October 2020

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Inside Buildings IOT’s Ontology Alignment Project (OAP)

Convergence of Haystack and Brick is a common hope amongst the many data hungry people out there looking for a standard to follow.
Brian Turner
CEO at Buildings IOT
Oakland, California


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Ontologies are supposed to help…

When Google released the Digital Buildings Ontology, some questions began to surface. Why would Google do this? Why didn’t they use Project Haystack? Or Brick? I discussed possible answers in my article in September. Now, the biggest question is how do we take advantage of all the work that has been done by Project Haystack (Haystack), Brick Schema (Brick), and Google to make building data more accessible, and ultimately enable more intelligent buildings and smarter building management?

Convergence of Haystack and Brick is a common hope amongst the many data hungry people out there looking for a standard to follow. While I think this the ultimate goal, I don’t believe this will come quickly. ASHRAE is also working on their own ontology that promises to have similarities with Haystack and Brick, but I believe it will be yet another standard to consider. This brings us to where we left off last month: alignment. We at Buildings IOT have been working to align these standards for nearly a year as we have struggled to satisfy project requirements and timelines.

Multiple standards mean no standards

The sad truth is, when there is more than one standard trying to accomplish the same thing, then really there is no standard. This is the premise we started from when we began our Ontology Alignment Project (OAP) Our team needed a consistent way to model data for any building, and every client. After all, that is the promise of a standard.

We wanted to incorporate related standards in the broader context of the building. For example, Energy Star has defined types of buildings for the purpose of normalizing energy consumption and applying an Energy Star Score. The IFC Standards are widely used by architects and engineers when designing the building and systems in the BIM tools, especially for major retrofits and new construction.

As discussed in the last article, the long-term objective of cross-compatibility with Haystack and Brick is clear, but the market is looking for something that will bring the overarching goals of a unified buildings ontology to a fast reality. Since beginning our OAP work in 2019, we thought this would be an ideal opportunity to contribute something meaningful back to the community. We have tested the idea with a few colleagues around the world, and there is a strong appetite to join us in the alignment effort.

The applied approach

We have taken an applied approach with the OAP in that we expect engineers, integrators and system contractors to access the OAP for instructions on how to model buildings, spaces, systems, equipment and devices. Ontologies are not always precise with respect to the actual tags to place on an asset, or the relationships that are required for a space. Leaving too much flexibility in the standard can be as problematic as having too many standards.

Given the target audience, we also wanted to provide some additional information about the data itself. For example, we want to illustrate best practices for historizing data, alarming and analytics—the type of information that should be common knowledge and applied to any building.

The simple goal is to make buildings better, from design through operation. We believe this can only be achieved if we come together and work from a common foundation. There is still plenty of room to compete for integration services and maintenance contracts. Defining, organizing and relating data should not be the differentiator!

Ready for the interesting work

Once there is alignment and the ontology battles are behind us, we can actually get to work as a global buildings community and solve the real challenges at hand. Whether you are interested in solving energy problems, indoor air quality problems, occupant comfort or any of the countless issues in buildings today, this is the place to start. We have big problems facing the buildings industry right now, which has a spotlight shining on it as people try to figure out how to safely return to buildings during and after COVID-19.

There is a lot of discussion about the future of buildings, but a few things are abundantly clear: all building data will be modeled; AI and machine learning will be used with greater frequency; and HVAC systems are moving to the “front of house” in the eyes of the occupants and building owners. Are we ready to get these people and machines the data they’ll rely on to operate more safely and efficiently?

How to contribute

The open-sourced nature of the Digital Buildings Ontology means anyone can contribute, and anyone can use the model and apply it to their own buildings. You can find it here on GitHub. This the easiest place to start contributing to the DBO today.

If you are already contributing to Haystack, please continue to do we so. If you would like to start contributing to Project Haystack, you can get involved here.  We are staying very close to the Haystack 4 (H4) Ontology and are committed to working with the Haystack team to align the DBO with H4.

If you would like to contribute to the OAP, please send an email to oap@buildingsiot.com with your interest and field of expertise. We are looking for experts in all building areas.



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