An Evening With BaseStone
We’ve all been there; it’s practically a rite of passage for a growing engineer- that arch needs inspecting, that detail needs checking, the designer has (as usual) asked you to do something impossible and you’ve made a genius hack-and-slash at three in the morning. It’s raining, your loving set of (outdated, it will later transpire) drawings are pretty much pulp, and your handwriting looks like you’re giving ambidexterity a go.
When you return to the office you waste twice the time of the inspection making sense of the inexplicably out-of-order photos and deciphering your handwriting; presenting it in a fashion that can be read by the non-caffeine crazed. The rest of the day passes exchanging mark-ups back-and-forth; tethered to your e-mail when you should be doing some real engineering. And you begin to think, if only there was a better way…
So what is this BaseStone? Well, in a line; it’s an online issue tracker for drawings.
Anyone who read my Construct/Disrupt summary may have noticed an omission; I didn’t actually talk about the hosts. This was in part because I’ve had “write something about Basestone” down on my long list since the very first Construct/Disrupt, but also in emulation of their admirable decision not to use it as a platform to pontificate about themselves.
A few weeks after, however, I got an email from one of the team saying thanks for the post, would I like to come for a drink sometime. I decided to push my luck and ask for an interview with the founder, Alex Siljanovski, and I actually got one. I’m not exactly the NCE, so it’s fantastic to see a company that cares enough about the construction community to give the likes of me some time.
A few days later I was in a bar in Mile End conducting what was probably the world’s least professional interview- but it was great to meet a team who were as passionate about the need to drive change in the industry as myself. So even if you don’t like the idea of BaseStone (I still haven’t negotiated any commission; [Ed. OK- they did by me half a pint of coke, but I’m not that much of a cheap date]), I think you should be excited about what it represents and give it a chance.
If you want to meet someone using BaseStone, go ask at the CSJV Paddington CrossRail site.
So what is this BaseStone? Well; it’s an online issue tracker for drawings. Que? Let’s go back to our career-defining moment- why, in Brunel’s name, am I expending more of my time administering a task than doing it? In the age where I carry enough tech around with me to do a FE analysis in the post office queue, I should have been marking up the drawings, attaching photos and raising and assigning issues while I was there.
In the world of BaseStone, I’m not getting closer to nature armed only with mushy paper; you’ve got a tablet with you, and you use their system to open the latest drawings, annotate them with the issues and distribute them in real-time (internet depending) to the rest of the team, who can use the web app to respond immediately (office hours depending). It’s a simple innovation; hell- even Royal Mail identified that getting you to sign for delivery on paper was stupidly inefficient.
In The Wild
It’s relatively easy to think of a product you haven’t heard of before as being new. However it turns out BaseStone is fairly battle worn these days; currently being used worldwide on everything from house extensions to major civil sites. So if you want to know what it’s like under stress, go ask someone from CSJV working on Paddington CrossRail and Bond Street.
The next big feature will a more trackable workflow; helping to define the process between raising an issue and getting it resolved
Anyone who has ever attempted to make a suggestion to the likes of AutoDesk/Bentley will probably sympathise with the notion of filling a black hole with meringues. Like a lot of web apps, however, BaseStone uses a tight feedback/improvement loop- in an industry where innovation is king, they want to know what their customers want. And while they didn’t manage a reply at 9pm on Sunday- there was a response in my mailbox by 8am Monday.
So what have they learnt, and what are new functionality are they targeting? Well the next big feature will a more trackable workflow; helping to define the process between raising an issue and getting it resolved- especially across multiple stakeholders. Of course, the challenge here is to keep it simple and intuitive enough to be accessible within the larger workflow that projects are delivered in. Import/export links to other software (for example Bentley Enterprise Bridge) are also being developed.
Playing With Yourself
Before you all scoff at the notion of your company buying you an iPad [Ed. I did ask; an Android version is coming, for all of those who are allergic to Apples]; I would ask you, and more importantly, them to value your time. Even at graduate level, getting a day of your time back in chargeable hours should easily pay for one; without mentioning the reduced resource pressure.
But even if you don’t manage to get some interest off the bat; you can do it on your own for free. Of course, you won’t realise the full potential that using the same platform across all project stakeholders can offer- but you will close in on your own duplications, and maybe even ease your own issue management. And if that doesn’t convince anyone, you can at least build yourself a reputation for being 65% (apparently) more efficient than everyone else- which will help you get that new job in an engineering firm that is making a bit of an effort to move with the times.
Now For The
What sort of engineer would I be if I didn’t pull things apart to see how they work? Anyway, from a quick poke around it seems that BaseStone is running a Backbone frontend with a Django/Python backend (and perhaps some Node thrown in for good measure). All of these are fairly mature pieces of tech (as far as that can be applied to the fast-paced world of web development) that I’ve used and trust; and who would argue with me!
I did manage to confirm the intention to open the API and allow applications and integrations
It’s also cloud hosted/distributed, which means that should the world and its wife read my article and decide to give it a go; it should scale pretty well. I did ask about self-hosting, and while obviously the preference is their system, they are supporting projects where companies want to get the data on their own servers; and had considered, although yet to be asked, allowing the app to be cloned to run entirely privately (for high security projects like nuclear and my secret volcano base) .
As it forms a part of my job, and frames a key concern of mine about the amount of data we’re lovingly pouring into closed formats in the name of BIM, BaseStone won my favour by exposing a self describing web API. And while that may not mean a lot to many of you; it means that you can easily drive it programmatically. This is important.
Just to prove the point, I wrote the following example program without even mentioning it to their developers. [Ed. I’ve got an article or two planned about interoperability, where I’ll explain how I did this]. And while their API isn’t fully open for application developers, yet, I did manage to confirm the intention, during the interview, to allow integrations, etc. to help place BaseStone more efficiently in the workflow.
So that’s BaseStone; but what got me the most excited was the chance to sit down with someone who has literally set out and launched something to help change the construction industry. To keep things clean, I’ve separated that half of the interview into a second part; so watch this space for a look into what it means to become a construction/tech entrepreneur.