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May 22, 2020

logo by Stephen Thorlby-Coy, Head of ICT at Yorkshire Housing

The Future of Data in Housing

Guest post by Stephen Thorlby-Coy from Yorkshire Housing:

Data, when put to good use, can revolutionise the way a housing association works. At Yorkshire Housing, we’re capturing and utilising data in new ways to transform our organisation from one that is reactive, to one that is proactive.

I started my career working in the manufacturing industry where one of my very first projects was in data. It revealed to me how powerful and useful data can be to transform a business and streamline operations.

Fed up with producing shift reports manually, I implemented an automated reporting system which did away with the previous reporting method of capturing information on paper.

The automated reports were a revelation to the company. Reports could be accessed by production managers at the start of their shift, providing them with all the information on what had happened on the previous shift. While it was a fairly basic data capture and output system, it meant that decisions could be made much more quickly and reject rates and scrappage was reduced considerably. What had come about partly through my own laziness produced something that the operational managers found fantastically useful.

Over the years I found myself working with data in much more complex and beneficial ways, including managing analytics and online service development for charities, where the recognition of patterns in their call centre’s call volume meant they could adapt their resources to manage the peaks and troughs of busy-ness. One charity I worked with used data to track grant applications which allowed colleagues to see in real time the status of applications and what this meant for their output spend.

My move into housing, however, felt like a step back in time, back to my experiences in manufacturing.

The housing sector had not technologically kept pace with the rest of the world. Even the basic data capture and output of automated reporting, which had transformed the manufacturing business I’d worked for 20 years ago at the start of my career, had not been adopted.

My move to Yorkshire Housing presented a huge ambition – to elevate the organisation from one that is reactive (like much of the housing sector is) to one that is proactive. The idea is to be able to fix problems before they occur, and provide a seamless service for tenants and customers. Data is at the core of this aim.

Data Governance

Starting from the ground up, the foundations need to be laid first and foremost. For me, this means ensuring a clear organisation-wide data governance policy, which is understood across every department and at every level.

This means not only that ensuring the terminology is fully understood, but also how we measure different processes, how we determine the ownership of those processes, and the end to end execution of them – not just doing a job but recording it, too.

A plumber, for instance, needs to record their jobs, the time taken and any parts used. This information allows us to analyse spending and resource usage in much more detail and optimise our operations to cut costs and improve efficiency. Designing a data capture method that makes this process easy and efficient will help us to capture accurate data without impeding on day to day operations.

Expertise

We’re also investing in expertise through the recruitment of a data architect, BI developers and analysts to build a team with a higher calibre of data expertise than I’ve ever worked with before. The team will work alongside other departments to make the data we capture accessible and allow our colleagues to be analysts, too.

We’re aiming to build a relationship across the organisation in which our analysts are working as business partners with our colleagues. This integration of data across the whole organisation opens up more possibilities for improving and automating processes, meaning that our agents can concentrate on adding value to the business and focus their attentions on providing services and extra support for those who need it.

Reporting

We’re currently working with Orchard on improving our data warehousing, with the aim of integrating Orchard Data with other tools and systems we’re using, as well as with our finance and accounts systems, to bring data into a structured space so that we can consistently deliver the right reporting at the right time.

Working visually is often the best approach to ensure that data can be understood and analysed quickly, and we’re introducing various software and tools which will allow us to create efficient and comprehensive reporting. We’ll build the reporting to allow us to drill down to more in depth data to allow colleagues at all levels, not only managers, to understand the context of what they’re doing day to day.

From Reactive to Predictive

The move from a reactive to predictive model requires a different sort of data. Using our current data capture techniques, we have lots of data that tells us what’s happened, but we need to get to the data that predicts a future event and prompts us to take action.

A classic example is smart home technology. Smart boilers, for instance, have the ability to transmit data back to tell us what’s happening. If there’s a blip, or something unusual in the pattern of data we receive it could be an indication that something is about to go wrong, and we could use this to trigger a preventative maintenance appointment with the customer automatically, so they’re not left without heating or hot water.

Another example could be the frequency by which somebody is logging in to check their rent statements. An increased frequency could be an indication that something is occurring that might be affecting them financially and that might be an early-warning signal that they’re about to go into arrears. Looking for these sorts of trends and triggers can help us to elevate our customer service to a new level. Wouldn’t it be great if we could make a proactive call or conversation with that tenant to provide reassurance, prevent them from going into arrears, and take action before they find themselves in real crisis?

Another avenue we’re beginning to look at is how to care for older people. As part of our work with an independent living scheme for older persons, we’re trialling IOT devices that monitor movement in people’s homes. These include detectors that are able to register if someone has walked past a monitor, or a device that plugs into an electrical socket which can recognise when the kettle has been boiled. Using these devices, it’s possible to analyse the pattern of behaviour and understand when people need support, telling us when we need to do targeted intervention and proactively make well-being calls to vulnerable people. The more we can implement these sorts of smart technology the more we can start to understand how people live and fit our services around that to make the most impact.

Of course, this sort of technology has its legal, privacy and ethical implications, and the more insight we gather into how people are living, the more how we handle data governance plays on my mind. Just because we can tell that every day a tenant gets up and puts the kettle on a 8am, doesn’t mean we should use that information. Questions surrounding what the information is being used for and where freedoms and privacy is being infringed on is a huge grey area. With this in mind, we’re establishing practices so that we are continually reviewing data capture methods and working out ways in which they can do good for our service users without crossing a line. For instance, in our trials with IOTs that track movements in independent living properties, the data produced is accessed by the tenants’ relatives via an app, rather than the housing association, with full permission from the tenants themselves.

The Future

At Yorkshire Housing, we still have a lot of work to do to lay the foundations and put systems in place to ensure we’re capturing the right data and structuring it in a way that produces useful and insightful MI reports.

We’re working closely with Orchard to develop systems that meet the needs of the organisation and our tenants, including the development of automation within our operations, and how we manage and structure the data we gather with a data warehousing solution to consolidate our systems. The aim is to have everything closely integrated with data flowing quickly and seamlessly between systems. Orchard’s absolutely fantastic technical teams are putting square pegs into round holes to make this happen.

With Orchard, we’ve also begun to take advantage of the increased processing capability that comes with using the cloud, which puts us about 18 months away from adopting machine learning and AI technologies – something we’re already talking to Microsoft about to work out how we do this. Orchard’s roadmap is leading in the same direction, which will complement our own ambitions.

In terms of the housing sector as a whole, Yorkshire Housing is in the middle of the pack when it comes to the level of sophistication of our data capturing and usage. We’re not at the back, but we’re not at the front either. We’re seeing across the industry lots of little experiments and trials with smart homes and IOT devices happening, and we need to keep doing these to understand exactly what the data can tell us. Housing, however, is behind lots of other industries in the data revolution and it’s time we embraced the possibilities and influenced the development of new data-based systems and innovations.

About our contributor

Stephen Thorlby-Coy is the Head of ICT at Yorkshire Housing where he delivers high quality services and transformational change which add value for tenants.

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