Five ways architects can protect their data

As data privacy concerns make headlines, architects should consider how much they share when specifying products

Building products have always made up a significant portion of construction project budgets, and the specification of those materials takes up a large amount of architects’ time. But while product selection was once generic and took place in a closed environment, today it happens in increasingly transparent ways, such as via the internet or BIM. Information gleaned from this process is very valuable to the construction ecosystem. As an architect, do you know who is collecting and using your data?

Collection and analysis of data has become a big business, including for the AEC space. Because of its influence in the selection of construction products, the design community has an enormous impact on the manufacture, sale, and marketing of building and fit-out products in the United States. This has not gone unnoticed, and there are several services or platforms that are intent on grabbing, scraping, or culling that data for market intelligence.

As long as providers are transparent about what they are doing, these services can be useful to the industry, such as notifying you when a new version of your favorite design software is available. But as recent revelations about Facebook have made clear, it’s important to understand how your data is being used and how to maintain control over what you’re willing to share.

There is one easy way to find out what data is being shared and with whom it is being shared: by reading the end-user license agreement or privacy policy of any software product or website you provide personal data to. Reading a license agreement by itself won’t guarantee privacy, but it will help you figure out what data is being shared and what you can do to control that data stream.

Here are five practices that will help you and your firm maintain control of your preferences, proprietary decisions, and other private data.

  1. Utilize trusted resources, both internal or external. A trusted resource can be internal—such as a firm knowledge base—or external—such as a software product or resource that is clear about its data collection and use policies.
  2. Insist on complete transparency from all your design resources. If you don’t understand the terms and conditions, don’t use the resource until you find out exactly what is being collected and how it is being used. For example, will the provider give your email addresses, project name, or other personally or project identifiable information to outside parties?
  3. Separate work and personal accounts. While it’s easy to develop relationships and use services across different workstations that use a single log-in, doing so gives data miners deeper insights into your personal preferences. It also impacts data-driven paid content. Do you really want to see ads for cat videos popping up while doing product research on a manufacturer’s website at work? It’s incredibly convenient to tie all of your services and identities together, but realize that it comes with a cost and a better understanding of your preferences and choices by another party.
  4. Be careful where you click. Whether we like it or not, we work in a highly complex and technology-dense profession. Protecting yourself from the internet isn’t difficult or complicated: Be careful where you click, read warnings about cookies, clean out your cache, and be aware that you are a valuable source of information.
  5. Finally, read the end-user license agreement for all of your software products and services. There are good reasons for collecting data: improving software functionality, proving that the market needs transparency data, or figuring out which products include, don’t have, or could use more certification data, for instance. But does that mean that the platform needs to collect data on your design decisions or scrape an entire BIM model?

While firms should practice one or all the above, recognize that there are also good reasons to share data—software platforms or BIM libraries have a legitimate need to collect some data to develop products that meet current and future user needs.

Protecting project, firm, and personally identifiable information while online and acknowledging the positive attributes or results that can come from sharing data with selected and trusted partners is a delicate balance. Applying the practices outlined above will allow you to have more control over your and your firm’s knowledge. And in a world where knowledge is currency, that’s money in the bank.

Avitru develops MasterSpec, the architecture industry’s most trusted and comprehensive building specification system, created by AIA for its members. Learn more at avitru.com.

Michael Heinsdorf is vice president of business development at Avitru.

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