CONSTRUCTION JOURNAL

Improving cost-reporting through interactive data visualisation tools

Interactive data visualisation tools allow the cost-reporting process to be more timely, transparent and dynamic

Author: Alice Graham

12 June 2020

There is a huge amount of potential for a digital disruptor to evolve the project delivery processes of both the construction industry and how professionals provide information to their clients.

One key area in the quantity surveying profession that is ripe for disruption is cost reporting – the primary way in which a quantity surveyor controls project costs and communicates the forecast out-turn cost to a client. There are several aspects of existing cost reporting formats that need to be improved to maximise the benefits of a cost report to the client, the quantity surveyor and other project stakeholders.

Interactive data visualisation tools can be used to address the following issues with current cost reporting formats.

  • Static data.

    Many cost reports tend to be one dimensional and are produced either as a Microsoft Word or Excel document, which is then made into a PDF. Consequently, the data is static and one dimensional leaving very little scope for interaction.

  • Lack of transparency.

    There is a lack of transparency for the client about how the data was summarised, particularly when the report is in a one dimensional format.

  • Timeliness.

    Cost reports convey the expected out-turn cost at a given point in time. However, the length of time it can take to populate the information means that by the time the cost report is issued to a client, the report may no longer be a real-time representation of the expected out-turn cost.

  • Potential for errors.

    In complex construction projects or programmes of work, vast amounts of data are generated. This data must be assembled, interpreted and input into a cost report. This can result in double handling of the data from the source increasing the likelihood of errors.

Interactive data visualisation tools give businesses the ability to analyse data, gain insights and improve decision making. When applied in the context of a construction project or programme, these tools can be used within the cost-reporting process to provide dynamic insights, and also to act as a cost monitoring tool. There are several platforms to facilitate this, but a widely-used one is Power BI, which is in the Microsoft Office 365 suite of products.

"Interactive data visualisation tools give businesses the ability to analyse data gain insights and improve decision making"

The basic principle of these platforms is that data is taken from a source – or multiple sources – and then transformed into a dashboard report that provides different insights into a project or programme of works.

To facilitate the data visualisation, a customised dashboard report can be built to reflect the key metrics of a project. This could be the typical metrics of a cost report, as well as specific key performance indicators requested by the client. The dashboard report can then be published for the client and other stakeholders to review. Data from the source – or sources – can be refreshed on demand to update the report.

There are three key features of interactive data visualisation tools.

  • Filters.

    The ability to interact with the data so the users only see the information that is relevant to them, a specific query they have or particular elements of work in a project.

  • Visualisation.

    The ability to visualise the data and provide a simple summary that requires minimal analysis by the end users. The standard structure means it is easy for different stakeholder groups to interrogate the data.

  • Interrogation.

    The ability to interrogate the data by being able to access the figures behind the summaries created.

These key features enable a cost report to move from a one-dimensional and static document, to a dynamic three-dimensional way of reviewing and interpreting a projects performance.

Benefits of data visualisation

My employer, Faithful+Gould, has adopted the use of data visualisation tools for dashboard reporting as part of a capital investment programme for a national banking client.

This dashboard, which can be published on demand by refreshing live data feeds, provides the client with information about their portfolio of projects from a programme and cost management perspective. This allows the client to easily monitor the cost performance against the overall budget. Outside of cost and programme, the dashboard is also used to report on quality and health and safety.

The client is given access to the report so they can review it remotely at any time, and stakeholders can filter the figures dependent on their key areas of interest in the project. This provides an interactive means for the client to monitor progress against their KPIs.

"Stakeholders can filter the figures dependent on their key areas of interest in the project"

There are several ways that data visualisation tools add value for the client.

  • Three-dimensional information.

    The client can view a report interactively as opposed to a static PDF cost report. This way the client can opt to see the summary for specific data or drill deeper into the data supporting the report.

  • Improved transparency.

    The client is better able to interrogate the numbers provided by the quantity surveyor and identify any anomalies. Also, the enhanced access for the client means they have access to review the dashboard at any time.

  • Data visualisation.

    The adage that a picture says a thousand words rings true here as large volumes of data can be summarised visually in an accessible format for the client. Many clients need to make fast decisions and dont have the time to analyse lots of information so this ease of access and visualisation helps clients summarise the data they need quickly.

There are also several key benefits of using data visualisation tools for the quantity surveyor.

  • Reduced time.

    Cost reporting for complex projects can be time consuming and challenging when it involves collating information from various sources. Using data visualisation tools cuts down on the time needed to produce a report. Being able to collate the data quickly provides a more real-time report for the client.

  • Dynamic presentation of data.

    The quantity surveyor can present information to their client in a more dynamic format.

  • Reduced double handling.

    Data visualisation tools facilitate the creation of links between different data sources. Consequently, there is less double handling of data when creating or updating a report.

  • Trends.

    Quantity surveyors gain more insight into the trends and key information for measuring project health. This is particularly useful for a programme of works where the costs are being monitored for each individual project, and to see the trends affecting the aggregate value of a portfolio of works.

For Faithful+Gould, the use of data visualisation tools has been highly beneficial for all parties involved and is an effective form of cost reporting compared to conventional formats. Not only has the adoption of these tools reduced the time spent creating reports by between an estimated 20 and 50 per cent, it has also provided a platform to bring together multiple data sources, proving to be a valuable data visualisation tool for client cost reporting.

Alice Graham is a graduate quantity surveyor at Faithful+Gould  alice.graham@fgould.com

Related competencies include: Data management Quantification and costing (of construction works)

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