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Sep 25 2017

“Big data exposes a widening construction knowledge gap”

According to a Designing Buildings analysis of six million pieces of data, the knowledge framework underpinning the construction industry is no longer fit for purpose.

Designing Buildings Wiki has undertaken what it says is the “first ever comprehensive mapping of construction industry knowledge”. It analysed data relating to its 5,000 articles, looking at the popularity of the subject areas it relates to, the links between those subjects, how long people spend reading those subjects, and the age, sex and location of the readers. Over a representative, two month period from March to April 2017, the site was used by 724,000 people, generating six million pieces of data. Cross-referencing this data allowed the report authors to build a map of construction industry knowledge, visualising knowledge cluster densities and relationships.

The construction knowledge gap

The results have been published in a report entitled ‘Fit for purpose? Big data reveals the construction knowledge gap’ (download here). The report says:

  • The industry is lacking the strategic leadership needed to coordinate the creation and dissemination of knowledge.
  • The emergence of the internet has fundamentally changed the way practitioners access knowledge, but the industry has not kept up.
  • Knowledge that is difficult to understand, buried in long documents or locked behind pay walls will not be used – even if it is critically important.
  • Practitioners need accessible, practical, easy-to-use guidance to help them carry out everyday activities.
  • Differences in the way users access knowledge creates opportunities to target information, for example, to encourage women to stay in the industry or to encourage participation in the regions.
  • BIM remains a specialist subject, disconnected from other industry knowledge (the report goes on to recommend “there is a need for more non-expert guidance about BIM and how it relates to wider project activities”).

The report suggests the industry needs to get organised and stop leaving the dissemination of knowledge to chance – or more mistakes will be made.

Designing Buildings Wiki chairman David Trench said:

“A lot of construction knowledge published at the moment is niche research aimed at making the top performing 1% of the industry better. But it is leaving the other 99% to fend for themselves. It is well established that construction performance in the UK lags behind other industries and other countries, this report gives some clues about why this is and what could be done to turn things around.”

Mark Farmer, CEO of Cast Consultancy and author of ‘Modernise or Die’, said:

“The concept of open data networks and the increasing democratisation of data and knowledge were concepts I explicitly referenced in my recent review of the construction industry ‘Modernise or Die’. The findings of this report reaffirm that current knowledge and innovation is not being captured in a way that is broadly and strategically accessible to enable industry at large to benefit. Knowledge and data ‘silos’ are a feature of our industry and we clearly need to break these open through more collaborative forums and platforms that have greater reach into the mainstream of our industry.

“The assertion that much academic work is not influencing industry’s improvement is one that I identify with and we need a step up in the vetting of what research is commissioned that has sufficient applied value for the wider industry rather than specialist interest groups that does not necessarily make it relevant or scalable.”

“More work is needed”

The report provides some really interesting insights into the demographics of users and their information interests or needs. How far one platform could genuinely be said to represent the knowledge of an industry, however, is open to question, as I suspect there will be many construction industry people who use multiple sources of online information, drawing upon company and professional body websites, newspapers and journals’ websites, Wikipedia, YouTube, blogs, Linkedin and other social media. As the report authors admit: “More work is needed.”

The report says:

Every year, more than 3.5 million people use Designing Buildings Wiki to access more than 5,000 articles about the planning, design, construction, operation and disposal of built assets. This generates an enormous amount of data about the knowledge that exists in the construction industry and how it is used. And because the articles have been written by, and read by, people from every part of the industry, that data is representative of construction knowledge as a whole.

I wrote about the launch of the Designing Buildings Wiki in November 2012, and, from a content marketing point of view, subsequently noted how well its articles performed in Google searches. I subsequently provided some consultancy services to the project which grew to over 700 articles achieving over half a million page impressions in its first year. It has continued to grow as a source of knowledge and information, some of it crowd-sourced from the industry it was established to serve. It now claims 900,000 page views a month (though I suspect the user figures and page views relate to global traffic, not just the UK – which leaves some question marks regarding the 724,000 people’s interactions studied).

While it uses the same underlying MediaWiki technology as Wikipedia, content-wise it has a different style and tone. Some articles are magazine-like, rather than encyclopaedic, in their presentation and content, and some content is copied from other publications or websites, or from press releases. The magazine-like tone is underlined by inclusion of news stories on the home page, plus clickbait such as the “Top 10 most expensive construction projects in the world“.

wikipedia-logoIt is also broadly UK-focused, whereas articles in the English edition of Wikipedia will tend to provide more global coverage of their subjects. For example, the Designing Buildings article on BIM is very skewed towards UK policy and practice, while the Wikipedia article on BIM is longer and more international in its perspective, reflecting inputs from editors across the English-speaking world. And Designing Buildings is less insistent than Wikipedia upon inclusion of references from reliable sources, which reduces the value of some articles in signposting readers to useful sources of further information.

Designing Buildings is obviously more of a commercial venture, supported by sponsors and carrying advertising, and even accepts payment for its editorial team to write articles for those who don’t have the time. When I browsed the site today and looked at the edit history of several articles, ‘Editor’ and ‘Designing Buildings’ were sometimes almost the only contributors to articles. While it claims over 6500 registered users (as of May 2017), few seem to have contributed substantially to any of the articles that I reviewed (it would be useful to know how many ‘active’ users it has – people who have edited articles in the past 30 days, say). Without a good volume of active editors, articles may lack the depth and neutral consensus (‘the wisdom of the crowd’) often achieved in mature Wikipedia articles, to which dozens of editors may have contributed.

The report is a useful starting point to identify how knowledge is used, but could be expanded if researchers were able to adopt a similar look at some of the other sources of information. Mapping UK use of Wikipedia articles on construction-related topics would be interesting (particularly if it compared to patterns of use of the Designing Buildings wiki), I think, as would data about pageviews and downloads of relevant documents and data from UK public sector organisations’ websites. And it would be helpful to track the importance of social media in all this, particularly if ‘influencers’ are helping people navigate around the “information gaps” and paywalls to connect to sources of useful information.

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