FSI’s Jacqueline Walpole. She recalled how many FMs were once a paper-based afterthought. Typically, for the client or owner-operator, the completion of a built asset was followed, nine months later, by the handover of a large paper-based archive of information, much of it in paper-based form, some of it already out-of-date (it was for this reason, I remember, that BIW Technologies – later Conject, now Aconex – was one of the first collaboration vendors to digitise the production of the Health and Safety File, work initially undertaken in partnership with retailer Sainsbury’s in 2002 – post).

Computer-aided FM (CAFM), therefore, often tended to start from scratch. Digitising design, construction, commissioning and handover processes, she said, opens up the prospect of a digital flow of information into FM (“keeping the BIM live”), achieving operational readiness almost instantly, and Jacqueline highlighted the publication of a new BIFM guide (available here) to achieving such readiness, which includes an EIR template.

The two short keynotes, therefore, promoted readily available toolkits, guides and templates showing how BIM can be applied to support FM, and, in so doing, to enhance the roles of facilities managers. I would expect collaboration/’common data environment’ (CDE) vendors to be looking to incorporate elements of these templates into their workflows and reporting tools to support clients’ facilities managers.

Data for operation and maintenance

Two of the afternoon’s roundtable workshop sessions underlined the potential value of data to help managers improve the performance of their assets and to connect their built asset’s data with valuable data held in other systems, but recurring themes about people and silo cultures also surfaced.

Jacqueline Walpole chaired one of the roundtables. She got delegates to consider, first, what data might be needed to support asset operations (with a nod to ‘lean’ thinking: “if in doubt, ask the caretaker – what are their ‘must haves’?”), and how some data schemas manage simple issues such as floor-numbering.

Second, we talked about how in-service performance data might be used to support asset management. Applying analogies including cars and jet engines, we talking about creating and maintaining a built asset’s “service history,” and using the data generated by different building systems’ sensors to improve reliability and energy efficiency. Just as Rolls-Royce routinely collates huge volumes of data from every engine and flight as a basis for meeting its customers’ service level agreements, so facilities managers could collate and analyse built environment data (energy use, temperature, humidity, heating, lighting, equipment use, etc, over time) to support post-occupancy evaluation, optimise lifecycle cost efficiency, and – for ‘repeat clients’ – provide data to help them collaborate with design teams to improve the planning, design, construction and operation of future built assets.

Linked data for better decision-making

GroupBC’s Steve Crompton led a roundtable pondering trust issues and other reasons why construction project teams have tended to re-key rather than re-use data. Conflicting standards, industry inertia and resistance to major people and process-related changes quickly cropped up. Old attitudes of ‘knowledge is power’ need to be overcome, as does distrust of ‘other people’s data’ (“We don’t trust digital data yet, because we haven’t moved on from distrusting paper information, or stuff off the web”). This workshop also highlighted some of the messages from June’s ThinkBIM ‘twilight’ event (read my post: Open Data, BIM and the semantic web) – semantic web technologies can help connect data about built assets to other data about the environment and about social aspects of the areas around those built assets. However, security, commercial confidentiality and personal privacy concerns all need to be addressed in selecting what data might be shared and used.

ThinkBIM July 2016Finally, delegates heard a ‘RetroBIM’ case study from BIM Academy’s Graham Kelly, relating to the compilation of data to support improvement works undertaken at Sydney Opera House in Australia. That a UK-based firm led this project is another indication of how UK BIM experience is prized by clients worldwide, and there is clearly potential for UK FM businesses to similarly become world leaders in applying BIM to FM – though Graham was cautious about some software businesses: “BIM software companies have raised uninformed expectations,” he said.

The conference talked about the return on investment (ROI), but also highlighted it is not only a technological change. ‘Silo cultures’ and ‘change management’ were two of the key risks on Graham’s project. The same people and process themes were voiced in the workshops, and they apply equally to the wider adoption of BIM – and not just by the FM community.

[Disclosures: This is an edited version of a post first published on the ThinkBIM blog, delivered as part of consultancy support for Leeds Beckett University. Separately, I have also delivered consultancy services to GroupBC.]

