Web-Based Project Management: Enhancing Communication and Information Transfer
The recent emergence of Internet technology offers an opportunity to reduce much of the chaos and communication problems inherent in the traditional designing, bidding, and construction process.
Drawings are changed, specifications are revised, and proposals are amended. Documents are shipped to multiple locations, and revisions cross each other in transit. Contractors face rework and change orders because modifications are overlooked. These problems are familiar to everyone in the construction industry. Revisions and change orders will always be a part of the grading and excavation industry, but the Internet helps to minimize problems prevalent to the basic designing, bidding, and construction procedures.
Many design firms and project owners, including the federal government, are using the Web to collaborate on design documents and to deliver requests for proposals to bidders (see sidebar). The Web also can be used for much more than the transfer of documents. Web-based project management tools can provide instantaneous interactive communication and transfer of information among all members of a design and construction project.
Project Communication on the Web
A number of elements are key to successfully managing projects of any size. Two of the most important are communication and information transfer. Communication is conducted between multiple parties, which may include the project team, client representatives, and outside organizations. This communication often includes the transfer of vital project information between these parties. Information communicated among these parties includes project status information and budget and schedule reporting, as well as project-related documents and data.
The Internet provides several advantages over traditional communication methods. Communication can be near instantaneous, with information immediately available to all members of the project team without printing and distribution delays. The Internet also enhances the use of two-way communication, with recipients able to immediately respond to requests or comment on information distributed on the Web. The Internet also promotes group interaction, particularly when team members are in distant locations. Web-based conferencing and chat systems allow real-time discussion among all parties.
Methods of project team communication on the Internet range in complexity. The most basic-and familiar to virtually everyone-is Internet e-mail. Similar to the telephone, fax machine, and pager or cell phone, it is almost universally assumed that anyone you are doing business with will have an e-mail address.
There are inherent problems in e-mail. Key people can be overlooked because their e-mail addresses are unknown or they are away from their computer and can't check for new messages. These problems can be overcome by using Web interfaces for e-mail management.
The easiest use of the Web is to maintain a contact list where all team members can easily retrieve up-to-date e-mail addresses, as well as other contact information, for all project personnel. Static pages can be upgraded by adding the ability for team members to log-on to the site and update their own listings.
One enhancement in using e-mail is the use of automated mailing lists. After the e-mail addresses of all project personnel are registered, mailing lists ensure that no parties are overlooked when information is sent. E-mail sent to a single address, such as email@example.com, would be automatically forwarded to all team members who subscribe to the list. Likewise, replies would be automatically distributed to all e-mail addresses on the list. Higher-quality mailing-list systems provide list management features that make it easy to add and remove members, as well as to filter the messages so they are sent only to appropriate members of the list.
In addition to company e-mail, many people sign up for free e-mail addresses with services such as Juno, Hotmail, or Yahoo!. This allows the use of e-mail from any Internet-connected computer. Project personnel can set their mailing-list subscription to include alternate addresses so they don't miss important communications.
Web-based discussion groups, also called bulletin boards, are another valuable tool for promoting communication among parties. Messages are posted where they can be read by others who can respond with answers or comments to the original post. This delayed form of discussion allows a large number of people to interact over a period of time, and the users can decide which topics are of interest to them.
Discussion groups are ideally suited for situations when a question or a comment from one person needs to be distributed to multiple parties. For example, if a subcontractor requests clarification on a certain specification, he can post it on the bulletin board and solicit input from other project personnel. The responses are immediately available to everyone, and all users can offer feedback. This can reduce conflicts that result when information is not provided to all project personnel or when someone disagrees with information that is offered.
Many times, face-to-face communication is necessary for reviewing plans and specifications. Travel constraints, though, might prevent such meetings from occurring as often as necessary. In these instances, project personnel can hold virtual meetings on the Internet. Features such as video and whiteboards are available in many systems.
