Designing Buildings’ BIM Wiki: industry needs a better, wider, digital knowledge base

A new BIM Wiki, launched by Designing Buildings, aims to create a comprehensive and up-to-date BIM information source, but industry needs a wider, digital knowledge base.

DesigningBuildings logoDesigning Buildings, the UK-based Wiki launched in 2012 (see my 2013 EE post DesigningBuildings: a wiki in progress) and backed by several UK industry institutions, recently (19 June 2019) announced a dedicated building information modelling, BIM Wiki, produced in collaboration with PCSG, the UK construction consultancy chaired by Mark Bew, former chair of the UK BIM Task Group.

Unfortunately, many of the current articles are out-of-date and don’t reflect new and wider digital thinking emerging from organisations including the Centre for Digital Built Britain, the UK BIM Alliance, the National Infrastructure Commission, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, the CITB, and numerous industry businesses, both established names and new digital ventures.

Designing Buildings’ BIM Wiki

BIM Wiki homeAccording to the news release, the BIM Wiki launches with more than 150 articles already written, “covering everything from employer’s information requirements to parametric modelling,” and including a detailed step-by-step guide to BIM Level 2 (Designing Buildings worked with PCSG  to launch this in May 2016 – see: BIM meets Wiki at DesigningBuildings). The BIM Wiki’s creators want industry help in developing the site into a comprehensive source of BIM best practice by contributing new articles and engaging with the existing content.

BIM Wiki has been launched in response to research published by Designing Buildings in 2017 (see: Big data exposes a widening construction knowledge gap) that showed BIM remains an isolated subject, the domain of expert practitioners and not well integrated into the rest of the industry. This was confirmed by the May 2019 NBS National BIM Report, which pointed to the emergence of a ‘two speed industry’, with 22% of those yet to use BIM saying they would rather not adopt it at all.

The producers’ perspectives

PCSG chairman Mark Bew, right, said:

Mark Bew, October 2017“From our work around the globe it is clear that the UK’s progress to becoming a true digital economy for the built environment has made a fantastic start. The legacy of the 2011 Construction Strategy created a firm understanding of the scope and opportunity for change in the industry. Level 2 BIM has now been adopted around the world, and many nations are accelerating their uptake with the release of ISO 19650.

“However, there is still much to be learnt, shared, and adopted before we can truly say we are ready for the next stage of this journey. A vital part of this process is connecting the people and organisations who are embracing a digital, data-centred, collaborative approach to practical, clear, and accessible information. This is why Designing Buildings Wiki and the free resource it represents is so valuable. I believe that the BIM Wiki will, going forwards, play a hugely important role in our continued digital journey.”

A development of Designing Buildings Wiki, BIM Wiki is linked to its 8,500 articles. Integration with an established industry knowledge base will,  according to Designing Buildings, help take BIM processes beyond the realm of specialists. Director Gregor Harvie said:

“The discipline that BIM processes impose on the industry needs to become a normal part of every project, not an optional extra. Having a common understanding and a common language is crucial to achieving this. What we are launching today is just the start, we are calling on the BIM community to engage with BIM Wiki, to add to and improve it, to debunk BIM myths and create a truly-comprehensive knowledge base that is fully integrated into the wider industry.”

The Extranet Evolution view

As a long-time Wikipedia volunteer editor (disclosure: I am also a Wikimedia UK member and an accredited trainer), I have followed the Designing Buildings project with interest (and provided some consultancy support to the project in its early years) and have subjected it to occasional critical review. Let’s dissect it in detail.

From modest beginnings (and despite a design and building-oriented brand that might not attract users working in construction or FM, or professionals in civil engineering, landscape architecture, etc, ), it has continued to grow as a source of information, some of it crowd-sourced from industry. At the time of its BIM research project (2017), it was claiming 900,000 page views a month (though I suspect most page views come from outside the UK), from 3.5 million annual visitors, and 6,500 registered users. Today (2019), it is claiming 6.5 million annual visitors, a figure that reflects the strong performance of many of the site’s articles in search engine rankings. I understand it now has about 11,000 registered users – but only a tiny few are active contributors.