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2016/07/collaboration-bim-and-fm/

Jun 21 2016

TIM: The Inspection Manager

Almost since we first started to use mobile phones on construction sites, we have sought to use them to manage defects and conduct inspections (I was at BIW, later Conject, when it launched its Windows app in 2006). As a result, over the past 10 years, and particularly since the 2007 advent of the iPhone and other smartphones, I have seen and written about numerous construction-oriented quality control, defects management, site reporting and ‘punchlisting’ and ‘Field’ applications. Some are tightly integrated with Software-as-a-Service construction collaboration platforms that deliver wider functionality; others are more “point solutions” designed to support particular key processes.

Enter TIM

TIM screengrabFalling into the second category is TIM: The Inspection Manager. Director Paul Miller tells me that the Southport, UK-based company has been developing mobile data gathering apps since about 2008. Its first TIM product (The Inventory Manager), targeted the residential property inspection market, while The Inspection Manager was launched just over two years ago, and its report templates or survey schedules can be customised – by TIM’s technical support team – to suit any sector (I was shown examples from civil engineering and facilities management, for example).

These customised surveys (delivered on iOS, Android or Windows devices) can include mandatory or optional questions, with built-in guidance notes attached to each question. If needed, survey results can be scored in the background, and actions or recommendations specified. Paul summed up the on-site benefits of TIM:

  • All text content is entered in to the pre-designed report template sections, using the mobile device keypad, mandatory questions can be included to ensure the forms are filled in correctly.
  • All images captured on the device camera are embedded into the final report with geo-tagged location co-ordinates, along with date and time stamps.
  • The digital report can be downloaded in a choice of formats (PDF, CSV or XML file) for printing or sharing with clients and project teams within minutes of being completed.
  • The templates are designed to comply with all the necessary regulations/legislation, and health/safety.
  • Your documents are backed up to fully encrypted and secure cloud based servers.
  • Base data (job type, WI number, Surveyors name, etc) can be imported from excel or CRM systems, that automatically synchronise with the devices.
  • Guidance Notes can be added to any question which can show information on how to answer.

The application is available on a monthly subscription tariff (for up to 10, the cost is £50 per month per registered device, with three customised templates included in the deal; for a single user, to register just 1 device to use 3 templates on an unlimited basis is £100 per month). TIM also offers the option to purchase a 5-year licence, with the hosting software installed onto clients’ own system/s.

Competitive comparisons

TIM is competing in a busy market. Disregarding (for now) the SaaS providers delivering inspection as part of a wider offering (Viewpoint, Aconex, Conject, Asite, etc), TIM is also up against some mature UK point solution competitors including SnagR, Dome’s iSnag, Kykloud and GoReport (both the latter offering RICS approved survey reports – post), plus near continent offerings from Finalcad (post), among others.

The core TIM functionality appears little different to its competitors; like Kykloud it claims a 50% time reduction in building survey times, but Kykloud also offers customers the option of designing their own surveys to more exactly meet customer needs rather than templates being created by the vendor, while GoReport also offers some integration with other devices. However, while TIM and Finalcad are available across three operating systems, both GoReport and Kykloud are iOS only.

Kykloud and (particularly) Finalcad are also working hard to support BIM-related processes and long-term asset management, and even – in the case of Finalcad – embracing ‘Big Data’ and leveraging business intelligence reports to set industry benchmarks (post). In this respect, Finalcad appears the most forward-looking of the point solution data capture applications.

Update (8 July 2016) – A note from Paul Miller: “we have licensed the Inspection Manager software to ‘the Warehouse Auditor’ which targets the warehousing/logistics sector. This Wednesday at the Dorchester Hotel we won the ‘Technical Innovation’ of the year award.”

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2016/06/tim-the-inspection-manager/

Jun 20 2016

“Top 10 (US) Construction Apps”

In the UK at least, we are coming up to the time of year when some construction software vendors start thinking about the Construction Computing Awards (the so-called “Hammers”). As I wrote in July 2015, when last year’s call for nominations opened, I have long been a somewhat sceptical observer of this event, seeking greater clarity on the criteria for inclusion and shortlisting in a category, and wanting the judging process to be as transparent and objective as possible. Other autumn 2016 awards programmes are also being promoted – I see London Build (unfortunately, clashing with Digital Construction Week – and both a week after the Build Show) has a software category in its London Construction Awards, for example.

