Case study: Creating a standard to help people find construction knowledge

Thu Aug 6, 2020
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Barbal is creating open standards for data to create a shared way of publishing construction knowledge so that construction knowledge becomes discoverable 

A third of construction practitioners (approximately 1 million people) do not have easy access to all the knowledge they need to do their job. The number one barrier to accessing knowledge is not being aware of what knowledge is available. There is a need for quick and straightforward access to knowledge on demand.

Barbal, a Bristol based SME specialising in creating open standards for data, worked with the Construction Knowledge Task Group to create a shared way of publishing construction knowledge, so that it becomes discoverable. In time, this will greatly improve practitioners’ access to the knowledge they need to safely perform their role and implement a safer built environment during construction and in-use.

Back in March 2020, the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and the ODI offered a stimulus fund to help projects to increase access to data and drive innovation in the engineering sector – with an emphasis on improving safety, and this is one of them.

Tom Bartley, who led the project says:

‘This is a great example of cross-industry collaboration. The standard prescribes a simple change that will make a huge difference to the entire industry. The power is in finding common ground where it is important and allowing freedom where appropriate. The schema can be adopted by organisations publishing openly or internally to provide a single way of describing knowledge from a range of sources.’

Facts and figures

  • Taking an open and collaborative approach accelerates the development of technical solutions that traditionally take years in the construction industry 
  • Staying up to date with the latest regulations and best practice ensure industry professionals are competent to deliver safer buildings. Accessing this knowledge is a challenge for many – a third of construction practitioners do not have easy access to all the knowledge they need to do their job. This standard could greatly improve practitioners’ access to the knowledge they need to perform their role and implement a safer built environment, both during construction and for occupants.
  • This approach to improving discovery of construction knowledge could be the basis of a global coalition for change for construction knowledge professionals. 

What was the challenge?

The Hackitt Report into the disaster at Grenfell makes the case for the competence of everyone involved in delivering the built environment as a critical aspect of safer buildings. In order to develop and maintain competence, practitioners need access to knowledge in the form of best practice case studies, regulations, requirements and guidance for undertaking their role.

The emergence of internet and digital technologies mean the way knowledge is prepared, formatted and disseminated in the construction industry needs to change to support digital transformation

While Building Information Modeling (BIM), which relies on access to a common data and information environment, is a step forward, knowledge is still prepared as if it is going to be printed. The emergence of internet and digital technologies mean the way knowledge is prepared, formatted and disseminated in the construction industry needs to change to support digital transformation.

Set up in 2018, the Construction Knowledge Task Group (CKTG) aims to make it possible for industry practitioners and stakeholders to find and access the knowledge they need to do their jobs. Collectively, CTKG members, which includes the construction leadership council, Arup and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, publish and maintain approximately 1 million knowledge artefacts. However these are each stored in proprietary systems, across fragmented sources with inconsistent methods of access, making it hard for the industry to access, use and share these resources. 

The lack of frameworks and standards for data are a common barrier for data sharing to improve safety across the engineering sector.

The CTKG are striving for a future where construction knowledge is fully open, accessible and interoperable so that practitioners have access to what they need to know to safely perform their job.

The lack of frameworks and standards for data are a common barrier for data sharing to improve safety across the engineering sector.

How did they go about solving the problem?

Working in close collaboration with key stakeholders in the construction industry, and building on existing work of the Construction Knowledge Task Group (CKTG), Barbal – an SME specialising in open standards – focussed on achieving a consensus based approach to making construction knowledge more discoverable.

Over 6 months the team engaged stakeholders via a series of workshops, interviews and a survey to define what success looks like, understand user and publisher experiences and develop a standard way of publishing construction knowledge and datasets so that they are discoverable.  

The team recognised three main requirements for the standard for publishing. The output needed to ensure:

  1. Search engine optimisation – construction knowledge needs to be easily discoverable by practitioners online. The most popular resources accessed (via internet searches) are also the least trustworthy. The standard needed to improve access to the more trusted sources from industry experts, via the methods already favoured by practitioners.
  2. Discovery is supported without the need for a new tech platform. The number one barrier to accessing construction knowledge is not being aware of what knowledge is available. Therefore the standard needed to aid discovery rather than provide another repository. 
  3. Support existing knowledge publishers and not undermine existing commercial models. By engaging the community and building on existing approaches, and leveraging existing standards and dictionaries where possible, Barbal aimed to catalyse the adoption of a standard.

To further engage the community, the team openly published all meeting notes, background documents and outputs using creative commons licensing in an open source repository throughout the project. 

Developing a standard in collaboration was a new approach for the Construction Knowledge Task Group

Developing a standard in collaboration was a new approach for the Construction Knowledge Task Group. By being transparent and engaging with stakeholders, Barbal hoped to catalyse the implementation of the standard within their own systems.

