The risks associated with the current UK planning process are still believed to be one of the major barriers preventing investors from selecting construction over other opportunities. Planning was pinpointed by the government’s Construction 2025 industrial strategy as requiring reform, and it was suggested that the process needs to be streamlined. With this in mind, this study was eager to better understand how data could help to aid the planning process, and simultaneously reduce any perceived risk seen by investors. Currently the process used for planning is very time consuming. Furthermore, with continuing budget cuts within planning authorities, planners are under a huge amount of pressure to carefully assess applications within a reasonable time scale. Subsequently there is a need to try and simplify this process as much as we can.
After talking to Tom Brown, Geography and Property Information Manager at Lambeth Council, he describes that the processes for planning can often appear to be quite opaque to those applying. It is felt that in order for applicants to learn from the process we need to make it as visible as possible. However, one thing we must accept is that each area of the UK is different, and subsequently there will be different criteria for a development in each area. Subsequently, this makes it increasingly important to attempt to standardise the remaining areas even further. It was felt by Brown that it would be a great first step to put in place a standardised method of publishing information surrounding planning applications, as currently there are over 600 local authorities within the UK, with many taking different views on how to undertake this. This is not only costly, but it also makes it extremely difficult for anyone to analyse this data. The standardisation of information at a local level is already taking place in other fields, and furthermore the UK is also providing standardised information regarding its environment to Europe as part of the INSPIRE Directive. Therefore, it could be ideal if something similar could take place within planning.
During discussions, Brown also identified several areas where the collection and management of data could help applicants within the planning process. One which stood out was the potential to demonstrate consideration for the local community. Currently, a large amount of the complaints made by local residents with regards to a development, are regarding issues related to noise and dust. With this in mind, it would be sensible for contractors to record the amount of noise and dust that was being produced on all of their sites. Primarily, this would allow developers to understand which sites, and site processes, were producing the most noise and dust. This enables them to put in place measures that could help to reduce this impact. Furthermore, if excessive noise and dust is a concern for the planning authority, a developer could use this data to illustrate how noise and dust levels appear on their sites, which would allow the planner to make a more informed decision. The more evidence a planner has in their possession the more automated their decision becomes.
It is examples like this which demonstrate the wide range of possibilities that data collection, management and analysis can have on the construction industry. Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt, Chairman and Co-Founder of the ODI, explains that geospatial data (data that contains a geographical location) will be vital in the way we plan and develop our future infrastructure around us. Utilising this data from a range of sectors will enable us to pinpoint the areas which require the most focus. For example by looking at data regarding population location and age, you would be able to establish where the greatest needs for schools are.
Utilising data to improve re-use and recycling
Case Study: BREMAP
One application that has been developed to improve the sustainability of the construction sector is BREMAP. Developed by BRE, BREMAP assists users in locating waste management sites within a close proximity. In order to provide this service, developers purchased a licence to use environmental permit data held by the Environment Agency. Next, by asking users to input their postcode, activity, and waste materials, the application provides them with information on organisations nearby that can recycle, reclaim and landfill their waste. As the name suggests, BREMAP maps this data enabling users to quickly distinguish which areas the sites are in.
By providing this information it not only promotes the sustainable removal of waste, but it also identifies those facilities within the closest proximity, subsequently reducing any environmental impact related to transportation. This is just one example of how existing datasets can be used to develop applications that can aid the construction industry.
Shadbolt suggests that if organisations in all sectors throughout the UK were to start to undertake the opening of data we could really start to see the benefits. From a development perspective, it would allow us to quickly establish which land was available to develop on; what the transport links are like in that area; the ability of the construction workforce within close proximity to the development, and how the respective local authority’s services can cope with any potential additional load. It is felt that this could potentially lead to large environmental and societal benefits, as well as increasing a business’s productivity, and helping to drive the UK economy.
The importance of collaboration between sectors
It has already been discussed that by having multiple datasets which span a range of different sectors allows clients, designers and contractors to better understand the areas they are constructing in. There was a strong desire witnessed during the interviews with industry experts, for there to be a push for the construction industry to collaborate much more with other sectors. This would help to develop a much stronger basis for evidence. The construction industry is in need of innovative and systemic approaches, based upon strong data, which allows people to make much more informed decisions during a development. One relevant example which was discussed during an interview was how best to plan the movement of traffic around developments. When you consider traffic there are a wide range of variables which could have an impact on this. This could include, the schools in the area, and the times in which they open and close; the businesses within the local area, and their operational hours; even the employment rate in the area might dictate when people are most likely to be driving.
If you consider that there could be multiple variables which need to be analysed in order to provide reliable solutions to potential issues surrounding traffic, it demonstrates how daunting the task is to open up all of the datasets that can help to inform decisions made on all aspects of the built environment. However, Professor Tim Stonor explains that we must look at this optimistically, as the rewards will be substantial if we are successful. This could lead to incredible social and economic gains. Nevertheless, as already discussed above, it is felt that the construction industry does not currently have the knowledge within to turn this data into usable applications. However, if advances are made with regards to the quality and quantity of data available, it may become common practice for organisations big and small to invest in data scientists. If this level of data became accessible, there is the potential for it to be utilised to help provide solutions for a range of design and planning issues, and subsequently in the future it may even lead to data scientists being an integral member of a design team.
