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Data flows for energy consumption managementA case study: the seecon Ingenieure’s Data Hub
Over the past 10 years, the engineering company “seecon Ingenieure” has supported some hundred municipal administrations in Germany in developing programs aimed at climate protection, with the aim of promoting energy saving interventions in public buildings and contribute to the reduction of CO2 emissions. In these projects, different types of municipal buildings have been taken into consideration, both modern and historical: from school complexes to municipal and administrative structures, from sports halls to Association premises.
In deepening the study of this relevant and heterogeneous real estate patrimony, a common criticality emerged: project data such as land areas, usable areas, consumption of water, electricity and gas, heating systems, but also design documents, contracts for lease, electricity meter readings, were managed in a non-organic way by different offices. Data contained in paper archives, excel sheets, lists and self-produced notes, needed to be ordered and made consistent for subsequent uses. A first phase of the work was therefore inevitably devoted to research of the starting data and conversion into a homogeneous format, a time-consuming activity and apparently of little added value compared to the objectives of the projects and most of all to the process of urban renewal that we wanted to trigger through them.
Yet, rearranging this huge amount of data into a system, making it accessible and usable for managing various assets, can be a significant benefit for our customers.
Digitisation as a solution
How to deal with this situation? The solution was there, at hand: in the era of the digital revolution the way to go was to exploit the potential of information technology to automatically generate consistent and homogeneus starting data.
The occasion was given by a collaboration with the University of Leipzig for the development of a PHD thesis within a climate protection program; the objective of the Thesis was to identify which data flows could be automated with the aid of computer applications, focusing the attention on energy management for buildings. Since the fall of 2015 we therefore took up the challenge of automation: we have decided to start from the re-processing of a gigantic collection of Excel templates that had been gradually prepared over time to facilitate our calculations. From their combination, the possibility of having real computational bases emerged.
Specifically, we were able to develop a rehabilitation strategy for some 10,000 social housing units using only excel sheets suitably configured to be managed by no more than 1 or 2 people. But we soon realised that, despite the good background and the fruitful work that had led to the successful completion of that particular task, a basic “dissatisfaction” remained: the system of Excel sheets, however effective, seemed too complex for our customers, who were not able to use it autonomously as a work tool.
When asked by another real estate company if we wanted to do a similar job (ie a rehabilitation strategy for 2,300 homes) we decided to approach the problem differently, using a database, based once again on the use of widely used Microsoft software – Microsoft Access – and easy to use even for the customer. We have therefore poured all the previously accumulated experience into the new software platform, with decidedly better results, above all as regards the integrity and consistency of the data, which are more protected in the databases. Furthermore, every update of the database was immediately available everywhere and for all users, eliminating the risk of logical errors.
However, there were still unresolved issues: Access also needed “expert operators” who knew the system well and were able to easily extract data in the form of reports. Furthermore, most of the new data had to be entered by hand through the original interface. Once again, therefore, there was the risk that the use of our instrument by the Customer could cause problems during subsequent processing conducted independently…
A winning idea: the SaaS revolution (Software as a Service)
Solving this impasse was helped by the hiring of an excellent programmer who, having terminated his collaboration with a well-known manufacturer of navigation devices, chose to join the seecon team, combining both the project objectives and the corporate philosophy, focused on flexibility and compatibility between work commitments, family and private life. His entry into the team was decisive because with his intuitions he directed us towards the solution of the problem: first of all it was immediately clear to him that what we needed was a multifunctional database structured according to a system that was at the same time simple and effective, robust and essential. He therefore began to design the basic structure, consisting of a Front-end, a user management system, a reporting system, and the actual database, for the management of which the choice fell on SQL, the DBMS (Data Base Management System) which seemed more appropriate to guarantee the necessary power of the system.
But the real fulcrum of our winning idea was the decision to implement the whole system through SaaS (acronym of “Software as a Service“): this means that the resulting software can be used not only on the Customer’s computer, or in a specific company network but can be accessed via browser from any computer connected to the Internet.
The software itself “resides” on a seecon server and is therefore constantly monitored and protected from unauthorized access. All necessary updates are made without any intervention by the Customer. Furthermore, it is possible to manage roles and authorizations so that each user can access and work exclusively on his own data set: different officials work in parallel on the same database, but everyone is always within his own sphere and the data always remains updated and consistent for all users (eg the technical office creates new files related to the building, the caretakers enter the meter readings, the mayor’s office only displays the reports, etc …). And this is one of the main strengths of the system: the data is entered by the Customers themselves. If the data format does not correspond to the one expected, the software reports it directly to the user and the update is not received, to guarantee the consistency of the information stored.
Another great advantage lies in the ease of importing digital data: the information that someone has already entered in a structured database does not have to be re-entered manually but can be easily imported into the system.
Finally, the software facilitates the automation and speeding up of the real estate management process, which ends with the possibility of automatically generating easily understandable and customised reports for each asset (or, if necessary, by cluster or for the entire database) based on the specific information needs of the Customer: easy, intuitively usable frontend, low requirements for existing hardware, no installation on personal workplaces in the involved Authority’s premises (especially, no effort for updates), no need for amendments to the licence contracts with every update, low risk of blackout and data loss. On the other hand there is only one additional requirement: online connectivity – which is existing nearly in all workplaces anyway.
In seecon we have perfected to such a point the so-called “DataHub” system to be able to allow the autonomous use by the Customer after a special training course that normally ends very quickly. Nevertheless, we believe it is very important to listen to the needs of current and future customers in order to better orientate subsequent implementations of the system and ensure that its potential is always exploited to the full.
Working on the DataHub we realised how useful digitisation processes are in our profession. The challenge is to use the world of big data in an increasingly massive way, optimising and automating processes, to leave more space and time to the quality of the relationship with the customer, to support and consultancy activities, to the development of new ideas that they can only arise from the comparison with the actors of the process.
In addition to energy management, the new frontiers to be explored include water and wastewater management systems, traditional plant engineering, the protection of public green areas, mobility planning, etc… also through the creation of interfaces with the BIM world and taking into consideration the criteria set out in the ENVISION protocol for measuring the degree of infrastructure sustainability.
In the future, all recursive activities that do not have an eminently creative component should be the prerogative of machines.
But the future has already begun.