Last week I met Matthew Jennings, business development director, and online director Richard Hulbert of London-based digital agency Code Vanilla, which has developed a cloud-based collaboration platform called Xpin (described here). Following an introduction via Su Butcher, Matthew had asked for feedback on the Beta release of Xpin and whether it might be of interest to architects.
In a nutshell, “Xpin is a web-based collaborative management tool that enables distributed teams to work together on visual backgrounds.” After a quick exchange of emails, I received an Xpin invitation and was registered in seconds.
The interface is clean and simple, with new users immediately invited to upload images (currently only PDF, JPG or PNG). Such images then form what Xpin terms a live “canvas” which can be shared with fellow project team members, who – as the branding suggests – can add “pins” and start conversations around these pins. Each pin, via navigation tabs for activity, details, uploads and alerts, can carry user-generated comments and links to further files of supporting documentation, capturing threaded conversations.
More importantly, pins aren’t just places for user interactions. Pins can also represent entities such as tasks, pieces of equipment, rooms, buildings or even people. Each can be configured to record attributes (condition, availability, etc), and to support real-time, item-specific conversations. So, for example, if an item of construction plant is moved, operatives can update the pin position on the site plan so that its new location is instantly visible to the site manager and other project team members.
Xpin also maintains an audit trail so that users can review past conversations, or the history of a particular asset. You can scroll back to see how how things looked at a previous time in the project and then roll-forward to see how things changed, when, where and why. Xpin also offers flexible searching and filtering, and configurable permissioning, alerts, and email and SMS integration.
Xpin for construction project delivery?
Richard explained that Xpin had been developed as a generic Software-as-a-Service collaboration platform, and that architecture was just one potential market; Code Vanilla has experience in pharmaceuticals, manufacturing and event management, and some Beta testing is already under way in a manufacturing environment.
Depending upon the price of the application and the licensing strategy, I could see the potential of Xpin to support SME projects where a simple, intuitive way of sharing and collaborating upon programmes, drawings and other graphic information is needed. But more sophisticated projects undertaken by larger teams may be better served by existing construction collaboration platforms, which deliver extensive functionality to support collaboration (including drawing mark-up and commenting), version control, workflow, quality assurance and reporting.
However, the more I learned about Xpin, the more I began to think about its potential as an asset or facilities management platform. If Code Vanilla can create an easy way to import as-built data from the design and construction phases of a project, then Xpin could prove invaluable to non-construction staff responsible for operation and maintenance of built assets and the fixtures, finishes, furniture and equipment within them.
Richard told me that hierarchies of pins could be created. For example, pins could be used to identify plant-rooms, and then, within each plant-room, each item of equipment could be documented via its own pin. We also discussed geo-location of items (GPS is on the product road-map) and how the platform might potentially be integrated with RFID, QR codes (post) or augmented reality systems such as Layar. There is also, in my view, an opportunity for integration with real-time environmental data (we talked about Pachube – recently rebranded Cosm – and the ‘Internet of Things‘), so that pins’ data can be automatically updated via other devices, as well as by human intervention.
Mobile web-based collaboration is also critical to Xpin’s future, enabling real-time updates of the location or status of a particular asset from the field rather than retrospectively when the user returns to the office. Meantime, Code Vanilla is currently looking for Beta testers of Xpin, with the latest round of development due to finish in September 2012.
There are several low-cost, simple construction-specific collaboration platforms that can be used to support planning, detailed design and on-site project delivery (I have looked at UK vendors Woobius (post), Clouds UK (post) and Collabor8Online (post), among others, previously), but, as with their often more expensive and sophisticated rivals, collaboration tends to be document-centric. While Xpin’s “canvas”-sharing is along similar lines, its alternative, asset-centric approach to capturing and recording the histories and statuses of particular rooms or items within rooms is different and likely to be more user-friendly. If relevant as-built data from design and construction can be imported during project handover, then Xpin could become an intuitive and powerful information tool for owner-operators, facilities managers and their supply chains involved with the upkeep of buildings and the systems, equipment and furniture they contain.