Data dictionaries explained

abstract image for data dictionaries
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What are data dictionaries? How do they work and how are they used in construction? And what’s their future? Antony Brophy, UK director of business development at Cobuilder, provides some answers.

Collaboration is essential for the safe and efficient construction of a building. With so many parties involved, technology has greatly improved communication on construction projects, making it possible to exchange details of products, materials and objects. Yet roadblocks still exist that are hampering this flow of information and making collaboration less effective.

One of the biggest challenges facing the industry is the management and use of product data by individuals, organisations and countries. An industry-agreed method for digitising and exchanging digital information has long been lacking, which is preventing data from being leveraged effectively. This leaves many organisations still reliant on time-consuming manual processes during projects.

All stakeholders should be able to access information about building products, materials and components throughout the design and construction process. Creating a common digital language and standardised processes for structuring data is key to ensuring a smooth flow of construction information – and this is where data dictionaries can make a difference.

What is a data dictionary and how does it work?

The IBM Dictionary of Computing defines a data dictionary as a “centralised repository of information about data such as meaning, relationships to other data, origin, usage and format”. In the context of the construction industry, data dictionaries are being developed both internationally and by industry organisations to facilitate digital exchange of information during building projects.

By using them, stakeholders can access the same raw data about construction objects from one source, at any point of the process. They can then apply this to their own organisations and projects to improve the management and exchange of data across a building’s entire lifecycle.

A data dictionary will enhance the golden thread, which the government defines as “both the information that allows you to understand a building and the steps needed to keep both the building and people safe, now and in the future”. It does this by providing information from trusted standard-based data models. These are based on standards produced by relevant regulatory or standardisation bodies, such as the BSI, and serve as a reference point for best practice on the use of materials, maintenance, and general working practice.

In the UK, for instance, a data dictionary has now been set up to support the implementation of ISO 19650.

What are the benefits of using one?

By using a data dictionary as a connected point of reference, people will be empowered to take ownership at different stages of a project. If product data is structured in a consistent way, organisations will find it easier to exchange information on products, materials and components. They will be able to better understand, for example, important aspects such as the performance of an external wall of a building, how the system should be installed, maintenance requirements and its sustainability credentials.

With access to the ready-to-use content available in data dictionaries, contractors and other participants in construction can use standardised data in projects to improve business processes. This could be in making cost calculations, in purchasing decisions or when measuring carbon footprint, for example.

This standards-based management of data helps them to ensure interoperability and readability, with all parties able to gain a clear understanding of the performance of materials being purchased and installed within a built environment.

In addition, data dictionaries can support the industry as it prepares for environmental legislation, helping them face the challenges of transitioning to a circular economy. This has become particularly relevant since the establishment of the European Green Deal, which aims to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.

Agreeing on and applying a common digital language in construction information exchange is also an enabler for further adoption of modern digital technologies, such as IoT, AI and machine learning, and a prerequisite for improved productivity.

What’s the future for data dictionaries?

There are many different digital data dictionaries in the construction industry worldwide. However, these dictionaries need to be interconnected to ensure that data can be universally understood by all participants and the software they use.

Experts in standardisation bodies such as CEN and ISO are continuing to align the available standards to ensure that digital dictionaries can store properties and their attributes in a consistent way.

Overall, the future of data dictionaries holds immense potential for improved data governance, interoperability, and utilisation. As technologies advance and data complexity increases, data dictionaries will continue to evolve, supporting more efficient and effective data management practices across industries and domains.

The end goal is to create one common language across the construction industry worldwide.

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