Getting Construction Data From the Field
By Nathan | Posted on March 1st, 2019
Construction data is experiencing a boom recently. We're not talking about construction statistics like how much money the U.S. construction industry made or spent in the last fiscal year, that kind of construction data is definitely valuable in its own way from a big picture perspective. We're talking about construction data that general contractors and subcontractors can use to make sure their projects are moving forward smoothly, that everyone is getting paid and that the hundreds of moving parts on your typical construction site are all operating according to plan.
Unfortunately, that sort of data has been the hardest to get historically speaking. There are a dozen services, books, and market research sources that will give you the big picture of construction data in the U.S., but there hasn't been an easy way for the actual construction professionals to get a reliable, accurate, steady source of data from the construction field back to the office. We're here to offer an explanation of why that is, and what you can do to fix it.
Why Construction Data is Hard to Get
A construction jobsite is a naturally busy and complicated place. The typical day usually starts as early as 5:00AM when the GC Superintendent spends an hour catching up on paperwork from the previous day. That paperwork is related to a number of workflows like daily reports, toolbox talks, and time cards. From about 7:00AM to 3:00PM they are out in the field managing the day-to-day activity of the jobsite, which is their primary function. That means they are answering questions, tracking materials, and managing subcontractors in the case of the GC superintendent. Then, from about 3:00-4:00 they are hunting down subcontractors collecting reports from the work that was done that day. Then they take all those reports back to the trailer and submit them to the Project Engineer or administrator who will then type, collate, and organize the daily reports unless the superintendent did it themselves.
So why is construction data collection such a hard task? The difficulty comes in the hours that the superintendent spends filling out a pen-and-paper daily report or typing up a report into an Excel spreadsheet. These data collection methods are time-consuming and inaccurate. Because they take so long they run a high risk of not being done at all, and if they are done they are done in one swoop at the end of the week and are full of inaccuracies because it's hard to remember exactly what happened days after the fact.
David Whitt, a Project Engineer from Swinerton Renewable Energy, told us why he wasn't getting the data he wanted from the field. He said "One of the jobs I had early on was collecting all the dailies that our foremen generate," Whitt told us, "Oftentimes these dailies are written in the field, and they can get messy dealing with things like water or even just penmanship in general. It can be pretty crazy to collect all that information in a timely manner. Then, just to track it all, I would create spreadsheets and all sort of complicated stuff to make sure I was getting all that information. It could take a lot of time, consolidating it all and making sure we had it. With anything that's physically written up, you usually have to type it up as well, so either I or an administrator would do that to make sure we have it all online."
Already you can see how collecting data from the construction field was hard for Whitt. He encountered difficulties with being able to decipher handwriting, water damage on paper reports, and then discrepancies between the data that each of the different reports he was getting from his foremen provided. Each foreman was submitting a different report, and each would contain parts of the data that Whitt needed to manage the jobsite, but not the whole picture. That led to him creating his own complicated spreadsheets and re-entering all the field data to make sure that he wasn't missing anything.
But the difficulty didn't stop there. Whitt told us "It's just hard to remember with the dailies the next day, and if guys forget they are way less likely to do them because they have to think 'okay, what was I doing last Wednesday, or what was I doing three days ago?' It's just hard to remember and it's not usually as clear, so a lot of guys are all-or-nothing, so they wouldn't do it if it wasn't the day of."
That is precisely the sort of problem that makes construction data hard to get: if the guys in the field forget to do it right in the moment then it more than likely doesn't get done, or if it does, it's inaccurate because time has made the details vague.
Stop Blaming the Field
The situation that Whitt described probably isn't new to anyone familiar with the flow of information between the construction field and the office, nor is the frustration that usually comes from the lack of communication. Whitt confirmed to us that "one of the biggest time sucks is tracking the information, hunting down my foremen to find out where the hell they are and where their daily is, and even remembering to do all that." Whitt said. He then went on to describe a typical reaction he would get when he finally succeeded in tracking down one of the noncompliant foremen either on the radio or the phone, having them stop what they're doing in the field, come into trailer to talk to him, or have David go out into the field himself to track them down. He described it as "tracking that person down and saying 'hey you didn't fill out your daily...' they might say 'David, why are you on me for this? I have other stuff to do...'."
Whitt realized that the foreman in the field wasn't wrong. The "other stuff" that they were doing is precisely what they were hired to do, and they weren't slacking on their daily reports because they wanted to slow things down or out of a sense of stubborn pride: they weren't filling out their dailies because a jobsite is a busy place and they had plenty to do.