Top 10 Construction Apps

Tsheets Top 10 AppsSo I was interested to get an email about another construction awards or ratings programme (I was also offered an infographic – here). Idaho, US-based TSheets – a provider of SaaS-based, time-tracking, scheduling and pricing applications – recently ran a “Top 10 Construction Apps” programme. They basically reviewed a longlist of 100 or so apps with “experts from a wide range of construction companies”, based on:

  • How good they are at solving specific problems for construction workers
  • How easy they are to use
  • The number of users each app has
  • The number of integrations each app has
  • The quality of each app’s customer service
  • The previous track record of each app developer
  • Their average ratings in the Apple App store and Google Play store
  • Additional ratings and reviews in the press and on other websites, such as Capterra
Some useful criteria there but, as you might expect, I was told “most of the tools were developed in the US and have large customer bases there“, though “at least one comes from France (BulldozAIR, the runner-up in the Construction Plans and Blueprints category) and many have significant customers outside of the US, including in the UK and Australia.” I also understand that the reviewers were mainly from contractors, so the listing may be skewed towards their needs rather than those of, say, architects or engineers. And there is also a danger that the reviewers just rate the tools they’ve personally selected or been told to use – there may be better ones on the market but they may not be in a position to make comparisons.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given that it’s a vendor-instigated listing, Tsheets own product features as “best app for time tracking and scheduling”; the rest of the (very US-centric) list featured:

If nothing else, this ‘Top 10’ underlines how parochial the international construction application market is currently, and also how fragmented and open to new entrants it remains. Across most of the above categories, I can think of (and have written about) alternative products in the UK and other international markets, and even some that span continents (looking at some of the mobile tools available from the major SaaS collaboration and design authoring vendors, for instance). That said, it would be tough for a US contractor to rate an app designed to support, say, UK or Australian building regulations, just as a UK worker, used to working in metric, might find it difficult to evaluate a tool that delivers outputs in imperial measures. Will we, in five years time, see similar lists that are more international in nature?

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2016/06/top-10-us-construction-apps/

Jun 20 2016

think project! acquires Austrian sales partner

Thinkproject-logoAlmost exactly three months after Aconex acquired the Germany-based Conject business (post), the latter’s near-neighbour in Munich, think project!, has ac­quired 70% of its Aus­trian sales part­ner i-pm GmbH.

Founded in 2004 and solely marketing think project!’s SaaS-based construction collaboration across Austria, i-pm will shortly rebrand to be­come think project! Öster­re­ich (Aus­tria). MD Michael Jug will retain re­spon­si­bil­ity for the Aus­trian mar­ket and his team and lo­ca­tion will re­main un­changed.

think project! believes the deal will in­ten­sify growth – both within Aus­tria and in­ter­na­tion­ally through its Aus­trian cus­tomers – and ex­pand its mar­ket pres­ence sig­nif­i­cantly. The deal is the latest in a series of deals which have seen think project build stakes in var­i­ous Ger­man com­pa­nies (eg: Eplass, planConnect), plus French PLM business, Lascom AEC (post).

CEO Thomas Backhmaier says:

Thomas Bachmaier“The Aus­trian mar­ket is an im­por­tant core mar­ket for think project!. The pres­ence of in­ter­na­tional and re­gion­ally in­flu­en­tial con­struc­tion con­trac­tors, glob­ally ac­tive en­gi­neer­ing com­pa­nies and par­tic­u­larly pub­lic in­fra­struc­ture clients such as AS­FI­NAG (Aus­trian mo­tor­way op­er­a­tor) and ÖBB (Aus­trian Rail­ways) make Aus­tria a mar­ket with ex­cep­tional de­vel­op­ment po­ten­tial for think project!.”

Michael Jug, MD of think project! Öster­re­ich, says:

“With its ro­bust tech­nol­ogy and strate­gic fore­sight, the think project! Group was the foun­da­tion for our suc­cess from the very start. We are very pleased to now be a part of this strong group of com­pa­nies and, as a re­sult, can see op­por­tu­nity for con­sid­er­ably ex­pand­ing the mar­ket po­ten­tial and fur­ther grow­ing – both within Aus­tria and in­ter­na­tion­ally through our Aus­trian cus­tomers.”

The deal reminds us that, despite its Conject deal, Aconex still faces strong competition in the central European market. As well as think project!, Stuttgart-based RIB is also strong in cloud-based collaboration, having acquired Australia’s ProjectCentre in 2012 (post) and Denmark’s Docia in July 2014 (post).

