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Data matters

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

We really are a data driven society. Everywhere we go, everything we do is governed by the data that we consume, that we produce, that we require to go about our daily lives. Going to the supermarket? There’ll be data generated on what you bought and how many times in the last month you bought it. Ditto the petrol station, the train station, Amazon, eBay. Ever wondered why you get random recommendations at the bottom of the Amazon page you were looking at? It’s because the data that you generated, and that someone else who bought a similar item generated, has been crunched by an algorithm and thrown up the ‘You might be interested in this’ list.

Without the right data we can’t make the right decisions. This has been thrown up in the last couple of years by the work that building product manufacturers have bee doing, post-Grenfell, to classify their products, ensuring that everyone in the chain knows exactly what each product is, what it does and how and where it can be used correctly. Of course, there is also the point that the data can be manipulated into telling you something that isn’t true as the ongoing Grenfell Inquiry is making clear.

For years, the merchant industry has been trying to get some sort of standardised format where every element in the supply chain uses the same data to ensure that products move through the chain seamlessly. It’s not been that successful.

The trouble with data is that it’s all different, depends on what it refers to. This is particularly apparent in this industry where what you might need to know about, say, an aircrete block, is very different to what you need to know about a boiler, a paint brush or an electrical component. Data is also interpreted differently by different people. When you get humans involved, that’s where the mistakes creep in. Or, in the case of Grenfell, not mistakes but deliberate obfuscations.

The need for solid, measurable, transferable data has taken on a new urgency with the rise of eCommerce and, of course, Covid and the way it changed the industry. If you are going to sell building materials online, you need to know exactly what formats, colours, sizes, prices you are being supplied. For that, you need the input from the manufacturer. But merchants aren’t all asking for the data in the same way, and suppliers aren’t all supplying it in the same way.

Merchant groups have been trying to get to grips with this, some of them for years. NMBS have been working hard on this for some time, NBG’s PIM project is getting there in some areas, other buying groups are looking at their options. The BMF is driving the take-up of the ETIM standard in the UK, in partnership with the Electrical Distributors Association,

The whole issue was highlighted at Digital Construction Week last week, where one of the seminars looked at the issue of where merchants can fit into the ‘golden thread’, the link between the product designers, right through the supply chain to the end-customer. There has been a huge amount of progress made so far, but there is still a very, very long way to go. The trouble is, as I wrote earlier, there are so many different products and components that go into a building. It’s such a massive task that no wonder we aren’t any further along with it. One of the other issues with standardising data is that you need to think about how you classify a product from the point of view of the person who is going to need to use the information. That could be the end customer trying to purchase it, or, plucking an example out of the air, it could be the architect trying to decide if this particular cladding product, for example good-looking though it may be, is suitable for use on a high-rise building

By having the correct data, in the right formats, we can make decisions. The right data will allow us to make good decisions. The wrong data can let us make bad decisions. And bad decisions, as we found out only too well in June 2016, can be catastrophic.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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