Data Transparency in the Built Environment: Lessons from Covid-19

What could be a better time to talk about data transparency than a global pandemic period? Over the past few months, most of us have had a better appreciation of the importance of data transparency and have got our fix of daily updated data through all sort of channels. Some of us had a browser window constantly open on sites such as, while some of us relied on Whatsapp forwards. We have also tried to follow announcements by leaders around the the world, right from the WHO to our international and local leaders such as the Presidents, Prime-ministers or Chief Ministers. In Singapore, the announcements by the Prime-ministers were so eagerly followed that just by the mere announcement of an upcoming announcement, got people queuing up at supermarkets!

There is much to learn from this trend of data transparency as there were some good examples of how data was used to counter the pandemic and some bad examples where data transparency, or the lack thereof, became a big problem and in some cases a tremendously huge huge problem (not to name and shame anyone though). I think most of you will be familiar with what I am talking about, but if you are not, read these insightful articles:

The missing data of the coronavirus crisis (CNN, 11 Apr 2020)

Data Transparency: Lessons from COVID-19 (Datanami, 9 Apr 2020)

Can We Believe Any of China's Coronavirus Numbers? (Time, 1 Apr 2020)

How Taiwan Used Big Data, Transparency and a Central Command to Protect Its People from Coronavirus (Stanford, 3 Mar 2020)

Singapore’s coronavirus transparency has lessons for the US (The Star, 1 Mar 2020)

So what can we learn from this for the Built Environment industry, which accounts for 40% of global energy consumption and about 30% of carbon emissions of the planet?

Firstly, it's clear from the Covid-19 data transparency example that not sharing performance data or neglect of under-performance, does more harm than good. Sharing performance data can be awkward for any organisation/country, especially when there is 'not-so-good' news to share. "Why can't we just internally discuss the bad data and correct it first before even showing it to anybody else outside our organisation/country?", would be the common thought of most leaders. Hence, most will end up underplaying the threat. One might think that there is a big difference between sharing pandemic data and energy performance data for buildings, as the impacts are on complete different scale. Yes, but why not use this as a metaphor for explaining gross and glaring under-performance of several buildings around the world? When any built environment professional is asked about scope for improvement in building performance, they would unanimously agree that there is definitely a big scope for improvement (some would say easily between 20-60%!), but they would also add that its because of the fault of the other party and not theirs!

This brings to the second lesson about 'shifting blame'. It's easy to shift blame about under-performance and sometimes even blame the whistle-blowers, as it happened also in the case of this pandemic. Some Presidents have blamed their previous administrations and some have blamed it on the unruly behavior of their countrymen. This blame-game happens in every industry and the building industry is not a stranger to this phenomenon. Just ask the Architect and the M&E engineer as to who is responsible for a particular building's under-performance and you will understand what I mean. Policy makers would blame the building management, and building owners would blame policy makers for not having enough incentives and corrective policy measures. Those who have nobody to blame, just blame it on the 'nature of the industry, fragmentation and split-incentives'.

But instead of this blame game if there was better sharing of performance data in the industry, there will be a lot of improved understanding of under-performance, at least for buildings with similar bench-marking characteristics. It's surprising how little information comes out in the industry about under-performing buildings, whomsoever is to blame!

The third important lesson we learnt is about 'safety margins'. That lack of data transparency and sharing of information has manifested in some very odd COVID-19 behavior, such as people hoarding toilet paper. Ask any building design engineer how much safety margin she/he prefers in the design calculations and watch how the 'hoarding of toilet paper' metaphor plays out in the building industry. Of course, things are uncertain and such behavior is justified, right? Wrong, the safety margins are just a result of lack of data transparency. There have been numerous studies in the built environment industry to prove that safety margins (innocent word for it is 'design margins') can be as high as 40-60%. No wonder that when the building comes in operation, there is a huge wastage of energy due to under-performing equipment below their optimal efficiencies. If data is more readily available from buildings about this phenomenon, it will be shocking for sure, but it will also break the 'chain of transmission' of the over-design virus.

So with the lack of data transparency in the built environment industry, the following viruses are bound to spread:

1. Neglect of under-performance Virus

2. Blame-game Virus

3. Over-design Virus

The anti-dote as well as the vaccination against these viruses, should be already clear by now: 'Data Transparency'.

It will not only enable building owners and managers to track, benchmark and improve building performance, but also to build the business case to the investors and internal decision makers.

It will help policy makers to understand performance fundamentals, evaluate effectiveness of policies and form the basis for prioritization of limited public resources and future policy decisions. It will also help the research community to develop even more effective energy conservation measures and attract prospective investors to the sector by building their confidence on the return on investment.

Although this article highlights some glaring problems in the built environment industry due to lack of data transparency, it's not all gloom and doom. In the next article, we will look at how this data transparency is being tackled by several institutions around the world and how the built environment stakeholders can participate in such initiatives. At Qi Square, our mission is to provide the necessary data transparency and energy intelligence towards a 'Digital & Sustainable Built Environment'. Hopefully, with better data transparency we will be able to manage this and any impending pandemic better, while also also killing the three under-performance viruses in the industry!

Best Regards,

Nilesh Y. Jadhav

Founder & CEO,

Qi Square Pte Ltd, Singapore.

Connect with me on: LinkedIn

This article was reproduced with permission from Qi Square blog. Attend our upcoming event to learn more about the role of data in sustainable buildings from Nilesh and join a QNA with him:

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