A new, artificial intelligence-driven tool uses live field data to measure the ups and downs of U.S. commercial construction activity since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Unlike many macroeconomic indicators that tend to lag, the OxBlue Activity Index from construction technology provider OxBlue is based on near real-time data created by measuring activity on sites where OxBlue cameras are in effect. The company leverages its national network of cellular connected cameras and runs the images through algorithms to extract activity information at the national level, said OxBlue CEO Chandler McCormack.
The index, which covers every state and more than 100 metropolitan areas, uses jobsite photos from thousands of projects across the country.
“It can tell us what things we detect, such as changes in people or equipment, and how those changes occur over time,” he said. “Based on that we can determine a relative change in activity.”
The index (pictured above) found the average national level of construction declined by 5% in March and a state-by-state analysis shows large variations in the amount of construction work that took place last month.
While construction activity declined between 5% and 25% in seven states, activity in 37 states either declined by less than 5% or increased, partly due to seasonal upticks, McCormack said. In the remaining six states, construction declined by 25% or more. They are:
- Pennsylvania, 77%
- Michigan, 74%
- Massachusetts, 57%
- Washington, 45%
- New York, 43%
- Ohio, 25%
AI repurposed for the pandemic
OxBlue’s AI capabilities for measuring construction activity levels were originally developed to assist clients in understanding their own construction activity. As state and local authorities began to shut down U.S. jobsites in reaction to the pandemic last month, OxBlue researchers looked at clients’ anonymized data to see how construction was faring on a national level, McCormack said.
The artificial intelligence piece of the process comes into play with the analysis of the images, McCormack noted.
“True AI is when a computer looks at something and learns from it,” he said. “We're using our AI technology to identify what is in large numbers of jobsite photos, and then analyzing the resulting data to determine the changes over time."
The OxBlue team is at work on April's index and McCormack said he hopes in the near future they will be able to provide updates on a weekly basis. He expects the April numbers could show a decrease in construction activity in many regions, now that 40% of construction firms have reported layoffs. But other areas could see an uptick, such as in Pennsylvania, where legislators want to rescind Gov. Tom Wolf's executive order limiting construction work.
"We expect to se a different story the next time we put the data up as things have been changing quite a bit this month," he said.