Construction in New York City is being left behind in the data revolution. If subcontractors don't shed their resistance to providing data and stop keeping it in separate public-agency silos, we will never advance, and we will never be able to understand our businesses. We can't measure what we don't have and can't see.

Further, the current state of industry databases makes it impossible to cross-reference related work histories and other relevant information on payroll records, work experience, and crucial-task and work-area data. Baseline task reporting, with attached area reporting, enables project-managing agencies to track the actual hours needed to frame a building interior or Sheetrock a stairwell.

RAPAPORT
Flat and dimensionless data, like payroll reports submitted on paper, do little to help us or the owner of the data and the physical structure(s). Often, the information that is collected isn't put to good use. Right now, inspectors manually collect payroll information at New York City's Dept. of Design & Construction and then enter it into an internal database for, for example, claims and change-order analyses. If the data were rolled up and tied to project scheduling and billing, it could be used to manage real-time field tracking and progress.

A 2013 paper written by students at the New York University Schack Institute of Real Estate and funded by the New York Building Congress Foundation made the issue crystal clear: There has been little to no "micro data" collected by New York City-area agencies, and without the right mix of correct and reliable data collection points, big-data insights are impossible.

As the "rip and read" bidding paradigm is still prevalent, the lowest price wins the day, and subcontractors rarely consider poor data collection or lack of proper information exchange as primary business issues. There is no overall strategy on the use and requirements of payroll information besides perfunctory type data, such as name, worker or union classification, Davis-Bacon hours, rate and so on. Building information modeling can be extended to include useful project payroll data, but only if it is transferable. Data has to be "exchangeable," or it's stuck.

The Solution

Some data-collection designs for federal construction are way ahead of New York City. At my company, Component Assembly Systems, we currently are working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on exchanging wall and ceiling information (the WALLie project), which includes relevant schemas related to manpower. Other such projects are underway with other trades.

State and city agencies are not coordinated and clued into what they really need and rely too much on the GC-CMs to set the data requirements and standards. This practice makes each project different in its reported data sets on "trackable," usable information.

As for the subs, many are cash-strapped and reluctant to add to the existing reporting requirements and believe incorrectly that this task/area information is proprietary and unnecessary for project use. Industry resistance to this type of change is entrenched.

But there are benefits. With the clarity and transparency of better payroll information rolled up and tied to project scheduling and billing, subcontractors can convince prime contractors to release more retained payments. Also, information that is useful and connected enables modeling and cross- referencing that attracts different sets of eyeballs, so it can be broken apart for those who want to use it for different purposes. That includes finding fraud in workers' compensation and prevailing wages.

With tiered, industrywide schema and proper data design, additional databases can perform and efficiently incorporate predictive analytics. That can make possible a subcontractor close-out process in which the quality and timeliness of an employer's information reporting is looked at as part of the evaluation of a sub's performance.

Many folks like to remind us that we exist in the "industry that time forgot," but without baseline task reporting, there is no way for it to be remembered correctly. Data-collection design will lead to solutions, while disparate sets of information add to our confused and apparent project-to-project amnesia. We can do much better! 

John A. Rapaport is contracts manager and general counsel of Component Assembly Systems, an interior wall and ceiling contractor, and the managing member of payroll software firm C/F Data Systems. He can be reached at jrap@componentassembly.com.