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Speaking the Same Language


Frustrated when software systems cannot “talk” to one another, especially when an owner or general contractor requires the use of his systems? New standards for open-source interoperability, the ability of data to be exchanged and interpreted by various software systems, could solve these problems, and AGC has renewed its agcXML initiative to develop and maintain those standards.

“This is something our industry vitally needs,” says Tom Garrett, vice president and chief safety and human resource officer at Brasfield & Gorrie in Birmingham, Ala., an Alabama AGC member. “We need to exchange information ever more quickly with all of the parties and partners involved in a construction project.”

With interoperability, information can be shared among application software, such as accounting, project management, and estimating systems, and between companies.

“agcXML is making sure systems talk to each other easily,” says Fara Francis, chief information officer at AGC of America. “We want to develop programming for construction software that allows for the transfer of data, inside and outside the company.”

When companies try to evaluate new technologies, they have to question what problem it will solve and how it will work with existing software systems.

“For the last 30 years as independent systems have evolved to solve departmental problems within a company, the issues of integration have become more and more apparent and more painful,” says Christian Burger, founder of Burger Consulting Group in Chicago, which is assisting AGC with agcXML project implementation.

“Over the course of the last 10 years, interoperability between companies, exchanging data on a transactional level has become more urgent,” Burger continues. “For these reasons, the industry has needed a way to exchange data in a dependable manner. agcXML is a critical component of that foundation.”

Standards for extensible markup language (XML) “schema,” the computer code being the same in programming for various vendors’ software programs, will allow interoperability to happen.

“A schema is a way of defining something,” says Angus Frost, senior consultant of Burger Consulting and chief architect for agcXML. “In addition to describing something, a schema can contain information about what to do with that data.”

For instance, a request for information schema will describe the job number, name, question, a response and who must receive that information, including whether the response is new or an update. Now, due to different systems, a request for information may be entered multiple times, increasing the risk of error and consuming time.

“This would reduce the points of manual intervention from four to six to one,” Burger says.

Software developers must agree to the standards for interoperability to occur. Burger points out that accepting the standards will prove beneficial to developers, since they will not need to spend time and budget managing unique interfaces with third-party producers.

“If vendors could agree on transaction data specifics, they could create a single unified integration point for all products that carry that transaction,” Burger says. However, the companies’ applications would retain their unique operability and competitive advantages in the marketplace.

Frost aims to ensure agcXML has everything those companies require for inclusion into their products. But first the industry must decide what it needs and wants.

“When each of the software developers agrees, it will be easier to do business, and it will result in cost savings for the contractor,” Francis says.

Currently, if a company desires interoperability, some systems allow the export and import of data, such as exporting an Outlook contact list into a word processing program to perform a mailing, Frost says. Alternately, a firm could perform a data extract from the initial software application, massage the information for compatibility and import it into the second program.

“Both are high risk, with no real validation that the information you extracted and pushed into another [program] is accurate and not overwriting something,” Frost says.

Or a firm can hire a consultant to write an application programming interface, which allows various programs to exchange data within business rules. Custom solutions cost money and are not permanent.

“All are point-to-point solutions, and every time you introduce something new or upgrade, you must start over again,” Frost says. “They are time consuming and can be risky and expensive.”

agcXML will set standards, and once adopted by software developers, contractors’ software systems will not have to worry about data exchange.

“Any system that says it supports agcXML will support the information and know what to do with it,” says Frost, who likens it to electrical outlets, Wi-Fi functionality and cellular telephone systems, which all have standards, so various devices will operate as expected.

“When you have standards, you don’t have to worry about how things will work,” Frost adds.

Several other industries, such as banking and manufacturing, already have a standard language. Healthcare and construction, on the other hand, still struggle with interoperability.

“Processes that were manual 25 years ago have moved to the electronic world, but we all have different systems and have to share information,” Garrett says. “We almost have to go back to the manual way to go from one system to another.”

