Engineers seek ‘Good data for the public good’

In ‘ Good Data for the Public Good”, the Institution of Engineering and Technology has called for AEC software vendors to adopt a more open approach to data in the 21st century.

The UK-based Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) paper, Good Data for the Public Good (downloadable here) has been written by members of Autodesk’s EMEA Engineering Executive Council, and calls for software vendors to help their customers and end-users of data to support whole life working.

Good Data for the Public Good“To deliver operational benefits for owners, operators, occupants and users of built assets throughout their whole life, we need data that’s perpetually accessible while also being securely managed. Simultaneously, to deliver wider social, economic and environmental benefits, we also need data to be open. This doesn’t mean free; the openness of data is about its interoperability and ease of distribution.

“These aspirations inevitably challenge existing industry practices and some entrenched commercial positions. As industry practice has begun to shift from document sharing to data sharing, the role of established technology providers may also need to change. Today’s architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) software providers will need to review how they might best capitalise on the rapidly changing nature of built environment data in the 21st century.

Good data for the public good

Data for the Public GoodThe paper’s title is a conscious expansion on the UK National Infrastructure Commission’s November 2017 report’s title Data for the Public Good. That set out a roadmap towards a ‘national digital twin’ for the UK’s national infrastructure enabled by secure sharing of high quality, standardised data. The Centre for Digital Built Britain’s Gemini Principles followed a year later, expanding industry discussion about connected data, artificial intelligence, machine learning, etc (read EE February 2019 post AI, Machine Learning, construction and bots), including an article by one of the IET report authors – Neil Thompson of Atkins – in Building magazine.

The report’s other authors – Marius Jablonskis, Cathrine Morch, Joop Paul, Andrew Victory and Alain Waha – are also drawn from prominent European engineering firms active in the built environment: Norconsult, Sweco, Arup, Arcadis and Buro Happold, respectively.* In their executive summary, they say:

“To deliver operational benefits for owners, operators, occupants and users of built assets, we need data to be:
– Maintained obligatorily throughout their whole life,
– Aligning asset and asset data ownership, and
– Perpetually accessible while also being securely managed.
Simultaneously, to deliver wider social, economic and environmental benefits, we also need data to be:
– Mutualised: to be open, connected and easily shareable, and
– Long term accessible.
To achieve this, stakeholders in the built environment will have to reconsider their strategic choices, especially software providers that may overhaul their current technology business models.”

Breaking down proprietary data silos

Particularly in its section about delivering societal benefits, the report highlights how data silos – between disciplines, and between proprietary software applications, including BIM tools – have hampered effective collaboration and data sharing. It cites internet and web standards as classic examples of how open approaches can foster efficient communication and data exchange, but says standardised AEC data approaches are still in their infancy. “The long-term aspiration has to be an open digital twin model architecture rather than proprietary data scheme solutions.

On long-term data accessibility, the report continues:

“Built asset and related business operation data, therefore, needs to be collected and stored in a form that ensures it remains securely accessible by asset owners and their partners over the long-term – resiliently and reliably outliving changes in hardware, storage media, software and operating systems.”

How might software vendors evolve?

The report discusses different scenarios about how asset owner-operators, the AEC industry and especially its software providers might need to adapt.

1. Tool-maker – do software providers want to remain focused on helping industry professionals create and combine design inputs?
2. Market/integrator – should software providers be the technology platforms used by teams to integrate design inputs into built asset outcomes?
3. Data holder/broker – could software providers become the ‘digital twin’ hosting hub, connecting, aggregating and delivering whole life data about built assets?
4. Technology hub – could software providers be a GitHub, a place to manage public and private repositories of built environment and data software?

The authors wonder if vendors might need to shift from their current positions:

1. Status quo – do software providers remain a strong defender of its proprietary data format, viewing this as centre of a life-cycle platform to which others can contribute?
2. Visionary – do software providers become an advocate of open data formats, backing database management systems (DBMS) research, and making all products fully Industry Foundation Classes (IFC)-compatible?
3. Evolutionary – do software providers adopt an ‘inbetween’ option, reluctantly bending to external pressure to be more open?

The report finishes by suggesting Autodesk might need to overhaul its business model;

autodesk logo“AEC software providers like Autodesk are uniquely placed to influence how operational outcomes can be enhanced through innovative use of applications and data. However, in an increasingly globalised and connected world that faces major urban, social, economic and environmental challenges, late 20th century technology business models may need to be overhauled.”

An Extranet Evolution perspective

The IET report is a timely contribution to industry conversations about interoperability, the future of data, digitalisation and whole life approaches to built asset information. As previously mentioned (28 July post),  recommendations from the CDBB’s BIM Interoperability Expert Group (read the BIEG final report here) received widespread approval following consultation across the sector. And a series of workstreams  have since been instigated by CDBB to implement the BIEG report recommendations.**

The IET document is also timely for its discussion of 21st century software business models. A growing number architects’ firms have publicly expressed their unrest about Autodesk about the costs of Revit software, its lack of development, and its poor support for interoperability (see More designer unrest about Autodesk). This started as a UK-led protest, but it has gathered momentum across Europe and led to revelations about similar disquiet among architects in Australasia and South Africa. The IET paper does not mention Revit directly, though it does touch on software issues (saying  BIM “effectiveness is hampered by silo mentalities, poor interoperability and variable support for open data models”). However, the report is a sign that some of Autodesk’s most prominent EMEA engineering customers also feel that the vendor might need to change its data philosophy and so help engineers to deliver long-term data for the public good.

* I provided some technical author support to the Autodesk EXC group working on early drafts of the document.
** Representing the UK BIM Alliance’s Technology Group, I am supporting a CDBB BIEG workstream looking at the “AIM CDE”.

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