Gareth Parkes is head of data & analytics at Sir Robert McAlpine
It is no secret that construction is facing a number of challenges. Recent stats from the Office for National Statistics may show that monthly output is back above pre-pandemic levels, but our industry is still beset with skills shortages, supply chain challenges and productivity struggles, and an immense level of change is needed to adapt to sustainable practice.
There is no magic wand to solve all of these challenges, but running through each of these sector concerns is a common thread, which will benefit our industry in leaps and bounds once harnessed to its full potential, and that is improving the use of data.
With 95 per cent of the data collected on site going unused, according to research from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, it is no wonder that the chance of a project being completed on time, budget and to the original specifications is only 0.5 per cent. Buried within this mass of discarded information lies the secret to our productivity challenge. Something needs to change, and thanks to the rise of the Hackathon it seems something is.
Project Hack challenges
Put simply, Hackathons are events – often competitions – where teams work to solve several challenges using data. The first such event took place in Canada in 1999, with the goal of writing new encryption software.
“One of the first Project Hacks saw teams establish whether data can determine whether data from the daily diaries for construction activities show the likely success of a project”
The first construction-orientated challenge emerged from the Project Data Analytics Community monthly meetups in 2017, where a 250-strong community (now with more than 9,000 members) considered how to improve the delivery of large infrastructure projects. The intention was to do more than simply talk about data and analytics, and provide spaces for people to put their learning into practice. For example, one of the first Project Hacks saw teams establish whether data from the daily diaries of construction activities can indicate the likely success of a project.
The latest event, Project Hack 13, continued along what are now familiar lines. The challenges facing attendees included how we interpret risk and how risk applies geographically to Transport for London, and designing applications to manage contractors’ health and safety indicators for National Highways.
One obvious benefit of Project Hack is the development of innovative ideas that can be applied on sites and to businesses across the country. Take the development of artificial intelligence tools that can accurately identify objects as diverse as rebar, and personal protective equipment in photos and videos. This has the potential to transform the way images are found and used for compliance, assurance or claims purposes. To those who might suggest the productivity gains from data are difficult to quantify, this example demonstrates immediate time savings, as well as the wider opportunity to transform processes. Given that the UK government’s Construction Sector Deal aims to get projects done 50 per cent faster by 2030, every second counts.
There is a more fundamental benefit as well. Hackathons teach not only data skills, but also the trust and openness that comes from collaborating in different ways. Traditional siloed methods of working mean that too many mistakes or wasteful choices are repeated in the gulf of communication and understanding between firms, and bridging this gap is an essential step towards harnessing the power of data.
Need for government backing
Positive steps towards better use of industrywide data are being made, typified by recent conversations about materials passports. Digital imprints full of historical data will help to tackle carbon in our supply chains and maintain safety standards. The industry is getting into gear with data-enabled, collaborative mindsets, but it is difficult to feel confident about the future scale of this evolution without firm government backing. Executive agencies within government are getting more involved in improving data use and taking the lead, such as the cross-government working group set up to look at project data analytics and decide what needs to be done.
The sector will evolve on its own, but without independent oversight or a cultural shift towards far greater collaboration, standardisation will remain a significant hurdle to better sector-wide data use. We cannot share and compare if we do not speak the same language or collect comparable terms. For now, hackathons provide space and time for mutual collaboration, and the development of shared practices and understanding. This will go some way towards overcoming the standardisation hurdle, but we are a long way from the home stretch.