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2016/06/think-project-acquires-austrian-sales-partner/

Jun 02 2016

Open data, BIM and the semantic web

‘Semantic web’ technologies potentially expand the richness of data made available to built asset decision-makers. UK SaaS collaboration vendor GroupBC is leading progressive thinking in this field.

The latest ThinkBIM ‘twilight’ seminar, held in Leeds yesterday (1 June 2016), looked at the wider application of data relating to the built environment. Too many BIM events focus purely on the creation and use of data within a built asset project team; some extend the discussion to look at reuse of data for facility management, operation and maintenance; but few BIM events look at how some BIM and other built environment data might be connected to other data or even made more widely available, perhaps as open data.

Becoming more open

So far as BIM is concerned, the UK government’s 2011 insistence on BIM processes generating “open shareable asset information” is often assumed simply to be about ensuring data is interoperable: capable of being shared between different applications, operating systems and IT hardware. However, the first word is also strongly linked with the UK government’s wider digital agenda – the February 2015 Digital Built Britain strategy (strongly endorsed in the recent 2016 Government Construction Strategy and leading us towards BIM Level 3), for example, is not just about construction, but a fusion of industry strategies relating also to business and professional services, future cities and the information economy.

Discussions about open data are increasingly common, particularly in the UK, where the government has set out to be a world leader in creation and reuse of open data (it recently ranked first in an Open Data Barometer league table of international performance), with data valued as a key part of our national infrastructure (however, in December 2015, the Open Data Institute wrote an open letter to Lord Adonis, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, arguing data is not being given “the same importance as our road, railway and energy networks were given in the industrial revolution and are still given now”).

The government’s open data push is being realised both centrally and locally, and is predicated on a belief in greater transparency, in ‘Government as a Platform’, giving tax-payers access to their data and other information derived from government investment in public services and assets. As well as central government’s National Information Infrastructure and Data.gov.uk, several local authorities have launched open initiatives, some creating dashboards sharing metrics generated from open datasets (look at the London Datastore, Open Glasgow, Leeds Data Mill, Bath:Hacked and Open Data Bristol, for example).

Open is everywhere

In addition to BIM-related open data conversations, I have attended Constructing Excellence meetings about open data (read Ben Pritchard’s blog post); I am part of an EthosVO-led, Innovate UK R&D project (SkillsPlanner) using open linked data as a resource to help address construction skills shortages; and I have led conversations in the Chartered Institute of Public Relations about the need for communicators to be more data-literate, more aware of open data issues and opportunities.

However, yesterday’s ThinkBIM event (held at AQL’s datacentre housed in a former chapel – now the beeping digital heart of Leeds) was more focused on the built environment challenges and opportunities.

  • AGI Foresight 2020 imageWhile commonly regarded as a mapping organisation, Ordnance Survey’s core skills are in data, technology and interconnections. Echoing the Association for Geographical Information’s recent Foresight report (post), Ordnance Survey’s Paul Griffiths described geospatial data as the ‘glue’ connecting data about built assets to other data about the environment and about social aspects of the areas around those built assets. in February 2015, OS launched OpenMap, a new digital map bringing open geospatial data to mobile and web platforms. Then, using examples drawn from Thames Water projects undertaken using the ‘Semantic BIM’ platform provided by SaaS vendor GroupBC (formerly better known as Business Collaborator), Griffiths showed how data about existing building types and heights, flood risks, crime, employment and education could be used to augment existing decision-making tools (“project design need no longer happen in splendid isolation”).
  • ODI Leeds’ Tom Forth showed various examples of data captured by Leeds City Council and made open, including a powerful example of how public building energy use could be cross-referenced with IT data relating to office occupancy to demonstrate when and where energy savings might be made (making “ten million lines of data” open, he said, also helped make that data usable and bridged gaps that previously existed between FM and IT departmental silos). Datasets about empty buildings, housing density and open spaces could also be accessed to inform public debates about housing shortages and planning decisions.
  • Stephen Crompton (GroupBC)GroupBC’s CTO Steve Crompton then provided a ‘RetroBIM’ critique of legacy information, suggesting around 98% of current built asset data was effectively trapped in drawings and documents held in internal file-sharing systems, not lodged in databases where they could be used as a basis for decision-making (“Let’s democratise some of that data, put it in the cloud,” he said). He briefly described how GroupBC’s Semantic BIM platform could provide vital contextual data to support efficient decision-making for planning, designing, constructing and operating built assets.

