What do digital object identifiers mean for the built environment?

BSI Identify is powered by the DOI System, allowing us to create our construction product identifiers – BSI UPINs. But, how does it all work? We asked Jonathan Clark, Managing Agent for the DOI Foundation to tell us about DOI technology.

When people ask Jonathan Clark what he does, he has an intriguing answer: he tells them he manages a hidden corner of the internet that very few people know about, but that attracts 1 billion hits a month. Jonathan is the Managing Agent for the DOI Foundation (DOIF), which manages the Digital Object Identifier (DOI) System™. We asked him to explain how DOIs work; why the possibilities are so exciting; what the technology means for the built environment; and what the future looks like.

Jonathan, what’s the role of the DOI Foundation?

The DOIF created and manages the DOI System. DOI is an acronym for ‘digital object identifier’ (meaning ‘a digital identifier of an object’, not ‘an identifier of a digital object’). A DOI can be assigned to any item, whether digital, physical or abstract: a book, a brick (think BSI UPIN), an author, a bit of data or pretty much anything in the real world, such as a digital representation of an artwork. It then identifies that item permanently, so it can be found wherever it is. The DOI System originally developed out of the scholarly publishing industry. But once it was clear how many people across the industry could benefit from this shared, persistent information, the creators quickly realized that the technology could help other sectors too. So the DOIF was set up with the specific aim of making that happen, and we introduced the DOI System in 1998. We’re a not-for-profit member organization and our largest member group is Registration Agencies, who assign and operate DOI enabled identification servicess. We provide them with governance, implementation policies, tools and standards to maintain a robust DOI System. There’s no corporate interest: everything we do is completely member-driven and we plough any surplus money back into the organization. Now the DOI System has become an essential part of the ‘plumbing’ for scientific publishing and movie distribution – and it holds huge possibilities for other sectors, including the built environment.

How does a DOI powered identifier work?

A DOI powered identifier, such as a BSI UPIN, uses an internet technology called the Handle System to show you persistent digital information about that item. It’s not like a normal web link, where if you click on a broken link you’re stuck. Instead, when you click on a DOI powered identifier you’re redirected to our server, which looks up the object and provides a persistent link to information about it. Even if the place that it’s stored has changed, or if it’s in multiple places, or if it’s now owned by a completely different company, the DOI powered identifier will always find it because it is set up to be immovably linked to it. In the case of a BSI UPIN, users will always be routed to the persistent product landing page hosted at BSI Identify. And all our RAs have some method of error checking, so they can quickly correct anything like a broken identifier; that’s key to the whole system. It’s very simple technology, but its simplicity makes it incredibly scalable. There are around 280 million DOI powered identifiers at the moment, but what’s incredible is the usage: 1 billion every month. It stuns me to think about it. Now, obviously it’s impossible for that many people to be looking individually at identifiers DOIs, so machines must be driving that usage. And the technology is so effective that it can manage that huge load with no problem at all.

Can you give a few use cases?

As I touched on earlier, one of the main use cases is in the scholarly world. They’ve been using DOIs since their communications went digital in the late 1990s, and they needed to solve the problem of linking the references in articles. Instead of publishers having to build links to each other, they could just have a central point that cross-referenced everything. But now, as well as the actual output – books, journals, articles and so on – they’re identifying everything in the chain that’s been used to generate their research, such as the physical objects used in their experiments. Another development is a new project that’s looking to use DOI technology to give DOI identifiers to biological specimens in museums, which will enable naturalists looking at creatures in the wild to know if they have discovered a new species. Then there’s the use of DOI System technology in the movie industry who have created the EIDR identifier. You might think a film is just a film, but actually it might have hundreds of different versions. When the file arrives at the cinema, airline or broadcaster, it’s essential they get the version they wanted – for example, the Director’s Cut, or dubbed Italian version, or the edit that cuts out the shot of someone smoking. That’s what the EIDR, using DOI technology, does for movies: it can map and track every single version. And how can DOI technology help in the built environment? When BSI first came to us to discuss building BSI Identify, we realized that the issue is essentially very similar to the movie model. It's a supply chain problem: how do I know what’s actually in the building? Is this component the one originally specified? And ten years later, is that still the same one? Suppose you want a particular component. The manufacturer, the distributor and everyone else in the supply chain will probably have their own number for that component. But a BSI UPIN, powered by DOI technology, can map to all those different identifiers, so you know exactly what you’re looking at and whether it’s what you want. I think that's the fundamental business case. But what makes it really exciting is the ability to build services on top of it. Once you know what’s in a building, who made it and where it came from, you can start to collect that data and build really interesting services. For example, imagine a building is on fire. The firefighters are racing to the scene, and up on their screen will pop details of all the dangerous components in the building and a map of where they are. So there’s value in the basic task of object identification. There’s even more value in the reassurance that the data is persistent, so that it can last as least as long as a building, for example. But there’s also fantastic new value in the metadata. That’s because the identifier itself is fine when you’re dealing with one object, or a hundred or a thousand. But when you start to have millions of objects, the metadata creates something really valuable on top, because it gives you a way to make sure it’s anchored to the right place. Take the fire example again. You’ve tested a building component for fire safety, but five years later, a new fire safety system is set up. You can test to see if the old component is compliant, then simply add that to the data and people will be able to see that it complies with the new standard.

What challenges is the built environment facing and what might the future hold?

I’d have to defer to my colleagues at BSI for the expert answer to that question! But I think it's probably quite similar to the movie industry situation. There are some key players who get involved at the start and clearly see why using DOI powered identifiers is a good investment. Then there are others who can’t see why any more identification is needed. And persuading them of the value can be a bit of a battle. It took a good ten years for DOI to become established in the scholarly community and about six years in the movie industry. But it was a tougher sell back then as it was so visionary. Things move faster now, and people are much more aware of the importance of digital. So I’d predict it’ll happen more quickly in the built environment with BSI UPINs, especially with the BIM movement. Another thing that's starting to happen, and which could be applied in the built environment, is something called an intrinsic identifier. If you take a file of digital information, you can create a hash that is unique to that packet of information. And you can use that as part of the identifier and that could help us in our persistence. Let’s say a company that manages the rights of a movie is destroyed in an explosion and all the files are lost. But 50 years later someone finds a digital file and it actually has that unique fingerprint. You could use this to track down its EIDR id and reconnect them – and bingo, that movie is back into circulation. And this could be applied all across the board, helping us to find any piece of content that goes missing. As for what else is on the horizon for BSI UPINs in the built environment, I think things could really take off with the Internet of Things and smart cities, enabling us to connect the components of the built environment in ways we can only dream about today. Think of a hospital. You could use DOIs powered identifiers to build a digital twin, with not just the building but all the equipment. For example, all the blood pressure monitors could have unique identifiers and could be connected in a smart way. You could start to track a patient over time, so you’d know exactly what machines they'd been connected to and exactly when. That could lead to much better services and a much more effective use of the asset base. In fact, it’s amazing how much we learn and advance as more sectors get involved. BSI is a good example of how every new joiner stretches us all, opening everyone’s eyes to new ways of doing things. We’re a strong community and the social infrastructure is just as important as the technical side, because we learn from each other and get better together. The movie and scientific communities have already found synergies and been able to help each other; now BSI has developed its own expertise in this area, we’re learning new things from them too.

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