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Civil Engineer blog

Data: an untapped goldmine for productivity?

06 August 2018

How can the infrastructure sector capitalise on the data opportunity? Ahead of the ICE Shaping a Digital World event on 25 September, we held a joint roundtable with construction sector advisors Invennt to explore the actions required.

Data: an untapped goldmine for productivity?
Image credit: Shutterstock

Digital transformation offers vast opportunities to improve the way we deliver and manage infrastructure. It strikes at the heart of our profession’s remit – to support society, transform lives and improve communities.

The opportunity is enabled by the valuable asset that technology presents us with: data.

Better, more accessible data allows engineers and users to make better, faster decisions, leading to more efficient infrastructure networks and improved outcomes.

To realise this potential, we must take steps to better value data and recognise infrastructure as an information-based industry. We must drive collaboration and open data sharing, and redefine value as a long-term outcome, and not an immediate financial gain.

We need strong leadership from government and industry to drive this change from the top.

Benefits of open data sharing

This Transport for London (TfL) example perfectly showcases how open data sharing can deliver wide benefits that may not be fully foreseen or understood from the outset.

A decade ago, TfL took the approach to release all non-personal data about its services in an open format, enabling partners and developers to build applications and widen the reach of TfL information channels.

With over 600 apps now powered by TfL data the approach has delivered huge benefits for London’s transport network.

Commuters and commercial road users are better informed about journey options and delays. Congestion and overcrowding have reduced, overall network efficiency has improved and economic benefit has been estimated as £130m per year.

By foregoing the sense of value meaning immediate financial gain, and challenging the traditional mindset of 'we’ve always done it this way', the TfL approach demonstrates the true value of data towards delivering vastly improved outcomes for service users.

However, this level of open data sharing has not been the norm across industry. Sharing of ideas and information clearly offers benefit, and helps break down activity silos encouraged by failing business models and traditional project-led approaches.

So why do we see a reluctance to share information, even within single organisations? Because information is power. Unless the competitive nature of the construction industry shifts to a more collaborative approach, with a holistic view in mind, sharing information will remain a challenge.

What is required is for infrastructure to move towards becoming a service led industry, where core decision making processes focus on outcomes that benefit all.

This will shift information sharing strategies and better translate available data into useable knowledge, improving the quality of infrastructure services with quantifiable benefits to consumers, society and the economy.

Understanding the value of data

With the scale of available data rapidly growing and technology developing faster than organisations can keep up with, focus needs to shift from simply gathering data to highly focused data collection and analysis.

Like any other valuable asset, data requires investment, management and maintenance in order to deliver long term benefit. But are we too focused on capture rather than maximising the value of existing data?

More clarity is needed throughout the supply chain around how data can inform decision making and enable better asset management, from inception through to de-commissioning.

Frustration is widespread in a large fragmented sector like construction, where clients traditionally see value as lowest cost, whereas further down the supply chain, value is seen as profit. These two concepts of value are incompatible.

Perhaps industry isn’t ready for collaboration…

Collaboration should and mostly does lead to better outcomes for everyone.

The biggest barrier to collaborative working and driving value from data is behaviour.

As an industry, we appear to be waiting for some form of regulation to force collaboration. With the volume of recommendations made to government around digital transformation, and the number of subsequent government reports in the last twelve months, where is the leadership that will drive change from the top?

Does government need to do more, or does industry need to take more ownership of the challenge?

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Find out more

Join ICE, Invennt and the Digital Transformation community at ICE Shaping a Digital World on 25 September.