However, there are project managers or engineers out there who probably aren't as patient or understanding as Whitt and could be tempted to blame their lack of clear construction data on the foremen and superintendents not being organized enough. To these professionals we would say that it isn't that foremen and superintendents aren't organized or hardworking, it's that modern construction is requiring more and more reports out of the field, more reports than they can reasonably keep up with using the pen-and-paper or Excel spreadsheet that was handed down for their father or grandfather.
So, instead of blaming the guys in the field, getting into arguments every day, and spending hours tracking down reports Whitt decided to implement a certain kind of technology: one that focused on making the experience as easy as possible for the end user.
An Easier Way to Collect Construction Data from the Field
We don't say "construction data collection made easy" because it sounds like a catchy slogan, it's actually the key to getting better data from the field: you have to make inputting the data as easy as possible, that way the guys in the field will actually want to do it and you'll get greater quantities of accurate data you need to keep the project moving smoothly.
Whitt had a number of reservations before introducing a technology that his foremen would actually want to use. He told us "One of the reservations I had, in the beginning, was 'okay, is this going to be a new system? Is this going to be complicated? Is this even going to be worth me learning it?'" A smart question to have, because the only thing worse than pen-and-paper or an Excel spreadsheet is an overly-complicated, expensive piece of software that the office dictates the field needs to use and they never do because it's too complicated: not only are you not getting the data you need, but you've spent a bunch of money on software no one uses.
That's why Whitt decided to go with Raken, a tool for construction field data collection that was designed with the foremen/superintendent in mind. Raken was designed to make inputting issues, photos, videos, forms, and time cards fast and easy for anyone in the field, with zero training, and regardless of their prior experience with technology.
Whitt told us "Definitely daily compliance has gone up. I’ve worked with foremen of all different age groups, and everyone’s been very well adapted to Raken," he said, "they like it because they don't have to sit in the office and do their dailies to turn into me so I can verify it's all done. They can go home and do it either at home or if they're commuting with someone else, they can do it on the ride. It's really nice for them to get out of here quicker."
By making field data collection easier, Swinerton is getting more data and can rest easy knowing that it's accurate because it's collected right in the field as the foremen are walking the jobsite: no more trying to remember on Friday what happened on Monday.
And it's not just the foremen in the field that are saving time. Whitt and his team in the office are saving time collecting and collating the data. "Raken has been really great for penmanship. I don't have to worry about how people's handwriting looks," he remarked, "and now I can track who is turning in dailies, when they're turning them in, and I can make sure I'm collecting all the information: weather, man counts, it's all in one spot for me. We use Raken to track man counts and weather, but we also use it to make sure that each activity has someone responsible for that daily report and someone is getting eyes on it and is reporting what they're doing as far as progress goes, and it's all in one spot. I get a daily email that shows how many reports I got and how many people are on site. Even if I'm not on the project necessarily, I can keep a pulse on it now."
With Raken's daily report PDFs emailed to him along with the real-time dashboard, everyone involved with the project at Swinerton can know what's happening on the jobsite as the data is being collected in real-time. It all hinges on a user experience that was designed, from the ground up, to be easy for that end-user persona to use. When your foremen have a tool that lets them get their reporting done faster you'll not only help them save time doing their reports, but you'll get more accurate construction field data as well. It's a win-win for everyone involved.
And of course, this goes for more than the daily report. Superintendents all over the country are spending too much time filling out timesheets only to forget them one day and then have to remember when he and his crew came in, how much overtime or double time they clocked. If he remembers he then has to scan or take a photo of the timesheet and email it to the payroll admin, who then has to collect and collate individual time cards plus look them over for mistakes. If they find one, they have to chase down workers for missing information, manually enter everything into one document once they have all the information, then review it again and process payroll. Just like Whitt and the daily reports you can see how such a complicated, time-consuming process can break down.
But with Raken superintendents capture time cards right in the field, and can even rollover time from the previous day to the current day for an entire crew and make individual changes as needed. Payroll then gets an automated report and can send text notifications to anyone who hasn't submitted their time card yet. They can then upload a CSV file of the information into their system for quick review and processing. Once again, getting better time card data from the field is simply a matter of replacing an inefficient process with technology that is easy for the end-user.
For more, watch David Whitt's full construction software case study video or check out our latest eBook on how you can implement construction software quickly and easily to start getting better construction data for your own project.