Microsoft's NetMeeting is a good example of online conferencing software, although others might be more appropriate for your situation. With NetMeeting, two or more participants can share applications on their computers and see the same information on each screen. Using a video-capture card and camera, users can transfer video images for face-to-face interactions. With a sound card and a microphone, the users can speak with each other. Even without this hardware, all conference participants can share files and communicate using text-based chat and whiteboards. More information on NetMeeting is available on-line at www.microsoft.com/windows/NetMeeting/, where the software can also be downloaded at no charge.
Posting documents on Web sites provides several advantages over the distribution of paper documents. Foremost is the simplification of document management. On large, complex projects, project personnel might have several versions of a single document. It is difficult to ensure that all personnel have the latest version. Document users often can't tell which version they have or if it is up to date.
Web-based document management provides a secure repository of project documents, as well as a convenient archive for previous or currently unused documents. Project personnel can visit the document site on the Web, identify the documents and versions needed, and download them for immediate use. On an interactive Web site, users can also make changes or comments to the documents and upload them to a reviewers' area where others can access the modifications and comments and take appropriate action.
Digital documents also claim an advantage over paper documents because they can be searched for keywords, lessening the time users spend trying to find critical information in a large document. With the proper Web server software, users can even search across multiple files on a Web site to find just the files they are looking for before they are downloaded. This also reduces printing and shipping costs and allows wider dissemination of information because expensive reproduction and shipping costs aren't incurred.
When considering electronic posting of documents, the most common question is "Which format do I use?" There are three formats for electronically posting documents on the Web. They can be posted in a browser-friendly format, in PDF format, or in a native word-processing language such as Microsoft Word. Additional formats are also used, but these are usually implemented as a part of electronic bid sets, which are discussed later in this article.
In a browser-friendly format, documents are converted to HTML, the language read by browser software, and placed in a database or on a Web page. Documents in HTML format require no special software, other than a Web browser, for viewing and are generally faster to download than other formats because the information is in text format.
There are many drawbacks to using this format, particularly if the document is large, has complicated formatting, or includes content such as graphics and tables from several different software tools. Under these circumstances, conversion to HTML can be time-consuming, and the resulting online document is unlikely to have the same look as the original. Users needing to edit or otherwise manipulate the document will need to import the document into word-processing software, which is likely to further degrade the document's format. Because of these limitations, this format is best used for simple documents that will have a wide audience and for when the document users won't need to edit the document.
Posting in the native word-processing format allows users to view and manipulate the original files, which is an advantage when team members need to edit or revise the document. Users who do not have the software in which the document was created will be unable to view the file, although read-only viewers are available for some formats, including Microsoft Word. The native format files might also be extremely large, especially if embedded graphics are used. In addition, if several different software packages are used for document creation (e.g., Word for text, Excel for spreadsheets, Adobe Photoshop for images), the user must have access to each piece of software or have a compatible viewer installed.
The best format for documents that are shared in a team environment but won't be revised by online users is Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF). The PDF files are created using Adobe Acrobat software. With Acrobat installed on your computer, you can create a PDF file as simply as sending output to a printer. PDF files from different applications, such as word processing, spreadsheets, and graphics, can be combined to form a single file that, when printed, will be identical to the original hard-copy document. If electronic originals are not available, paper documents can be scanned into Acrobat to create all or part of the PDF document.
Special software is required to view PDF files, but end users don't need to purchase Adobe Acrobat. The free Acrobat Reader, which can be downloaded from www.adobe.com, allows users to view, search, and print PDF files from within a Web browser or from a stand-alone application. The look and format of the PDF document is identical to the paper version but can also include links for maneuvering through the document or to outside files and Web sites. PDF is, in effect, an interactive version of the hard copy.
Presenting Maps and Drawings
Delivering maps and drawings on the Web is challenging. To be viewable in the basic Web browser, graphics must generally be delivered in one of two formats: GIF or JPEG. CompuServe Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) files are relatively large, requiring long download times. Joint Photographers Expert Group (JPEG) images are smaller but use a "lossy" compression routine that loses information each time the file is saved, resulting in lower-quality images.
