Photo documentation was never the goal

From photography to actionable analytics: the evolution of reality capture in construction

Fair warning. If the post title suggests this is a neutral overview of our industry, I must disappoint you: that's not the type of article this will be. I am heavily biased towards our product and extremely opinionated about what I feel is a valid path forward for the construction tech sector. 

So, with that disclaimer out of the way, let the festivities commence.

The emergence of photo documentation

Customers often ask me what makes us different from competitors. There is a short answer to that question and a long one. This is the long answer.

There has always been a need to document what happens on construction projects. For instance, if you were the owner and not on-premises, but you still wanted to know what was going on there. 

Or as a General Contractor you wanted to keep a record to go in later and establish how things were actually built. For example, in the unhappy event of a dispute with one of your stakeholders or, God forbid, a legal claim. 

So when photography became digital and cheap, it was a no-brainer for people with access to the industry to step into the space and start offering photo documentation services. The first company to do so started in 2003 and it still exists.

But taking a bunch of photos just leaves you with a bunch of photos. With no method of organizing them, how will you find the information you are looking for? 

Until about 8 years ago, a new company emerged to fix that. Their claim to fame was mapping the pictures you took to the floorplan. 

360º cameras had just become affordable enough for site capture. Now you could not only link images to the place and direction they were taken, but also, à la Google street view, create virtual sitewalks. 

It was cool when it came out but it had problems. It was cumbersome to upload the pictures one by one, and the viewer did not work very well, making it a pain to work with.

Making reality capture easy

Until five or six years ago, some new companies entered the arena to improve upon what the older ones had started. They created a better user experience by automagically uploading and mapping photos to their location.

But most notably, they created a better viewer that enabled users to virtually tour the asset, and go back and forth seamlessly in time to check the build history.

Those are our most direct competitors now, and they mainly use machine learning for automatic photo-to-location mapping and have only recently begun to dabble in progress tracking. 

Now around the same time that those companies started in the US, our company, Disperse, was founded in the UK. 

Disperse had a different view

But Disperse started on a different premise and operates on a different principle. 

Many startups from the Silicon Valley ecosystem make it their focus to bridge a gap that other software companies have left. In this case: photo documenting construction sites.

For Disperse, photo documentation was never the goal.

Instead, it was the means to create an information substrate upon which more useful things could be built.

It is not that photo documentation is not a value. It is. But it’s not something that will boost productive output.

Our aim, instead, was to help the construction industry as a whole become more productive. And photo documentation by itself isn't going to do that.

So now you have pictures of your site. Great. Is it going to help you build faster? No. Is it going to help you build with fewer resources? Also no.

Photo documenting a site has advantages. It brings everyone around the same historical source of truth, which facilitates communication. It reduces the risk of legal claims. But these things, although valuable, are peripheral benefits. 

If you have them, great. More power to you. But it is not going to help you execute better.

The Disperse system, on the contrary, was built from the beginning with execution in mind. And it's a tough nut to crack, I'll tell you that.

Climbing the mountain of product development

Building a tech solution that meaningfully augments the day-to-day workflow of project teams sometimes feels like climbing a mountain. Each time you sense you have gotten somewhere, a new mountain face appears, and you wonder if you'll ever reach the summit.

And you don't see those mountain faces until you are actually up on the precipice, looking at what you have built and assessing how useful it is for your customers. You realize things only once you are up there.

Progress tracking

Take progress tracking, for example: identifying the percentage complete of site components.

Currently we track over 480 individual components. Progress tracking is an important capability because you can base more advanced analytics on it. So we have been building out this functionality since the very beginning. 

So how does progress tracking help with execution? It’s great in case you need to bicker with your subs about the objective percentage complete. They say it's 70, but you think it's more like 50. Well, the system will tell you what it is, and it will do so reliably and without human subjectivity.

So that's a great feature but it's not the holy grail. Because not every construction problem can be reduced to a dispute about percentage complete.

Now for competitive reasons I cannot go into too much detail here, but suffice it to say that progress tracking unlocks additional problem spaces, like issue tracking, trade velocity and workforce allocation. 

Issue tracking

Issue tracking is our current standout feature. We throw up an alert, for example, if one of your trades forgot to install something. If that area gets closed off and it creates problems months, or even years, down the line, it will be much more expensive to fix.

It's estimated that those kinds of defective installs account for up to 15% of total project cost. So you can imagine it's a big deal for our customers to reliably pick out those issues at the time of execution and deal with them immediately before they complicate the build process.

We do things like progress tracking and issue tracking so well, because we have nailed the quality, quantity and consistency of our data.

And we are succeeding in this also because we have a different business model than the others. We deploy our solution on-site with our people. We come to regularly scan down the site and process that data in a way that involves AI, yes, but it also involves a large team of architects and engineers that make sure we deliver quality outputs to the project.

And then we give additional support to the projects with a dedicated customer success team to ensure our customers wring every last bit of value from our solution.

So there is a considerable human service element involved, and that leads to a significant price difference between us and our competitors. But once you realize that it's not about reality capture but about actionable data analytics, you also understand that we have a completely different value proposition. 

Disperse is about supporting the core execution workflow that actually moves projects forward.

Passive vs active systems

Think of it this way: those other systems are passive while our system is active.

A passive system is a system that you can consult if you need to. An active system is a system that consults you. It points at issues you would otherwise miss. And that is worth gold, especially on projects that are so large and complex that it's not humanly possible to track of tens of thousands of tasks, which is where our solution shines. 

You don’t want your system just recording everything that goes on. You want your system to intelligently warn you when things go off the rails or give you a heads up about where you can improve your coordination.

It’s the business model, stupid

Sometimes people listen to me touting all the real benefits our solution can bring to their project, and they mention how our competitors have people working for them from the most prestigious universities in the country. And they ask: how is it possible that those smart people are not able to create a solution that meaningfully moves the industry forward?

There are two reasons. The first is that their traditional SaaS business model playbook prevents them from having too many services on their balance sheet. But if you understand what the construction industry needs, you also understand that you can’t burden already overloaded project teams with additional data gathering requirements.

Our position is that you need some level of human service to provide project teams with outputs that really serve them, and make sure that they don’t lose resources on the input side.   

The other reason has to do with leadership intent. If you’ve spent any time on LinkedIn looking at startup CEOs profiles, you will have noticed that they often trumpet the successful ‘exits’ they made. 

Disperse, instead, is co-founded and led by someone that is not looking for the exit. This is a rarity in the startup world and one of the main reasons I chose to join Disperse over other opportunities.

Instead of wanting to make our company an attractive acquisition target, our leadership is motivated by tackling the industry's problems head on. It really is like climbing a mountain. Construction productivity problems are such a tangle of issues. You can’t just throw technology at it and hope that it sticks. It does not, and the last 20 years of ConTech development bears this out. Each time you solve something, something else appears.

You need to have the stamina to see that process through, and not get distracted by shiny objects that pop up along the way. Keen-eyed investors look at the problem space of construction and see that the traditional tech approach, for its many blessings, has not been able to make a dent in the industry. 

You can be smart as a whip, but if you can’t adopt a business model that will help you solve your customers' most pernicious problems, you will not succeed in construction.

Another way is needed. Disperse represents that other way.

I hope that you have found this informative. We put our money where our mouth is. If you are on large and complex projects and you would like to run a risk free trial with us, please get in touch to learn more or book a demo.

Brian Clarke

President Disperse, Americas

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