Stakeholder interviews determined that the issue was not access to knowledge, it is discoverability

Stakeholder interviews determined that the issue was not access to knowledge, it is discoverability. Therefore work focussed on creating data infrastructure, in the form of a standard for metadata that describes and documents data in a repeatable, consistent way, to aid discoverability. They chose to create an open standard to strengthen data infrastructure. Improving discovery of construction knowledge, for example making it easier to find in search engines, while also supporting practitioners to use existing search methods and platforms led the team to decide on developing a metadata standard, rather than a standard for datasets. Metadata is the important information (key facts and figures) about a dataset, giving it context and helping make it discoverable.

The standard includes metadata tags for web pages, these will enable construction knowledge publishers to tag their resources and make them more discoverable via search engines. They also developed a dictionary for construction knowledge types to aid search and discovery.

What was the impact of taking this approach?

Through this project, Barbal have demonstrated that taking an open and collaborative approach accelerates the development of technical solutions that traditionally take years.  Our manifesto recommends that standards bodies work with the engineering sector to support the development and adoption of data and metadata standards that support the sharing and use of data. We know implementation of a standard can take time, but when the standard is open, as in this case, and adoption is supported, there is potential to save industry time and money.

Barbal have demonstrated that taking an open and collaborative approach accelerates the development of technical solutions that traditionally take years

A number of stakeholders are already looking to adopt the standard to make their data more discoverable. In time, this standard has the potential to greatly improve practitioners’ access to the knowledge they need to safely perform their role and implement a safer built environment during construction and in-use. Ultimately the hope is that this standard will help avoid another Grenfell disaster by improving access to information about materials, regulations and best practice. 

There is a role for all construction knowledge providers to improve discovery of the data, information, knowledge and insights across the industry

This work highlights the importance of collaboration and sharing between construction knowledge providers, a key principle of our manifesto. There is a role for all construction knowledge providers to improve discovery of the data, information, knowledge and insights across the industry. There is potential for this to be the basis of a global coalition for change for construction knowledge professionals. 

What lessons did they learn?

Balancing the language used in documentation and discussion was a big challenge. Standards development naturally relies on technical language that machines can understand, whereas most in the construction industry are not data specialists and therefore require non-technical explanations. The team overcame this by addressing the two audiences: non-technical guidance with an appendix detailing the specification for the standard in technical, machine-ready, language.

Building consensus on what should be included, what should be mandatory and what should be optional within the standard took some time. This challenge was exacerbated by the enforced lockdown due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, which meant that discussions were moved to a virtual environment. As with all remote working, it is much harder to engage people and bring them into the story without face to face interaction. For such a technical subject, in-person workshop sessions to visualise concepts and try different approaches would have worked much better. Regardless, the team persevered and were still able to complete the work and they recognise that due to the standard needing to serve a wide range of stakeholders, many have needed to compromise on the final output.

Demonstrating the application of a standard, to prove it helps to solve the problem it is designed for, is a common challenge in standards development, and one the team faced. Barbel are looking for more concrete opportunities to do this and in the meantime use an example scenario to demonstrate how it could work. They’ve successfully crossed the first hurdle of having agreed the need for and scope for a standard, and have a scenario to help champion adoption going forwards. 

Tips and advice

Prior to this project, construction knowledge publishers had been approaching this problem individually. Involving a range of stakeholders is important for tackling an industry wide challenge like this. The range of stakeholders provides a diversity of views, approaches and opinions.  Surfacing all voices and opinions improves understanding of each perspective and makes it more likely you will get to an outcome that everyone can live with. 

Finding existing standards and agreeing ways to combine them to help projects is important early on and shows a sector they can move forward together

Build on existing work as much as possible. This ensures that previous thinking across the industry isn’t lost and any new ways of working will compliment existing. The open standards for data guidebook is a useful resource to inform standards projects. Finding existing standards and agreeing ways to combine them to help projects is important early on and shows a sector they can move forward together. 

Creating the standard is just the beginning of the work. To achieve impact the standard needs to be adopted across industry and including this in project/ future project plans is key as it takes time and effort. For example, identifying an organisation early on that will own, champion and drive forward adoption of the standard will ensure longevity. 

Plans for the future

Barbel continues to work with the CKTG members, on a voluntary basis, to support adoption by publishers, providing enabling tools and services that use the data and maintain the standard. The CKTG and Barbel are currently looking at funding options and organisational structures to support this work.

Get in touch

Want to speak to the ODI about our work in the construction sector or transforming sectors more generally? Email [email protected]

For more information about Barbal, get in touch via their website

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