Under both formats, the graphic image is static when displayed in a Web browser. This reduces the usability of the image because a user cannot pan, zoom, control layers, or perform other manipulations that are standard in CAD and mapping software. To overcome these limitations, developers of CAD and mapping software have developed methods of delivering graphics in additional formats. These methods can defined as either client-side or server-side solutions.
A client-side solution uses special application software that runs inside the user's Web browser to display graphic images that are in a format other than GIF or JPEG. The viewing software may be a Netscape plug-in, an ActiveX control, or a JAVA applet. The viewers are often free and can be readily downloaded and installed by the user. To reduce the size of the graphic files and resulting download times, special graphic formats may be used that compress the image and remove unnecessary data. Client-side solutions allow the downloaded maps or drawings to be manipulated by zooming, turning layers on and off, and redlining.
There are several versions of client-side solutions, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. The decision of which to use might rest on the drawing format being used by the designer. Viewers for Microstation drawings may be incompatible with AutoCAD file types. Despite the arguments over the best Web-based drawing format, we will look at an example of delivering files that are generated in Autodesk's AutoCAD software.
Autodesk developed the drawing web format (DWF) as a way of delivering drawings on the Web. DWF is a vector graphics format that uses compression to reduce file size. Autodesk claims that files converted to DWF can be transferred as much as seven times faster than the same data in AutoCAD's native DWG format. This is accomplished by removing the "nonvisual" components of a drawing, such as attributes, properties, and complex object behavior. The DWF files are prepared using a free add-on to AutoCAD software, which is available for Release 13 and Release 14.
The DWF files can be viewed in any software that supports this format. Autodesk offers a free viewer, called Whip!, that displays DWF files inside a Web browser or in a stand-alone window. Panning, zooming, and layer control are all available within the Whip! viewer. An additional feature that is extremely useful is the ability to use hyperlinks on the drawing. A callout for a culvert can be linked to a detailed drawing or specification. When the user clicks on the link, a new window will open with the additional information.
Electronic posting of drawings in this manner ensures that the latest versions are always available to the end users without the expense, delays, and confusion that can result from plotting and shipping multiple versions to multiple users. Another potential benefit is the ease of reviewing and organizing reviewers' comments.
With software such as the ArNoNa CADViewer, users can redline documents and associate comments with the redlining. Redlines and comments can be saved back to the server, making them available for viewing by other users, simplifying the incorporation of comments made by multiple reviewers. Additional information on DWF files and viewers is available at www.autodesk.com/products/whip.
As stated earlier, many other solutions exist. SourceView (www.srcview.com) can be used to publish normal text documents as well as full-size, high-resolution blueprints and maps. As with DWF drawings, links on the drawing can be used to navigate to other pages or documents and can launch other software applications. With the free SVReader, users can view the documents as well as take linear and planar measurements, count, and place takeoff information on a clipboard. The viewer also allows full-scale, high-resolution plotting of engineering drawings up to J-size.
Server-side solutions are the most common method of delivering data geographic information system (GIS) maps and data over the Web. In construction design, GIS mapping is not yet as common as CAD formats, such as AutoCAD or Microstation. It is becoming more prevalent, however, so we'll take a quick look at how GIS can be delivered on the Web.
Under a typical setup, the user will deliver a request from his browser (the "client") over the Internet to the Web server. Requests for GIS information are then sent from the Web server to a mapping server, which interprets the request, formats the GIS data into the language understood by Web browsers, and delivers the information back to the Web server. The Web server passes the information over the Internet back to the user's Web browser. Although the delivered image is static, client-side applications are often used to provide a browser-based interface for querying the GIS database.
The complexity of serving GIS on the Web currently limits the use of this technology on the Internet. Web-based GIS requires the custom installation of mapping software on the Web server. If a sophisticated Web interface is desired, a relatively large programming effort might also be needed. Many software packages, however, offer generic interfaces that serve basic requirements.
