data is the new oil

At a recent tech event in London one speaker said that “Data is the new oil. You just have to learn how to extract it.” I love the simplicity of this statement and I think that it is entirely true. If you look at what drives some of the market leaders (the likes of Google and Facebook) data is what is empowering their company. But as much as companies can try to get the upper hand through data, they have to remember one key piece. For just as the speaker at that event missed, there is a big difference between crude oil and jet fuel. Data is the new oil, but you have to learn how to extract it AND refine it.

What I am talking about here is not just something that applies to website design and marketing ads. What I am talking about is the future of business… and yes, I do mean architecture and design too. This is something that we in architecture are going to have to learn fast. I would even propose that within the next few years you will begin to see a more predominant role integrated in our studios: that of the data analyst.

How would this differ from the designers and consultants we have already on staff producing graphs and tables for the projects we devise? Well as our sources and data become larger and more complicated we will need staff that know how to manipulate “Big Data”. The concept of Big Data isn’t one that many are familiar with. It goes beyond single lists and spreadsheets and starts to look at… well huge amounts of data. Companies like IBM are looking at things like traffic patterns for cities and Transport for London looks at the flow of millions of passengers and trains in the Tube system to find the most effective time table.

Big Data has already started to apply to us in workplace consultancy and strategy. We are starting to accumulate large amounts of data, and could start to leverage that information to our benefit. We aren’t talking about working out just the number of workstations per area. As we perform workplace surveys and activity analysis (time utilisation studies) we gather the info but it’s all just paint and it isn’t until we manipulate it that we start to see the bigger picture we can paint with it. “Would you like to see the results of the Engineering group vs. the VPs?’ Sure. “How about displaying all the different generations to see if newer ones really feel more ready for mobility?” Why not. “Now let’s see those results based on all the workplace survey’s we have to date (say 500 companies)?” THAT is big data. It’s what happens when you start to look at things holistically. Not just one set of data, but all sets and begin to find the relationships to each other.

It’s the refinement of the data that can provide use with knowledge and of course knowledge is power. We are building a wealth of data for activity analysis. A mountain of stats for workplace performance. We are collecting project energy performance. We have the data in our Project Libraries. Of course this doesn’t even get into the information that we can generate through Ecotect, IES and of course our favourite schedule/spreadsheet generating machine, Revit.

And when I say data, I’m not always referring to spread sheets. Visualising Facebook’s connections, where the twitter and flickr posts are happening in London, or Hans Rosling’s whimsical TED talks about population are perfect examples of what we need more of. Data that is visual and easy to understand. The architecture and design industry is full of people like me that went into this profession because we don’t like numbers. But put a graph that is easy to read, informative and enlightening in front of me… now that’s empowering.

By no means am I suggesting that we are all going to become as number driven as accountant or that there aren’t already a few in the firm that are. I would suggest that Digital Design is more than just CAD. After all our designs are the result of our collective knowledge and if this data provides us with knowledge that leads to better and more efficient designs, then it can give us a competitive advantage. I’m sure the majority of people don’t think of number crunching when they think of architecture. However just as the right CAD and BIM tools in the hands of a talented designer can yield incredible results, so can data in the hands of someone that understands architecture and design and can manipulate it into something that is meaningful for us.

So that’s my humble opinion. What’s yours? Do you think data and how we leverage it can give our staff the right knowledge to advance our designs?

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