A really interesting BuzzFeed article about the use of smart phones on building sites to increase efficiency (the 30% of on-site time that is regarded idle, for reasons attributed to ‘miscommunication and disorganisation’) and their implications for workplace surveillance. What’s particularly striking is that inefficiencies are often the result of the complex subcontracting arrangements now ubiquitous within the construction industry:
According to Frinault, 30% of time workers spend on-site at commercial construction projects is idle — not because workers are lazy, but largely because of miscommunication and disorganization. There’s also the problem of “rework” — doing a task, and then having to do it over again. For example, a subcontractor might be told to cover a hole with drywall; the next day, an electrician who wasn’t finished wiring an outlet comes in and tears that drywall out again, and the drywall hanger has to come back and redo it. With Fieldwire, Frinault hopes to improve the communication channels between subcontractors.
His app, which raised $6.6 million in October, doesn’t locate workers on a map; it locates tasks on a blueprint — tasks that foremen can then check off in real time as they are completed. The purpose of Fieldwire is to record and share information as synchronously as possible. “It may seem invasive,” said Frinault’s co-founder Javed Singha, “but the reality is these guys are recording all this information manually anyway.”
This app is apparently being used on over 35,000 construction sites internationally. An even more invasive app has been developed by former Navy engineers:
Rhumbix, an app meant to be in the hands of the workers themselves, is making an even bolder ask in terms of transparency. Not only do workers clock every hour of their day on Rhumbix, but the app also tracks their location, and even some of their movements. Rhumbix is the invention of two former Navy engineers, Drew DeWalt and Zach Scheel, who took a class together at Stanford and decided to build a startup. “I said, every phone has GPS in it,” Scheel told BuzzFeed News. “Let’s try to create a system like the ones we use now in the military to help improve the system we use for construction.”
With Rhumbix, workers clock in and out at the beginning and end of each work day. While they’re on the clock, the app tracks their movements, both in terms of motion (moving or stationary?) and location (on the job or out to lunch?). This data is presented to managers in two ways: as a live safety snapshot, which shows where workers are at any given time, and as aggregated and anonymized labor time data that can help the bosses figure out how much is being spent on different activities. This tracking can benefit the worker — for example, a worker who had passed out on a hot roof due to sunstroke was discovered when the Rhumbix app alerted his foreman that he wasn’t moving. But the app can also be used to, say, prove that workers who claim they worked through lunch actually didn’t.
At present the Rhumbix data is anonymised and aggregated when presented on the dashboard for managers. But how long can this last? As a general rule, if a weakly held moral commitment is the only thing preventing a service-provider from offering a much demanded service to existing customers, it’s unlikely to provide durable in the face of, say, declining sales or a difficulty raising further venture capital. Charmingly, their take on this question is to say “You’re going to have to trust us a little bit”.
It’s worth considering this in terms of what was until recently established practice within the construction industry. Given the existence of a UK industry wide blacklist has been conclusively established, ruining the lives of many who had the temerity to demand basic safety obligations be met on site, you’d have to be painfully naive to imagine these new technologies won’t be used for work place repression. For instance, if a manager wanted to rid a site of a ‘trouble maker’, use their Rhumbix data to demonstrate an unacceptable amount of ‘idle time’ as grounds for dismissal. Furthermore, it’s easy to imagine how Rhumbix could end up tracking collective organisation on site. Even if the data is aggregated, surely it would represent a grouping of the work force for a face-to-face meeting? It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this technology can be used for workplace repression and I fear we’re on a slippery slope.