Documents and drawings are the most obvious of information items to distribute on the Web. Many other types of data also lend themselves well to a Web environment. Survey data, soil-test measurements, even daily work logs can be placed on the Web. In fact, any information needed by other parties is suitable for the Web.
How the data are transmitted and stored on the Web might depend on the original format if the data are electronically recorded by software. If the data do not originate in an electronic format, then the method and format of transmission and storage are more dependent on the end use of the data.
The primary benefit of using databases on the Web is the ability for multiple users to quickly and easily update the data and make it instantaneously available to all other users. To accomplish this, Web interfaces typically use forms for adding and modifying data, but it is also possible to modify Web databases using desktop software such as Microsoft Access or Excel. Data in electronic format from other software can also be loaded directly into the database.
End users can view data using simple Web interfaces or more complex query languages, depending on their skill level. Access to each data field and record can be controlled so users see only that portion of the data for which they are authorized. Maintaining data in a Web database also allows users to query the data, sort by field, join tables, and perform other data manipulations.
If the data are not suitable for direct entry into a database, they can still be placed on the Web and explanatory or summary information be placed into a database. Users can query the database to find the data they need, then download the appropriate files. For example, a database query might ask for all soil compaction tests performed before a given date and yielded results less than a specified limit. The browser would display a list of tests matching the criteria, with each item linked to a PDF file that was created by scanning the hard-copy test report. The user could download and view any or all of the PDF files to evaluate the results. Time and effort would be reduced by not copying, shipping, and manually searching through all of the hard-copy reports.
Any discussion of delivering projection information over the Internet must include a discussion of security concerns. When faced with the opportunity of putting project information on the Web, the foremost concern of many managers is the issue of security. Many people are afraid that competitors or other unauthorized users will obtain access to information placed on the Internet. These concerns are well founded, especially in the wake of recent, highly publicized "hacking" break-ins. A well-planned site, however, will include tight security measures, minimizing the risk of unauthorized use.
The simplest form of Web security is to control access to files using user names and passwords. This can be done using a mechanism known as basic authentication, which is available on most Web servers. Basic authentication is set up by creating two files, a password file and an "htaccess" file. The password file contains the user names and encoded passwords for users who will have access to the site. The htaccess file is created in the access-controlled directory; it identifies where the password file is located and which users can access the directory.
This authentication scheme is very easy to set up and offers a good measure of security. Scripts can be written to automate the tasks involved in adding, modifying, and deleting the authentication files. Scripts are commercially available that provide a Web interface for maintaining the user information.
Many other security measures are available and must be part of any Web development plan. With proper planning and maintenance, including reviewing site access logs, the risk of unauthorized access will be greatly reduced.
OK, so you're convinced that you should be communicating and transferring information over the Internet. How do you form an online presence? If you are going to implement only some of the basic services discussed here, you can start by using free services already available on the Web.
For example, eProject Express, located at www.eproject.com, offers a project calendar, the ability to upload and share documents, a task list, team directories, and a message board. Project information can be restricted to certain personnel or made available to the entire project team. A similar site, eGroups (found at www.egroups.com), expands on this idea with the addition of a mailing list, a live chat area for team members to interact in real time, and the ability to create custom databases.
The free sites make their money by placing advertising on the site. This is not likely to project the professional image of your firm, and you are limited in your allotment of storage space. Some sites, such as eProject, offer upgraded services for a fee, but the ideal option is to establish your own Web site-one that is customized for the way you do business.
If you go the customized route, you will likely need the services of a professional Web developer. Many people can create serviceable Web sites with commercially available development software, but special programming skills are required for creating the interactive sites described in this article. Look for a developer with skills in CGI scripting and database development. Also ask to see examples of similar sites created by the developer.
Regardless of where you start with putting your projects on the Web, start now. You will quickly see the many opportunities available to you and help you avoid playing catch-up a year from now.