There are topics that many people find uninteresting when engaged in social discourse. For some, politics is one such topic, and for others, possibly of an older generation, technology is another. Nevertheless, I am now going to touch upon both of these topics in relation to social housing and, in particular, housing associations.
Various housing associations across the UK manage approximately 2.1 million homes. What I love most about these associations is that their raison d’etre is to serve their tenants—benevolence ahead of profit. However, they face the same pressures other organisations face. As an example, compliance with regulatory mandates within the Hackitt Report* and the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018** requires significant investment from housing associations at a time when their budgets are being squeezed.
For housing associations and, indeed homebuilders, to pull off the feat of investing more whilst their budgets shrink, they need to do things differently. So where to start? Well, a good place is to look at data. How can they use data more effectively to make informed decisions?
Many housing associations and homebuilders will either lack data or have bad data that is unusable. For example, when it comes to compliance with fire safety regulations in the Hackitt Report, many may not know which of their buildings is at high risk for non-compliance due to insufficient data.
Collecting the necessary data on all of their existing buildings is costly. The Hackitt Report also proposes that every building should have its own digital passport—a so-called golden thread of information that runs throughout the life cycle of a building. Again, this will come with a cost. In an article by Andrew Van Doorn, CEO of Housing Associations’ Charitable Trust, he makes the amusing but serious point:
“We’ve encountered bad data that includes tenants who are over 118 years old, occupants listed as children with dates of birth that precede those of their parents, and repairs completed on properties for which the housing association had no responsibility.”***
The good news is that all of this is fixable, although it will require housing associations to embrace a digital future. This might not be easy, and some will continue to believe that paper-based data collection is the best way to go, so why change? The challenge is to demonstrate that a digital future will bring housing associations closer to the many benefits of automation and artificial intelligence. It will help transform customer service, reduce costs, and enable faster, better business decisions that, in turn, will improve business intelligence.
Digital data management enables better risk management. For example, knowing there is asbestos in a house is one thing, while ensuring repair vans have the right personal protection equipment on board before leaving the depot for a job is another. It also can help to identify issues and causes. For example, data may show that certain boiler models break down more frequently, and then pinpoint the cause, whether product-related, maintenance-related or otherwise. In addition, data management can help reduce the cost of waste, so, for example, if a tenant regularly misses repair appointments, you can arrange to call on the morning of an appointment to ensure the tenant is available.
Even better, you can then start looking at data generated across the two million plus homes that housing associations in the UK oversee (through smart metering, sensors, wearables, water flow, etc.) and apply advanced analytics. The possible insights that could be uncovered are limitless. Former U.S. politician Donald Rumsfeld, albeit in a different context, talked about “know knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns.” In a way, this applies to the topic of data and analytics. Much of what is uncovered through advanced analytics falls into the unknown unknown category. Discovering the unknown unknown presents an exciting opportunity for housing associations.
For those who want to find out more,please keep an eye out for our next Housing Association Special Interest Group where we will debate these issues.
*Hackitt, J., Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety: Final Report, 2018.
**Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018.
***Van Doorn, Andrew, Why we are developing UK-wide data standards for the sector, Inside Housing, 2018.