Hacking the Bentley iModel platform

Over 72 hours, teams vied to win a US$2,500 bounty put up by Bentley Systems as one of the prizes in the InfraHack 2019 hackathon. Bentley is positioning itself as a champion of ‘open’ collaboration.

Infrahack presentation in progressInfrahack 2019 kicked off at Fujitsu’s London headquarters last Thursday (16 May 2019), expanding on previous year’s hackathons, which had focused on railway-related challenges (“Hacktrain”), to cover a wider range of infrastructure. Organisers Hack Partners had assembled a group of customers including National Grid, CGI, Highways England, Transport for London, Network for Rail, Northumbria Water, the National Infrastructure Commission, Mott MacDonald and Bentley Systems.

These organisations all posed challenges to the audience of innovators, technologists and programmers; out of 500 applications, 250 people were interviewed and 60 participants were given places. Most of the customer bodies also provided various data resources, including CCTV footage, footfall data, infrastructure design information, SCADA and weather data to provide raw material for analysis and development. After the challenge presentations, teams started to form to respond to their chosen challenges. Teams had three days to come up with solutions, which were due to be presented on Sunday (19 May 2019).

Challenges posed covered areas including electrical vehicle charging, energy efficiency in non-domestic buildings, predicting the traffic impacts of major events, modelling the depth of water utilities, impacts on transport choices caused by generational shifts, and improving information about station lift availability.

Bentley bounty

Steve Cannadine from Mott MacDonald Digital Ventures and colleague Michael Gaunt challenged teams to explore the “Golden thread of information”: to connect project data, gather insights, and so improve decision-making. Bentley Systems offered a US$2,500 bounty to any solution deploying its iModel.js / iModel hub open-source technologies (announced at Bentley’s Year in Infrastructure event in London in October 2018 – post) – and there was clearly a strong potential overlap with the Mott Macdonald challenge. Bentley’s Glen Worrall (principal application engineer for digital twins) spoke about “living digital twins,” the importance of “alignment, accountability and accessibility”, and briefly showed how Microsoft’s PowerBI could provide analytical information for project decision-making (reminding me of Aecom’s award-winning work from YII2018 – post) – although Worrall said the InfraHack challenge was more about “design insights”). Originally from the northeast of England, Worrall was also enthusiastic about the Northumbria Water challenge, where Bentley was contributing to data about utilities in Sunderland.

screengrab - Bentley Design Insights

head and shoulders photo of Bentley's Nabil Abou-RahmeAfter the challenge presentations, I talked to Worrall and to his colleague Dr Nabil Abou-Rahme, right, who joined Bentley as chief research officer for Bentley Institute’s Digital Advancement Academies last month (April 2019 – read news release). He joined Bentley from Mott MacDonald, where he was involved in digital transformation, most recently as head of smart infrastructure and global practice leader for data science. Clearly enthusiastic about data opportunities, he said Bentley was keen to exploit the rich data gathered from infrastructure project delivery processes and to make it more openly available to help improve collaboration and decision-making (he said the $2500 bounty had been the idea of Bentley CTO Keith Bentley, keen to get innovators using the iModelHub and iModel.js platform; Worrall added “Keith also wants the platform to be as widely tested as possible” – hence the offer).

“Open” modelling

Many of the Bentley design solutions are described as “open”. Its “Open modeling environment” portfolio includes OpenRoads, OpenBuildings, OpenRail, OpenPlant, etc, though this tends to mean that they share core software architectures that allow data to be seamlessly exchanged across multi-disciplinary projects and teams using Bentley solutions (not open standards or open data). Last week, Bentley announced two new additions to the portfolio: OpenSite Designer, and OpenBuildings Station Designer. The company also has its own definition of CDE: not a common data environment, but a “connected data environment” helping share digital components and workflows.

In a Spring press briefing on 13 May 2019, Bentley Systems CEO Greg Bentley said “dark data” contained in engineering files from various sources (including Revit) could be “opened up” in this CDE to become “data that is query-able and change-synchronised for stakeholders in the project delivery ecosystem.”

Glenn Worrall (Bentley), speaking at InfrahackWorrall said Bentley had historically been mainly regarded as a design software business, but was now pushing into the construction process (he cited the June 2018 acquisition of Synchro Software), and ultimately into the whole life of an asset (“the purpose of a model will change over the asset’s lifecycle”). This evolution had been helped by the adoption of web services, by exploitation of Microsoft’s Azure platform, and by Bentley’s Connect technologies. It was also important, he said, to promote standardisation of design and consistent approaches to defining elements of projects (Uniclass got mentioned several times), which made it easier to build tools.

He described iTwin as “a mannequin” for an asset. “It provides a structure, a platform that gives a good representation of the core asset that was delivered. You can then choose how you dress it – for example, it can be populated by data from Internet of Things sensors so that you can see its operational performance.” He talked about avoiding the “digital waste” arising from bloating models with unnecessary additional data that could be provided by “instance connections” – for example, linking to, rather than incorporating, geolocated open weather data. But he said many construction businesses (and clients) still need to develop their digital competence (we discussed how BIM adoption in the UK had potentially resulted in a two-tier sector – an increasingly BIM-competent level sitting above a level unsure of how, or if, it needed to adopt BIM).

Infrahack winners

A group calling themselves Team Pipes took on Northumbrian Water’s challenge, won the Bentley challenge and finished second overall, and – according to Worrall, “showed an excellent example of iModel.js”. No official announcement of the results yet, but, judging from Twitter, a team focused on the Network Rail challenge was the overall winner, while a team taking on the Highways England challenge finished third.

Update (30 May 2019) – A BIMplus news report confirms the overall Infrahack winner was Team 404 Not Found, who built a publicly accessible data-feed (a unified API) providing real-time status of lifts and escalators at train stations across the UK. They estimated that this could save Network Rail around £3-4m a year in better maintenance planning procedures in addition to improving customer satisfaction and mobility for customers with accessibility requirements. In second place, Team Pipes brought together Bentley Systems’ iModel.js and 2D maps of water pipes to calculate their depth, creating a 3D map of Northumbrian Water’s 25,000km network of pipes. Third was Know Your Network, which created a decision supporting dashboard to help network operators better plan roadworks.

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