March 2012

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Death by Dashboards

One dashboard may not be able to fulfill all expectations, but it is important to clearly formulate what is expected and to evaluate the market based on “Building Knowledge” rather than Data Visualization.

Jack Mc Gowan

Jack Mc Gowan, CEM
Energy Control Inc.

Contributing Editor

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Sometime in the early 2000’s I started talking about dashboards and the notion of going beyond a traditional building automaton front-end to Web-enabled visualization tools. Of course there was already an evolution at that time toward using routers and gateways, as part of the middleware component of the BAS, to integrate legacy systems and combine legacy user interfaces.  The real point of the dashboard was, and is, to provide a tool that would unify information from a host of building systems and from outside sources for weather, energy usage etc.  Equally important however was to enable disparate data to be massaged and to provide useful information for managers.  More than information the idea was to provide knowledge, meaning that the ideal product could, for example, combine energy usage with building data to make it easier to benchmark buildings and more.

Fast forward a little more than a decade, and add some insights from walking a dozen or so trade shows recently, and Dashboards have almost become an independent segment of the BAS industry.  These tools can bring new value to the systems world, but there is a huge diversity in offerings combined with confusion that exists between where the functionality of one class of dashboards ends, and others pick up.  This confusion led to my title “Death by Dashboards.  This is in no way an indictment of Dashboards; rather it is a call for continuous improvement that will benefit both building owners and integrators.  Addressing divergent options and feature sets will require more offering definition, plus the evolution of data and product standards to ensure optimal value from these tools. The simple fact is that there are a myriad of options on the market.  This creates buying challenges for the owner who must clearly define requirements to be sure that they get the product they want, and for the Integrator that wants to manage the learning curve required to deploy and service these projects.

The question is how to avoid Death by Dashboards?  To begin formulating an answer, this piece starts by categorizing products into three categories: Basic-function Visualization Tools, Product Enhancing Dashboard Interfaces and Analytics Engines with Enhanced Visualization.  Initial questions revolve around understanding feature-sets, but quickly this topic evolves to a critical set of topics relating to Standards for data and integration. Standards are not a new topic for the buildings industry and, given the speed at which Dashboards are being deployed, it is one that the industry should pay attention to, if it wants to avoid being dependent upon a glut of one-off legacy products.   There is some interesting data standards work underway, and John Petze, one of industry's Serial-Technology-Pioneers, with SkyFoundy  is engaged in that activity. Among the efforts John is involved with is Project Haystack, which is working to “define standardized data models for sites, equipment, and points related to energy, HVAC, lighting, and other environmental systems”. This should not be new to the readership, because John has written about these topics in   Another group that is actively engaged in standards that will become part of the Dashboard work is the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP)  As a Founding Co-Chair of the NIST Building to Grid Working Group that evolved into SGIP I can emphasize that much of this work will focus on energy, but one of the most important content areas for Dashboards is energy.  Several other companies are working on enhancements to the BIM standards.  Jim Butler has written an ASHRAE Journal article on Point Naming Conventions for BAS that has influenced some of these standardization efforts. (

This article has established that there is strong and growing market demand for Dashboards, but what is the current state of the art for these tools and do they enhance management data?  Referring back to the categories mentioned above, the simplest form of dashboard provides basic functions to simply present data. Initially there was a great demand for presenting data from multiple automation systems via one interface.  This led to combining data from various BAS systems, meters, Security and Web based data such as weather or utilities. The initial value of these tools seemed great, but it still required a smart operator to review this information and draw conclusions that could result in actions to improve building operations.  This is what the author calls “Knowledge”, just having data does not enhance the building owners productivity unless it can be turned into knowledge.  For this reason Basic Function Dashboards will likely be a short lived category. From my perspective the second category of Dashboards is Product Focused.  With the advent of very robust “frameworks” like Niagara, a host of “product suites” have hit the market that combine the visualization tool with building blocks to create a turnkey application. The early examples of this were Enterprise Energy Management systems combining meters and visualization, but now there are systems that target lighting, Computer based Maintenance Management, building commissioning and capital asset management for benchmarking. These are exciting tools, but the longevity that they achieve may be determined by how much they embrace standards and whether they envision integration of legacy technologies that are already in the building. One particularly compelling subcategory of the energy based Dashboards are Kiosk technologies. These tools begin to provide Building Knowledge by combining energy and building data to give occupants and visitors useful data about building energy benchmarks and carbon footprint. In the educational market there are even a number of these that combine curriculum to use this knowledge as a learning tool.  

Control Solutions, Inc The industry is just beginning to glimpse a next generation of Visualization tools, which does embrace standards for wider deployment, but more importantly targets “knowledge”.  True productivity enhancement will come when Dashboards perform, at least some of, the functions that today require a skilled human being to look at the tool and see problems, opportunities, etc.  This is about more than just unifying data under one interface, it is about incorporating a form of “fuzzy logic” into those tools, to deduce the meaning of data, and speed the correction of problems, as well as optimization of performance.  All of this activity falls under the category of Analytics Engines with Enhanced Visualization.  Leveraging building data with Analytics skills has traditionally been a critical element of energy management.  Some companies like Cimetrics have taken this activity to a high level by providing very sophisticated diagnostics to uncover building operational issues that operators could not see.  The next generation of Visualization Tools will take this type of approach to visualizing performance rather than data, and to visualizing optimization rather than operations. (In fact, Cimetrics’ Infometrics Online SaaS is such a tool.) The outcome of SGIP’s efforts will provide a wide range of standards to assess how building performance data can translate to opportunities for owners to get paid by utilities, for participating in Demand Response or selling capacity to energy markets.  A next generation Visualization Tool should then be able to take this level of Energy Knowledge, combine it with Building Knowledge and Performance Benchmarks and determine if there are strategies that could adapt a Buildings Operation to a market opportunity, without negative impacts to the occupants mission.  In the demand response (DR) world manufacturers have come to understand that they can make more profit by shutting down production and getting paid more “profit dollars” for DR than they can for making products. If they can do this without missing customer promise dates, then they improve business performance overall.  Visualization tools must be able to help building owners make similar determinations to reach the full potential that was originally conceived.

In closing the intent here is not to criticize any Dashboard products on the market, nor to inform the reader which one to buy. Rather the intent was to pose some basic questions about the appropriate level of visualization that is needed, and whether the industry needs more than simply presenting data.  Initial thinking in the Pre-Dashboard era was that unifying data from multiple systems would enhance management data to optimize building performance by creating “Knowledge”.   The cardinal rule of marketing is that no one product or company can be all things to all people.  One dashboard may not be able to fulfill all expectations, but it is important to clearly formulate what is expected and to evaluate the market based on “Building Knowledge” rather than Data Visualization.

About the Author
Jack McGowan is President of Energy Control Inc. (ECI), an OpTerra Energy Group company.  He is Chairman Emeritus of the U.S. Department of Energy GridWise Architecture Council, and was Founding Co-Chair of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Building to Grid Working Group.  ECI won a 2008 American Business Award sponsored by Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal as Best Overall Company in the U.S. with less than 100 employees.  McGowan is author of 5 books on Fairmont Press and Prentice Hall and over 200 articles. McGowan is an internationally known energy, buildings and technology expert, and was chosen by his peers as 2006 Visionary at the Builconn Intelligent Buildings event. He was named Newsmaker of the Year by in 2007. The Association of Energy Engineers admitted him to the “International Energy Managers Hall of Fame” in 2003 and named him “International Energy Professional of the Year” in 1997. He also sits on Technical Advisory Boards and is a Contributing Editor with several magazines including Engineered Systems, Green Intelligent Buildings Today and .


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