Responsible Use of Data in the Built World: What’s Your Purpose?



AUTHOR: DOROTEA BALJEVIC

Historians tell us how Native Americans had the vision - and foresight - to think seven generations into the future when considering their impact on the land. 

As the story goes, the Six Nations, comprising the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora, considered 140 years into the future and collectively asked themselves: Whatever we do to our land, from a sustainability point of view to the local flora and fauna, what impact will it make? 

It’s this kind of boundless vision and innate sense of social responsibility that’s needed in the property and construction industry as it relates to the responsible use of data. 

Certainly, the symbolism of Native Americans is a timely reminder as the property and construction world edges ever-closer to the new reality of ‘autonomous buildings’ - a world where buildings are intelligent, can adapt and respond to human needs and behaviours. 

In fact, buildings - and cities - are becoming self-aware, morphing into ‘dynamic ecosystems’ that can anticipate the needs of the occupants, and adapt their behaviour to the preferences of the people and the environment. 

But the industry needs better guardrails and richer education on the data front to stay competitive and relevant in the digital era. 

And while data is a key element in this story - driving this new level of intelligence, providing insight, interpretation and meaning; and reshaping how industries are functioning - like water it’s extremely valuable, but also needs to be carefully used.  

What’s more, data ethicists will tell you that data in itself is not the knowledge we seek. If anything, data requires analysis to provide insights - and this is dependent on the quality and relevance of the data to the decisions being made. 

But for many organisations, a lack of relevant quality data remains a challenge - and there are five main reasons:

  • It’s unclear who has custodianship of the data (the individual who roams the building, the asset owner, the investment fund for the community?);
  • Many organisations and their leaders lack strong understanding of data governance, rights and privacy; and technical requirements to responsibly protect user data;
  • Collection has a loose relationship to usage of purpose;
  • Little consideration is made to how the physical and digital worlds can work together;
  • Those that want insights have an unhealthy desire to collect data wherever possible.

But that’s not all. There’s also the issues of quality and consistency on the data collection front. In fact, the systems for collection today have become more of a data hoarding exercise rather than fit-to-answer the questions that are relevant to the business or community outcomes. 

Competing, closed standards, lack of agreement between industry players, and the proliferation of bespoke solutions – in short systems which were never intended or designed to work with one another - further clouds the issue. 

Providing Purpose

Undoubtedly, these and other grey areas give rise to key questions and emerge when it comes to the responsible use of data. 

As a data ethicist, perhaps the number one question on everyone's minds is, ‘How much data is too much data’? This ultimately leads to a discussion that juxtaposes privacy versus the utility of data; and cyber security versus use of data. 

The problem can be alleviated once people understand the intended purpose of the data. In fact, people often think it’s too much data when they’re unclear about the data use, and how it’s being secured. This results in immediate brick walls being put up.  

If, for example, it’s explained to the community that the data collected is being used to improve a building occupant’s quality of life - by analysing their needs, wants and behaviours to help enrich their surroundings - or that it’s  to deliver sustainability targets, then there’s a clear purpose for the data. This clear purpose includes why and how the data is being used and a requirement to opt-in and out at any time.

But how do we get to this world of purposeful and practical use cases? First and foremost, the property and construction industry needs to build trust with the community - and all relevant stakeholders - in order to foster this sense of purpose.

But admittedly, it’s a challenge. Over the last decade, the world has been maltreated by technology giants amassing and hoarding large quantities of data for no clear purpose - even going so far as to push clauses in their contracts that claim they own the data. But the world is shifting - in large part due to regulations (like GDPR, PDPA and others) that are paving the way for more ethical checks and balances and a more responsible use of data. 

Learning from the mistakes of the past, property and construction players like Lendlease - with Podium Property Insights - are on a mission to engage and collaborate with stakeholders, and ultimately co-create, and discover the rightful purpose and ethical use of the data for the betterment of people, communities and the environment. 

Then, it’s not simply a question of too much data, or too little. The data now fulfills a purpose, provides connections, and is ascertained in a fully transparent manner. There’s now a clear purpose for the insights and the role of data. Understanding these different layers of data with a conscious review of how and why it is shared is now the end result.  