ODI data spectrumDuring the panel discussion, it was clear security, commercial confidentiality and personal privacy concerns all need to be addressed in selecting what data might be made open (the Open Data Institute has a useful ‘data spectrum’ diagram showing the continuum from closed to open data). But Tom Forth stressed many bodies currently hold huge volumes of dormant data that could be made open (surely, such data will only have value if someone does something with it?).

Government departments are already opening up some of their data reserves so that they can be explored and exploited. In June 2015, DEFRA, one of the most data-rich departments in Whitehall, opened up thousands of datasets so that they could be more widely used to improve the quality of our natural environment.

It was also clear that the industry currently known as construction is still at an early stage in not just its BIM journey (the BIM Level 2 deadline passed less than two months ago) but also in its open data journey. To re-use an argument I’ve given in recent lectures and conference keynotes, we have only just started to move from “common paper environments” to “common data environments” – and open data is part of the more long-term BIM Level 3 picture (is it just a coincidence that the ‘semantic web’ is sometimes referred to as Web 3.0).

GroupBC: semantic BIM differentiation

GroupBCI speak regularly to the main SaaS collaboration vendors active in the UK, and GroupBC is the only one actively developing semantic web capabilities. That is not to say that rivals aren’t thinking about integration between their platforms and other information systems – APIs are a key part of Viewpoint’s roadmap, I heard at last week’s customer summit, for example – but GroupBC is pioneering the use of linked data to build new products and enhance the capabilities of existing tools.

Its ‘Semantic BIM’ technology moves beyond the typical uses of BIM for visualisation, clash detection, construction sequencing, etc, and opens up a potentially huge web of related data, from ‘location intelligence’, to data shared by or licensed from other commercial or public bodies, and to data held in internal corporate systems. BIM, therefore, becomes just part of a bigger built asset data picture – the semantic web allows teams to exploit far richer seams of data, potentially unearthing vital ‘nuggets’ of information for accurate and timely decision-making.

(ThinkBIM’s next half-day conference, focused on BIM for operation and in-use, is in Leeds on Wednesday 6 July 2016more details here. Update, 7 June: Help a Loughborough MSc student with this BIM survey)

[Disclosure: I have provided event support services to ThinkBIM, and consultancy services to GroupBC.]

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2016/06/open-data-bim-and-the-semantic-web/

Jun 01 2016

Aconex UK growth makes Conject deal look timely

Latest results from Aconex (UK) Ltd suggest the March 2016  Conject acquisition was timely, with the Australian giant’s European operation lagging behind regional rivals.

Aconex logo 2014I have monitored the performance of Aconex’s UK-based operation, Aconex (UK) Ltd for some years (since at least 2007). The Melbourne, Australia-based parent company has made great strides to become the dominant SaaS ‘pure-play’ vendor in the global construction collaboration market, but in the UK – arguably, the most mature, sophisticated and competitive market for AEC SaaS collaboration – it has historically lagged behind indigenous competitors such as 4Projects, BIW (now Viewpoint and Conject UK respectively) and Asite. Aconex has also fared less well than rivals in the mainland Europe market.

But direct comparisons are also difficult. Despite its name, Aconex (UK) Ltd has not derived most of its revenues from the UK, but from operations in mainland Europe and neighbouring regions such as north Africa (it has an Algerian subsidiary, for example).

uk vendor revenues 01Jun2016Revenues for the year to 30 June 2015 were up 9% from £2.74m to just over £3m, but 2014’s pre-tax profit of £0.357m turned into a small loss (around £18k). While 72% of 2014 sales were from non-UK projects, the figure for the year to June 2015 was 63%.

Aconex’s single-digit European performance therefore lags behind those of its rivals. Over the same reporting period, Asite (post) grew revenues by 12%, while Conject UK earlier grew 13% (post), Viewpoint UK-only revenues were up 14% (post) and Munich, Germany-based think project! reported in February (post) March that its 2015 revenues grew 33%.

