Construction in New York is being left behind in the data revolution, and if we don't shed our resistance to providing data and stop keeping it in separate public agency silos, we will never advance.
You can't measure what you don't have or can't see.
Workers compensation boards throughout the country would like to have electronically transmitted information from an employer to start the employer data process. That would help build powerful databases of background information about the employer now possible from inception. With broader data collection, the creation of integrated databases becomes possible.
How can this data be organized and used properly, instead of being duplicative and unconnected to other pertinent employer/employee project information in state and federal work?
In New York, for instance at this time, collected and stored background information on employers differs within each contracting authority, whether it be the Dept. of Design and Construction (DDC), the Mayor's Office of Contract Services (MOCS), the School Construction Authority (SCA), the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, or the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (DASNY)
Take a Wider View
It is imperative that a wider view be taken to create a statewide master database, instead of new repositories standing on their own adding to already existing "siloed" information. The current state of industry databases makes it impossible to cross- reference related work histories and other relevant information existing within the contracting community.
The idea of effectively transmitting data on an application "electronically" is open to interpretation, but fundamentally the idea must require the use of open platforms and agreed upon "carrier" languages and schemas (i.e. XML, see agcXML initiative, XBRL surety/financial data "tagging", etc.). This foundational approach is at the heart of what's in the public interest to create "integrated databases."
Data has to be "exchangeable" between proprietary systems, otherwise it is essentially stuck.
At Component Assembly Systems, the interior wall and ceiling contractor our family is the majority owner and operator of, we are currently 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 in electrical, mechanical and other trades requiring "layered," exchangeable data.
Building Information Modeling (BIM) can be extended to include useful project payroll data, but only if it is transferrable between different work groups.
The problem with certified payroll reports in many jurisdictions, which we submit regularly (often in paper form still), is that the data is flat and one dimensional.
Adding Crucial Task, Work Area Data
For instance, by adding an employee's task and area worked in, project managing agencies can track the actual hours it took to frame the interior of a building or how long it took to sheetrock a stairwell. This historical information can be used to conceptually estimate future work, and check the owner's budgets against actuals on assumptions made in the planning stage.
The New York University Schack Institute of Real Estate should be credited with proving this out in a Masters paper from students in 2013. The paper, entitled, "Productivity in the Construction Industry," had some typical or possibly weaker theses in the final result.
However, one thing was crystal clear: there was little to "no micro data", as they called it, and without the right mix of data, so called Big Data associations are impossible. (The study was funded by the New York Building Congress Foundation which grants research projects and money to the effort, to their credit.)
This was an important finding that we know exists, but was borne out in the students' inability to get data to even do a qualified study on the issue.
Correct collection practices also enables payroll information to be rolled up and tied to project scheduling and billing. A benefit to the subcontractors can be lower retainage (held money), since more clarity and transparency has been added to the process.
Right now, for instance, information like this at New York's DDC is collected by inspectors manually and then entered into an internal database for claims/change order type analysis, not to manage real time field tracking and progress.
More importantly, information that is useful and connected attracts different sets of "eyeballs," so it can be broken apart for those who want to use it for different purposes.
This is the essence of what databases do: enable data modeling and cross referencing, thus allowing for the implementation of analytical methods to detect patterns of fraud in worker's compensation and prevailing wage issues.
Without the power of a tiered, industry wide schema and proper data design, additional databases will be not be ready to perform and incorporate predictive analytics efficiently and properly.
With this approach, a proper subcontractor close-out process is attainable, where the quality and timeliness of an employer's information reporting is looked at as part of the evaluation of a sub's performance.
With our current "rip and read" bidding paradigm in most places, lowest price wins the day and poor data collection or lack of proper information exchange is not considered, since there is no overall strategy on the use and requirements of payroll information besides perfunctory type data, i.e. name, worker/union classification, Davis-Bacon hours, rate, etc.
Industry resistance to this type of change is widespread and entrenched.
State and city agencies are not coordinated and clued into what they really need and rely too much on the GC/CM's to set the data requirements/standards. This practice makes each project different in its reported data sets on trackable, useful information.
An email or an excel spread sheet from a sub, rekeyed, does not fall within the concept of a functioning integrated database.
As for the subs, we are cash strapped and reluctant to add to existing reporting requirements, also believing incorrectly that this task/area information is proprietary and unnecessary for project use. 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 us to remember it!
Recently, a wage reporting requirement in the affordable housing industry in New York City passed into law by the City Council (over Mayor Bloomberg's veto 38-0) has been stayed pending a lawsuit filed by the New York State Association for Affordable Housing (NYSAFAH).
Such delays and impediments to proper data tracking and prevailing wage reporting needs to be overcome for our world to change finally. The case is still pending and will surely be appealed whatever the decision, thus lengthening the time private owners have to report to the City this necessary wage information.
It is in the data collection design that the solutions will come, not in a disparate set of information adding to our already confused and apparent project-to-project amnesia.
We can do much better!