Like almost everything else the world of construction, the world of project planning is increasingly moving toward processes that draw upon data—including what is often referred to as “big data,” which holds keys to spotting large-scale shifts in communities.

This matters to construction because planners, architects, engineers and contractors often are on the front lines of spinning up projects that impact the masses. And the quality of the data used in the studies undertaken to justify the economic validity of those projects can make the difference between projects that bomb and projects that succeed—and in the construction industry languishing or flourishing.

Embracing better market-analysis technology that mines big data does not have to mean discarding tried and true. It can, however, provide the winning edge that gives communities and developers the confidence needed to give ambitious projects the green light, and contractors the projects to build. While you don’t need to become a tech superstar overnight to begin benefitting from bigger and better data, it will probably help to know why people are making such a big deal of it.

One planning tool traditionally used to validate proposed projects is the interview-based travel survey, or trip matrix report. These studies capture patterns in where and when people move. The data can hold valuable information about the people in a certain area. But too often, and often too late, developers realize that the data used in the planning phase was grossly inaccurate, and as a result, millions of dollars are lost on projects that weren’t feasible in the first place. Add in dramatic fluctuations in demand as buyers becoming renters, office workers start working from home, etc., and the challenge to forecast population and traffic shifts becomes even more daunting.  

But today there is a new approach to generating trip matrix data. Mobile devices are the new frontier.

Nearly 90% of Americans now own a cell phone or tablet computer. Capturing anonymous signaling data from wireless devices can now provide unprecedented insights into consumer travel trends, unveiling patterns in where and when people move.
These advances are significant. Unlike human sampling, which relies on anecdotal evidence gathered in interviews, capturing mobility data automatically provides a real-time look at where people are going, which can be used to justify the investment to build the places they will be going to in the future.

Big data’s snapshots of populations in any given area has been enhancing, and in some cases replacing previous methods. From the amount of information mobility data yields to how fast it can be produced, sliced and diced, big data is providing insights like never before. By engaging this technology, developers and the professionals who advise them can now be empowered to make better determinations on where and when to build and where and when not to.

Data is only as good as the skills of the people who analyze it. Decisions about whether to go or not on a particular project will still have to be made by stakeholders with the advice of the people who counsel them, but those counselors can be better informed with better information.

By supplementing your years of expertise and judgment with accurate, up-to-date intelligence, you can help paint the picture planners and developers need to see in order to say “yes” to the projects you want to build.