Of course, Aconex’s European performance will change dramatically following its acquisition of Conject in March this year. The Conject deal was partially justified on the basis that it would significantly increase Aconex’s market penetration and user network throughout Europe. These latest results suggest such a strategic move was necessary to accelerate the relatively slow organic growth achieved by its existing operation.

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2016/06/aconex-uk-growth-makes-conject-deal-look-timely/

May 26 2016

Viewpoint 2016 UK customer summit

Viewpoint Construction Software‘s 2016 UK customer summit reconvened at London’s Grange Tower Bridge Hotel again this week, and, with more delegates (c. 150) from more companies (55) than last year, now looks to be outgrowing the venue. For many of those attending the two-day event, it was a first opportunity to hear from Manolis Kotzabasakis – appointed CEO of Viewpoint in August 2015 (post) – and he reiterated many of the subjects I discussed with him earlier this month: industry transformation, overdue consolidation, Viewpoint’s continued growth, etc.

UK developments

EMEA commercial director Steve Spark gave an update on the UK business’s progress, which he said includes the SaaS collaboration platform Viewpoint For Projects (VFP) being used on major infrastructure projects including the Hinkley Point nuclear power station project, HS2 and Swansea Bay tidal lagoon. Sales had grown 22% sales, revenues were up (due to be reported in September) and use of the former 4Projects system and of the mobile platform Field View (formerly Priority1) had both grown massively –  6.5 million documents were published to VFP in a year, a million more than the previous year. Steve also said Viewpoint was winning growing volumes of VFP deals in Australia and the US.

Development resource had also expanded massively since 4Projects was acquired by Viewpoint in February 2013 – from 13 to 35 developers – with the total UK operation now numbering 105 (“and growing”); it was also announced that hard-working former Priority1 CEO Richard Scott is also taking a 12-month sabbatical from the business.

Recent product highlights have included an HTML5 viewer (superceding the old Brava viewer), launch of the VFP BIM Manager, and access to VFP from within Field View. Imminent is launch of an end-user portal, ClearView, and availability of Viewpoint apps via the main Apple, Android and Windows app stores (and I saw an Alpha preview of an iOS version of the previously Android-only Field View tool).

BIM Manager and Viewpoint For Projects

(Update: 12 noon BST) – John Adams, product manager for BIM Manager (also architect and self-confessed “COBie enthusiast”), led a session on integration between BIM and the VFP collaboration platform. Its 4BIM R&D project (which started in 2012) gave it a lead over most of its competitors when it came to developing BIM in the browser and to integrating COBie views into views of the model. He explained COBie data can now be drawn from more sources than just the displayed model.

Viewpoint’s BIM home page brings models, data and requirements together; it has been designed with the needs of information managers in mind, and with Level 2 BIM processes central. BIM model-related tasks can now be managed from the BIM viewer (including use of BCF, BIM Collaboration Format), which captures a view and associated comments and time/date stamps it), and – recognising that teams are now working on combined models – tasks against federations have now also been built in to the tool. BCF, supported by BuildingSMART, has been adopted as Viewpoint’s key component for managing and resolving ‘BIM issues’ via its VFP common data environment, CDE.

John also covered file naming conventions, automated model format  and working units checking; he said Viewpoint has worked extensively with BS1192 ‘standard guru’ Mervyn Richards to ensure its system meets PAS1192:2 and 3 requirements. And much had been learned from deploying the technology and processes on projects for customers including the UK Ministry of Justice and contractor Willmott Dixon (he demonstrated the viewer’s toolset using a model created for a project at Bournemouth University).

(Update: 1500 BST) – I also talked over lunch to John about the ongoing Innovate UK-funded project looking at ‘satellite’ or ‘Tier2Tier’ CDEs (post), due to finish this autumn. He told me the research project has identified different speeds of adoption of COBie within project supply chains, and also some shortcomings in processes currently defined in BIM Execution Plans (BEPs) regarding publication of data to satellite CDEs. Learning from the Tier2Tierproject will be shared by the project’s academic partners following its conclusion.

[Disclosure: I delivered a keynote presentation (fee paid) at the Viewpoint event.] 

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2016/05/viewpoint-2016-uk-customer-summit/

May 19 2016

GamePlan’s aim: ‘lean’ collaboration

Nothing to do with computer gaming, GamePlan is a US start-up exploring both lean construction and BIM-based collaboration.

