Tools for Construction Data Management: Embrace the Details
The WisDOT I-39/90 Program: Making Sense of the Data Deluge
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) 45-mile long I-39/90 highway corridor, originally built in the 1960s, needed an upgrade to ease congestion, improve safety, and modernize the roadway. These needs launched a massive construction program in 2014, and I joined the team as a Project Controls Engineer. My new team and I were about to be swamped with construction kick-offs, and the data was already starting to pour in. I jumped in and started compiling all the pertinent financial data to communicate trends for future forecasts and analysis. Along with my team of project controls experts, I manage a huge volume of key program data. Over the course of the Program, I have been able to master the critical tools for managing construction data. Today, the Program is in year eight of ten.
There are so many moving parts and pieces in the Program that there is always something to measure around the corner. From repairing alternate routes, to demolishing existing bridges and widening, to utility work, to mainline paving, it’s an exciting and massive undertaking. In calendar year 2018 alone, the project put down 18 miles of mainline paving, which consisted of almost a million square yards of concrete and the construction of 18 bridges.
Our team also keeps track of consultant budgets across all construction projects and all of DOT internal engineering costs. These numbers reinforce the important role the Project Controls group plays in staying ahead of the data deluge. With a strong project controls system, the myriad data sources and metrics come together.
What Tools Do I Use?
Our Project Controls group for the Program prepares all the “measurables” and presents financial information on a monthly basis to core stakeholders, showing historical data and forecasting projection totals throughout the year. With all the information at hand, I found myself creating an Excel sheet for each new report that was to be generated. Soon, I decided to compile my data and design a dashboard using Excel as the ‘Holy Grail’ for construction data. It serves as a one-stop shop to see the financial health of an active or completed construction project. My goal was and is to keep the information as updated as possible, but also to maintain this dashboard as an “as-built” for the financial information. Foreseeing the need for financial information that can be utilized by other mega-projects in the future, building this tool was a huge undertaking. This dashboard has ensured that our client has an efficient way of accessing oft-requested data that helps drive decision-making.
Working with PowerBI
After researching other ways to manage and convey information, I’ve transitioned the dashboard from Excel to Microsoft PowerBI, which serves as a record retaining tool and a dynamic presentation tool. I enjoy working on PowerBI – simply put, it’s Excel “on steroids.” Along with learning the software, I have been working to establish a way this software can be used by management remotely with read-only access. Data can be accessed by designated users on mobile devices as well. Ensuring data is accessible – and that it makes sense to the user – keeps information and decisions moving forward.
My Keys to Mastering Tools for Construction Data Management
Dive into the Details: I am a big believer in having as much information as possible. I love details, and construction is all about the details. Both the owner and contractors will have data to be tracked, and the Project Controls team must create efficient ways to separate the two – yet still keep it accessible and comprehensible to all parties.
Explore Tools: I started out preparing reports in Excel, which has served me well. I still use it for daily tracking. Out of my ten mouse clicks, at least five are to work in an Excel sheet. However, I also explore new tools and have been increasing my knowledge of PowerBI. I highly recommend learning new tools to help manage your time and efforts more effectively and provide greater value to your client.
Anticipate: With the many monthly, quarterly, and annual information requests we receive, it is critical to have the information ready to go out the door. I’ve learned to aggregate pertinent information for completed projects that may be useful to develop forecasting tools and to analyze past projects. This helps me provide information far beyond what’s expected. This skill helps build the trust of the team I work with, and those who look to us to aid in decision-making.
Understand the Big Picture: I believe that understanding how different processes come together to make a product is critical. It may not be your department, but it may be helpful to know how actions of another department affects your work. Looking at a problem from a bigger perspective improves the product we provide.
Change it Up: Asking questions goes a long way. Don’t be afraid to try new way of presenting tools for construction data management to your client. You might just surprise yourself. Taking ownership in your work is a great motivator. I have learned a great deal as part of the I-39/90 Program, and mastering tools for construction data management has played a large role in my professional growth.
Jagpreet Chahal is a project controls expert in Cotter’s Wisconsin Group, with a focus on transportation projects. Get in touch with Jagpreet on LinkedIn.