Potential to open up BRE data in the future
At BRE, we create and manage large-scale data covering a number of areas of the built environment, most notably in sustainability (through BREEAM assessments of stages and lifecycles in the creation, use, reuse and maintenance of buildings; and SMARTWaste www.smartwaste.co.uk – our online environmental reporting tool for construction projects) and through areas such as product certification, where BRE measure, test and certify various products in fire safety and security (such as LPCB).
BRE has already undertaken work on capturing this data for future re-use, through BREEAM projects, our flagship next-generation BREEAM tool. There is great potential to use this data outside the original intended scope, and for opening portions of this data to the industry. There is also potential for re-use of this data in improving BRE processes and internal science.
For example, in BREEAM there has been interest in using certification and registration data in the housing sector to help identify trends and potential upcoming development areas. For building owners, being able to download or have access to the sustainability history of their building has the potential to showcase and provide value-added information for that property.
For BRE itself, being able to examine in detail across a number of BREEAM assessments for various building types could potentially show where assessment criteria could be more accurately tailored to specific building types or is not well suited. For example, we can begin to ask questions such as “do schools perform on average better in some categories than others”, “do assessments of hospital or public buildings tend to focus on specific credits in schemes rather than others, and if so, why?”
The use of this data by third parties also has potential, and BRE has already created an alpha API release, BRE Data, allowing specific organisations to query and manage assessment data without using our main tools through opening of our datasets.
It is clear that many people in the construction sector are unfamiliar with aspects relating to open and big data, often put off by the technical language used. Whilst this report tries to clarify and simplify some of the key terms, there is clearly more that could be done to demystify an increasingly important driver for change.
It is the great potential for open & big data to underpin a better built environment that should motivate all those in a position to develop new tools and applications to seek to optimise this growing resource. This includes configuring systems to provide new forms of data in a readily accessible form, as well as evaluating existing data sources to develop new applications that can support their continued collation and upgrading.
The public sector has led the way to opening up data sets to enable new and improved applications using such data to be developed, resulting in uses that could never have been envisaged by the originators of the dataset. There is still more that can be done with public data sets and this should be facilitated by grant funding in related research & development, along with events supporting disruptive technology and approaches.
The private sector has been less forthcoming in opening up their data, due to various reasons including commercial sensitivities, anonymising data and resources needed to set up licensing frameworks and agreements.
For the true power of big & open data to be realised, these barriers need to be properly understood and removed where practicable. Such opening up of datasets can create economic, social and environmental benefits for the supplier and the user. Examples of data utilisation provided in this report will hopefully give a flavour of some of the practical applications that have already been developed and the benefits that are now possible.
Just as there are many possible applications for data, there are also multiple business models to allow the access of data without compromising the commercial value to the holder of the data. If done correctly, it can be a win-win situation, such as making suppliers aware of end use applications they had not considered themselves or creating strong partnerships.
Ideally, the leaps of faith shown by the vanguard organisations will encourage greater collaboration and consideration of big & open data. In the meantime, BRE will continue to explore the potential to make better use of the data it holds and welcome discussions with other organisations who could be part of this process.
In 2014, the BRE Trust commissioned the study ‘Open & Big Data in Construction’, which was undertaken by BRE in collaboration with Generation for Change (G4C, part of Constructing Excellence). This project set out to engage with the construction industry to discuss, and identify solutions to, the barriers currently slowing the use of open and/or big data within the built environment. In order to achieve this, the study looked to demonstrate the potential benefits that collecting, managing, analysing and even releasing data can have on a range of organisations within the construction sector.
One of the most prominent barriers to data utilisation identified during the study was that those who are relatively new to the area often feel overwhelmed by the technical language used. Subsequently, this report also looks to simplify wording and clearly explain some of the most important issues. The main objective from this study is to raise awareness of the benefits that data utilisation can offer, and simultaneously increase the level of data literacy along the supply chain. A combination of structured interviews, as well as debate events have been undertaken to stimulate widespread opinion, as well as to provide expert knowledge on this area.
This is the third and final article in the series Open & Big Data in Construction.
This project relied on input and support of a number of people from across the industry:
- Antonio Pisarno (Marcel Mauer Architects / G4C)
- Stuart Chalmers (BRE)
- Professor Tim Stonor (Space Syntax)
- Stephen Wooldridge (Barratt Homes)
- Ben Cave (formerly worked with Citadel on the move, now with the ODI)
- Tom Brown (Lambeth Council)
- James Johnston (Open Utility)
- BRE (online). BREMAP. Date accessed: 26/08/2015
- Cabinet Office (online). Local Open Data Champions. Date accessed: 26/08/2015
- CIO UK (online), Can open data work for the private sector? Date accessed: 26/08/2015
- European Commission (online), INSPIRE Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community. Date accessed: 26/08/2015
- HM Government (online). Construction 2025. Date accessed: 26/08/2015
- Shadbolt, N., (online). Building the UK’s National Data Infrastructure. Date accessed: 26/08/2015