Stewardship of Data 

But there’s other grey areas to consider. We also need to ask, ‘Who owns the data - and do industry stakeholders even know the legalities?’ Ownership of the property tends to be a fairly constant and single entity, yet the extension of the technology and data within the building has added a layer of confusion. 

Admittedly, it’s a minefield as, historically, property developers only looked at the physical, tangible assets (buildings you can see, touch, feel, work and live in), and didn’t need to consider the technology and data aspect. But today, digital platforms are analysing and maximising building efficiency, and discovering how to adapt and respond to human needs and behaviours. This vast array of digital information, in turn, facilitated by cloud technology, further complicates matters, forcing people to wonder, ‘Who actually owns the data in the age of digital?’  

Part of the answer involves shifting mindsets, and working towards making open, trusted data mechanisms (and its purposeful uses) more of a reality. 

Podium Property Insights, for its part, is working to shift the conversation from, ‘Who owns the data?’  towards asking, ‘Who is the custodian of that data, and who is stewarding it?’ 

What’s more, the industry needs to ensure that the data is maintained appropriately, and that stakeholders aren't accumulating it for self-indulgent means. Rather that they’re taking good, due care and responsibility with it. 

Additionally, those that are nominated can’t be a ‘steward for all of it.’ In fact, there’s different levels within the tenancy - at an individual level and across different components within the building.  They also need to consider if the building exists in a city or a precinct - to determine if the local government is the custodian of the data - and where that responsibility begins and ends.  All these need to discussed and answered in determining who takes responsibility and maintenance for the data at the relevant layers.

Perhaps the more appropriate question to consider is: ‘How do I contribute, versus what can I control, in order to provide benefits back to the local flora, fauna and the people from the community?’ 

Certainly, the questions of who owns the data versus those that use or invest in the data needs to be made clear early. Those that manage the data and build products on behalf of owners should seek permission and be seen as custodians with great responsibility – this will require being transparent and mindful in the entire lifecycle of managing data. 

‘Creative Abrasion’ 

Certainly, answering these, and other, questions as it relates to the responsible use of data is no easy feat. But it can be done. Think of it as ‘creative abrasion,’ a constructive confrontation built into the design process, where diverse people generate, debate and ultimately implement ideas and come to robust outcomes - a process first coined by famed auto designer Jerry Hirshberg. 

In his book, The Creative Priority: Putting Innovation to Work in Your Business, Hirshberg refers to healthy conflict as “embracing the dragon.” Here, the idea is to empower the collective through a process of ‘creative conflict’, to learn and understand other viewpoints, and then to reach a place of purpose and ‘empathetic’ decision-making based on a common goal. 

Through the use of a digital platform (an array of technology and data tools), along with continuous community dialogue, Podium Property Insights aims to do just that. To work with industry stakeholders to ensure the responsible use of data (help maximise the data insights), by acting as the ‘custodians of the data’ to ensure data security, transparency, the minimisation of breaches, and all relevant consents are enabled through the process. 

Indeed, it’s a process that requires widespread collaboration across the property and construction industry with key groups including: policy makers, property developers, data governance representatives, data ethicists, technologists, and the entire building ecosystem of tenants, facilities managers - and anyone else that maintains buildings - coming onboard. 

The Responsible Way Forward

Certainly, the way forward requires the identification, respect and acknowledgement of data custodians; as well as ensuring extensive community involvement throughout the process - taking particular care to include the less vocal groups (the underrepresented)  to ensure their voices will be heard, and values captured. 

The goal is to embed trust, transparency and responsible use of data to existing processes. It is not a separate stream, but a responsibility of each individual's role. Under the plan, there are three key pillars:

  • clearly understanding why we are collecting data;
  • a responsible use of data; and
  • a process to manage the data well.

In short, it’s about creating simplicity in an increasingly complex, interdependent, digital and physical world. With today’s mix of bespoke solutions, often paired with imperfect data, the question is, How do we provide context - human-led context - from a property and construction point of view, to enable better decision-making, enrich lives, and create a more sustainable future? 

For Native Americans of the past, and for the property and construction world of today, the answer lies, in part, with adopting a purpose-led approach - rich with data insights and intelligence – to ensure a healthy, sustainable and resilient future. 

Current and future generations demand we change the world for the better – so let’s find a way to use data responsibly to help us achieve this.