However, while Designing Buildings uses the same underlying MediaWiki technology as Wikipedia, its content has a different style and tone. Some articles are magazine-like, rather than authoritative and encyclopaedic, in their presentation and content; some are copied from other publications or websites (often from its backing institutions: the ICE, BRE, CIOB, BSRIA, IHBC, CIAT and ECA), or from press releases. This may help expand the reach of contributed content, but such articles will rarely, if ever, be updated, and – unless critically edited – may reflect a partial view of the subject matter rather than the impartial, neutral point of view (NPOV) required in Wikipedia. A large number of these contributions are also ‘protected’ meaning that they can never be edited (perhaps understandably, as they repeat article content published elsewhere).

Designing Buildings is also broadly UK-centric (obviously reflecting its backers and location), whereas articles in the English edition of Wikipedia will tend to provide more global coverage of their subjects. As I have noted previously, the Designing Buildings article on BIM is skewed towards UK policy and practice, while the Wikipedia article on BIM is longer and more international in its perspective, building an international consensus view of the subject from English-speaking editors across the globe. This has taken on new importance now that UK BIM practices have since evolved to form the basis of international standard BS EN ISO 19650 – the first parts of which were published in early 2019. BIM expertise is also supporting UK businesses in winning work internationally, so a more global perspective on the subject is needed.

Most contributions come from just two official editors, rather than reflecting the “wisdom of a crowd”. Designing Buildings has not achieved a critical mass of regularly active volunteer contributors.

Unlike Wikipedia, Designing Buildings does not insist upon inclusion of references from reliable sources, which reduces the value of some articles in signposting readers to useful sources of further information. And many DB articles are rarely edited or updated by a wide community of its users (100s of articles have less than three revisions). And browsing the edit history of several BIM articles, most contributions come from just two official editors: ‘Editor’ and ‘Designing Buildings’, rather than reflecting the “wisdom of a crowd”. Designing Buildings has not achieved a critical mass of regularly active volunteer contributors, so its growth and improvement has remained slow. As an example, if we regard the BIM Wiki as essentially an expansion of the May 2016 BIM guide, in three years the number of BIM articles has grown from “more than 100” to 152, some not updated in over a year.

The focus on BIM is too narrow. Today’s industry discussion is increasingly about “digital”.

But perhaps most critically of all: the focus on BIM is too narrow. Today’s industry discussion is increasingly about “digital” – the UK industry’s ‘digital transformation’ involves the Centre for Digital Built Britain; people attend the Digital Construction Week show in October; the government’s July 2018 Construction Sector Deal talks about deploying digital techniques, etc, etc. A broader ‘Digital built environment’ wiki could incorporate articles about cloud computing, reality capture, mobile applications, photogrammetry, VR, AR, holography, digital twins, data analytics, open data, artificial intelligence, machine learning, automation, wearables, robotics, blockchain and the like. And built environment organisations also need to be thinking about digitalisation: “the use of digital technologies to change a business model and provide new revenue and value-producing opportunities: the process of moving to a digital business” (Gartner).

wikipedia-logoAs a ‘Wikipedia purist’, I am, of course, biased, and we should acknowledge the two ventures are very different.

Wikipedia and its sister projects are non-commercial, supported by donations and huge communities of active volunteer users, while Designing Buildings has sponsors, displays advertising and works more like a web publication (is this one of the challenges: Wikipedia appeals to users’ altruistic motivations, while DB seems too commercial?). One is global and sprawling in its subject matter; the other is more country-specific and focused on a single sector. Wikipedia is widely known and understood around the world; Designing Buildings is comparatively unknown even within the UK construction sector. Wikipedia is not without its faults, but the English edition (the largest) has developed a strong community of 1000s of active volunteer editors committed to maintaining and improving the quality and currency of its information. Designing Buildings, on the other hand, appears heavily reliant upon two paid editors to create, monitor and amend articles.