Burger points out that interoperability will have a profound affect on the construction industry, particularly with the amount of information companies process between subcontractors working on a job and joint ventures.

“They will work smarter and more efficiently,” Burger adds.

The construction industry is focused on XML with its simple tags that enable the definition, transmission, validation, and interpretation of data between organizations and within applications of the same organization, according to a white paper authored by Burger Consulting. It is a flexible way to create common information formats and its plain text nature makes it suitable for sharing across systems. agcXML will work with JavaScript Object Notation (JSON), used for Web and mobile devices, and other ways to represent the data. Tools can convert XML to JSON. The team might also develop a version of agcXML in JSON.

“It will not limit software vendors that want to use JSON,” Frost says.

AGC recognized the construction industry was struggling with the cost of doing business and spending money for additional software programming and began the agcXML project as a member service about 10 years ago. It has developed 10 “schemas” for common construction industry transactions. Those included application for payment, bonds, change directive, change order, owner and contractor agreements, request for information, request for proposal, schedule of values, submittals and supplemental instructions.

When the recession came and the industry took a hit, the project stalled for a while as contractors and software vendors focused on keeping work in the pipeline, Francis explains.

“With changes and an uptick in the construction industry and improved technology trends, we realized now is the time to get out there again and push for standards,” Francis says.

Member construction firms are serving on an advisory board with sponsoring software vendors to discuss and influence the level of detail in the schemas, or standards, and the desired functionality of the interoperable software.

Garrett explains that the advisory board sets the strategy for developing standards for electronic data exchange and priorities to concentrate on first.

“If we do this right and get industry support, everyone wins — the construction industry and buyers of construction products,” Garrett says. “This is an open effort, and suggestions and input from anyone interested is welcome and needed.”

In addition to Brasfield & Gorrie, information technology professionals from Swinerton in California; The Weitz Co. in Des Moines, Iowa; and Colas Inc. in Morristown, N.J., serve on the advisory board for the project, as do software vendor gold sponsors The Blue Book and Construction Network, COINS-Global, Maxwell Systems, Sage and Viewpoint Construction Software. Stratusvue is a silver sponsor. Two members of AGC’s IT Forum Steering Committee, Bill Cobb and Kurt Koenig, also serve on the advisory board.

“We have great representation of a diverse set of construction companies and system vendors,” Francis says.

Participating provides valuable market intelligence as to the most important data elements and processes to contractors, while early contractor participation allows them to influence the level of detail in the schemas.

The advisory board is focused on developing, building out and refining four schemas within the coming months — request for information, submittal, change requests and scale tickets — for release at the 95th Annual AGC Convention in Las Vegas, Nev. in March. It will offer a demonstration at that annual event.

“This is a long-term initiative,” Burger says. “We will have schema ready this spring, but only selected schema. And the vendors still need to adopt it. We are starting down the path, and it is gaining momentum.”

Software vendors must incorporate the schema into their products. Contractors will be able to take advantage of new software that serves specific purposes without worrying about how it will integrate with its core systems.

“agcXML compliance will become a competitive advantage for the vendor in the marketplace,” Burger says. “It will allow a contractor to use best-in-class solutions.”

Francis hopes to see movement toward adoption in the coming year and encourages members to ask their vendors about whether upcoming upgrades in their product lines will include agcXML standards as well as what types of transactions are most important to the contractor.

“It’s critical the industry demands support for agcXML standards in vendors products,” says Frost, who advises AGC members to start asking about it. “It takes a while for software vendors to build something into their product’s roadmap. If we want the software vendors to include agcXML, we need to set that demand now.”

Garrett also encourages fellow contractors to tell their vendors that they want better data exchange.

“We will get it, if we ask for it,” Garrett says.

Francis anticipates the project benefiting all member contractors, particularly those using electronic systems for record keeping or project management. “The benefactors will be the people working in the construction industry,” Frost adds. “Contractors will no longer have to worry about the technical challenge of how I will exchange information with everyone on a project.”