GamePlan logoIn devising its product, US-based startup GamePlan (headquartered in Wilmington, Delaware) has consciously tried not to copy existing SaaS construction software providers’ approach to collaboration. While its core platform offers many of the same features, its philosophy has been strongly guided by a commitment to ‘lean construction’ and learning from Last Planner and related approaches. I spoke to GamePlan founder Vishal Porwal earlier this week.

Vishal PorwalAs a marketer, I queried the company name. In a sector where vendors often create names that associate themselves directly with building, construction, projects and sites, why did Vishal choose GamePlan? “It dates back to when I was working at Turner Construction,” he said. “Often, superintendents would start a meeting by asking ‘What’s the game plan?‘ and as we were also working on lean construction workflows using tools like Last Planner, the name kind of stuck.”

Lean and social

Vishal recalls the difficulties of managing Last Planner outputs capture on paper, in Visio, then Excel spreadsheets or MS Project: “We wasted a lot of time on transferring information and confirmation and verification processes – not doing project work or solving problems.” GamePlan was therefore devised to deliver a combination of information exchange, project and contract management, scheduling, communication and collaboration.

GamePlan Time LineIts user interface is also influenced by tools such as Slack and Facebook, providing – like one or two other products – a discussion timeline feed for collaboration as well as more conventional email notifications. And GamePlan have been heavily involved with several US AEC Hackathons, finding them useful in stimulating new thinking and innovation (incidentally, after the inaugural London AEC Hackathon in July 2015 – post another London event is planned for 8-10 July).

Vishal says he has been reading ExtranetEvolution since 2009/10 and credits it with helping him formulate the concept of GamePlan, which launched in 2013.

“I wanted to create a robust cloud-based construction project management solution that could become an affordable, enterprise-ready alternative to the likes of Procore, NewForma and Aconex. Our mission as a company is to make the construction industry safer, more productive, environmentally friendly and more profitable.”

GamePlan Field: PunchListingGamePlan Team is the core project-wide collaboration platform, enabling people from different organizations, working on the same project, to quickly discuss ideas, get feedback, share updates, ask questions and organise work – core features cover groups, tasks, photos, contacts, members, and reports and analytics. As well as browser-based access, users can use GamePlan on iOS mobile devices, and there is also a Chrome extension. GamePlan Team is included for free as part of all other company products: Field, Documents, Contract Management, Time, and Resources, each typically priced from US$50 per month (for 10 users, 10 GB storage and unlimited projects), and with data and workflows shared across the different products.

From 2D to BIM and beyond

GamePlan on iPadClose to US$500m worth of projects have been hosted on GamePlan so far (projects range in size from US$100,000 to over US$60m, with customers across the US, plus others in Mexico, Australia and Qatar). Some small builders have adopted GamePlan for traditional 2D document control and issue management, while others have started to use it for BIM coordination, Vishal said. “Often firms are coordinating model files by sharing Navisworks .NWCs and .DWGs to places like ShareFile and Dropbox, so we offer integration tools that synchronise with these.”

In the longer term, Vishal (who writes a blog about green and lean BIM) expects GamePlan to offer a more sophisticated approach to BIM: “We have been doing some experiments with model visualisation, VR and AI and look forward to extending our product offering to solve AEC problems using the latest and greatest technologies available in the market.” And GamePlan is also planning to start marketing its platform in Europe in the near future, to both widen its customer base and pick up on European countries’ adoption of BIM and development of associated standards.

Going lean

Efforts to promote lean construction have a long history and a close association with efforts, including BIM, to promote collaborative working (I recall attending Constructing Excellence events on the subject in 2007 and 2008, and I returned to the topic in 2010 when I wrote about Advance2000). Of the companies I regularly monitor, only Newforma offers something specific relating to lean construction – in October 2015, it launched Newforma LeanPlanner, powered by LeanKit, to help teams improve production schedule reliability and deliver more predictable project outcomes, but the solution was not (yet) integrated with its core platform.

Vishal is forward-looking in his approach, keen to embrace new ideas and the latest thinking on BIM, as well as more established, yet still relatively progressive, approaches such as lean construction. We talked quite a bit about the UK BIM programme and UK vendor common data environments (CDEs), and with some of his customers already working 80% to 100% in BIM, it is clear that he sees BIM as key to GamePlan’s future, er, game plan.

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2016/05/gameplans-aim-lean-collaboration/

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