So, the launch of the BIM Wiki is yet another plea for more industry support to help Designing Buildings expand and update its content (as well as the BIM Wiki, Designing Buildings also has a Conservation Wiki and a BREEAM Wiki), some of which is out-of-date and being superseded by new and wider digital developments. Through volunteer-led bodies such as the UK BIM Alliance,* UK digital activists are currently striving to maintain adoption momentum in the “two-speed industry”, but can they be motivated to contribute to a niche BIM Wiki that – for some of them – promotes the commercial interests of a rival firm? And given that the Wiki also has the logos of several prominent industry institutions* across the top of its webpage, should these member bodies – many with wider digital initiatives of their own – also be concerned about the quality, currency and breadth of the information being promoted on their behalf?

[* Disclosure: I am a UK BIM Alliance ambassador, and deputy chair of the ICE’s digital transformation community of practice, formerly the information systems panel.]

Update (10 July 2019: 11:15am) – Following publication of my blog post, I had an email exchange and then a meeting with Designing Buildings Wiki founder Gregor Harvie in London’s Building Centre last week.

The Harvie perspective

Harvie started by clarifying that Designing Buildings Wiki is to some extent a knowledge management project: “The industry is not particularly good at sharing knowledge, or even understanding what ‘knowledge’ is. Its knowledge is fragmented and siloed and much of it is behind firewalls or sign-up barriers. Our objective is to make industry knowledge fully integrated and freely available. A wiki seemed to be the most collaborative way of doing this.”

As a result, some of the knowledge on the site is sourced from existing material, but 65% is original. Experienced editor George Demetri and Harvie himself add a significant proportion of the content, but Harvie says this is partly because they add content created by other organisations who don’t have the time to do it themselves. Around a quarter of the content has been created in this way. They also spend time managing user additions to the site, editing them and combining them with existing content, and removing anything inappropriate.

Some articles are protected from user edits when they are ‘featured’ to prevent malicious vandalism, but overall he says just 6% of the site’s content is protected.

Harvie has also been looking at what information needs to be on the site. Working with the Open University he has developed artificial intelligence (AI) software that identifies commonly occurring unexplained terms, and the team then writes those explanations. This is a more “demand-led” approach than traditional publication, which tends to be supply driven.

Construction industry knowledge gapThe BIM Wiki project grew out of the 2017 research which showed BIM was out on a limb (see above). PCSG chair Mark Bew didn’t want BIM guidance just to appear on BIM-specific websites, but also wanted it made accessible on a more general industry platform. Much of the content on BIM Wiki was inherited by PCSG – previously written by users and the site editors, not newly created for BIM Wiki. Harvie said PCSG is now reviewing a lot of that material to update it as necessary.

Harvie says the continued use of the term “BIM” in the site name and text reflects the fact that this is what much of the industry calls the subject right now, as well as the high number of people searching for “BIM” on Google, even if the current/future industry picture is wider. We discussed the extent to which the site could look forwards when many industry practitioners still continue to look at older buzzwords.

Becoming more international is also something that Designing Buildings Wiki is aiming to do – Harvie said he was surprised at the amount of traffic the site achieved from the US and India, for example.

An Extranet Evolution view

It is clear that the BIM wiki is far from perfect. It requires substantial updating and expansion (if people don’t have the time or expertise to do it themselves, then perhaps they should contact Demetri or Harvie to get them to make the edits), and it will therefore take time before it more accurately reflects the current state of digital design, construction and asset operation.

Harvie is aware that the Designing Buildings branding doesn’t reflect the site’s remit (it’s not just about design and not just about buildings) and that few users engage with the site as editors. There have been suggestions that members of the UK BIM Alliance pile in and make changes to the BIM Wiki, but some are understandably reluctant to contribute to something that promotes a rival commercial business (PCSG). This seems to expand Harvie’s point that “the industry is not particularly good at sharing knowledge” – its knowledge is not just fragmented, siloed and held behind firewalls, it is also, in this case, being used to promote a private business. Perhaps reactions might have been different if a BIM – or ‘Digital wiki’ – was backed by a not-for-profit body such as the Alliance or the Centre for Digital Built Britain, for example.

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