Carnegie Mellon University
September 16, 2013

Ergan Turns Raw Data into Visual Tool for Infrastructure Decision Makers

Ergan Turns Raw Data into Visual Tool for Infrastructure Decision Makers
These days, the volume and variety of data that can be gathered about a building or infrastructure could easily overwhelm its manager. This is where CEE Assistant Research Professor Semiha Ergan comes in. Ergan is exploring the potential of different visualization techniques to convey information about buildings and infrastructures to decision makers. “There is an increasing amount of raw data available from sensors and other sources, but that raw data might not make much sense to a decision maker who wants to know, for instance, how a particular building is consuming energy,” she explained. “We first need to understand what information is available, and then identify the best way to present the data so decision makers can get the facts they need at a glance.”

The idea driving Ergan’s research is simple. The adoption of sensor technology and digital information models has led to a vast amount of facility-specific data on everything from energy usage to structural health; however, this data is not in a user-friendly format.  For designers and decision makers to receive and act on that information, they need a tool that tells them exactly what to act on in an accessible format. To address this issue, Ergan is working to develop semantically rich information models (digital representations of a facility’s life cycle information) that present decision makers with data about a facility in an intuitive way.

Currently, Ergan is involved in the Energy Efficient Buildings Hub Project, a national project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Her goal in the project is to understand the information needs of collaborative decision makers or design teams who are trying to retrofit buildings to be more energy efficient.  “A design team includes mechanical engineers, structural engineers, architects, energy consultants, and more, and every party has their own set of tools – building information models, energy simulation models – that they use to generate results,” she said. “The problem is that every tool requires a different set of inputs and generates a different type of information, and at the end of the day you have a bunch of documents that you need to sort through to try to find an energy efficient design solution.”

Ergan and her team used immersive visualization equipment to identify the information that a collaborative design team would need to evaluate various design alternatives. The equipment, known as CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment), is a three-walled virtual environment in which a user wearing 3D goggles virtually navigates a building while also “seeing” color-coded information that wouldn’t ordinarily be visible to the human eye – energy consumption data, heating systems installed inside walls, and more. The CAVE equipment, which is located in Porter Hall on the Carnegie Mellon campus, was made possible by funding from Carnegie Mellon, the CEE department, IBM, Bombardier, and the State of Pennsylvania.

“The energy implications of a design option can be seen not only in the initial investment, but also in life-cycle costs such as maintenance,” Ergan explained. “We superimposed the energy costs onto the various design options within the CAVE environment so that a user could virtually navigate the existing building and evaluate different design options.” With this highly visual approach to decision making, the members of a design team would be able to quickly select the optimal design option from a series of pre-defined options to retrofit the building in question. In addition to the CAVE-based immersive visualization approach, Ergan’s team is also exploring ways to visualize building energy data on interactive panels and dashboards.

While Ergan’s current research deals with making management decisions for specific buildings, she envisions this approach potentially being extended to a neighborhood or city level. With access to the history associated with facilities and critical infrastructure, managers could make more informed decisions regarding energy and safety. “It all ties back to the efficiency and accuracy of decision making,” she said. “Everyone makes decisions, but we want to provide platforms for them to get the facts they need in intuitive ways to improve their efficiency and accuracy.” More information about Ergan’s research can be found here.


Helping Mechanics See Through Walls

PhD candidate Sheryl (Xue) Yang, who is advised by Ergan, is well on her way to becoming an HVAC mechanic’s best friend. For the past two years, Yang has studied how to use digital building information models (BIMs) to help heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) mechanics rapidly diagnose and fix problems, and she’s testing her methods on the Carnegie Mellon campus. “Among all of the maintenance work done in buildings, HVAC is a very important part because it directly affects occupants’ comfort, health, and productivity, and it’s the part that the mechanics struggle with the most,” she explained. “With HVAC-related problems, you feel a change in the indoor air comfort, but you don’t know where it’s happening because the equipment is hidden in the walls and many factors can cause the same problem. I wanted to figure out what information these mechanics need to better troubleshoot problems.”

Yang’s goal is to extract specific pieces of information from a building’s BIM and present that information to facilities managers in an intuitive way to help them quickly resolve occupant complaints. Having completed an internship and multiple job shadows with Carnegie Mellon Facilities Management Services, Yang is developing a prototype building information tool for mechanics that may be accessed via a handheld device or in an immersive 3D imaging setting like CAVE. Yang is currently holding workshops with mechanics and will be conducting extensive user testing in the future to confirm that her approach is sound.

Yang hopes her research will lead to a tool that can help HVAC mechanics on the job. “The most exciting part of my work is getting in touch with industry people,” she said. “I can observe real problems and contribute to solving them.”