Digital dark ages

By Matt Leach - on 20/04/2015

Too much of the UK housing sector is way behind the curve on digital advancement and should be collecting relevant data more routinely and extensively. HACT's Chief Executive Matt Leach comments to Inside Housing.

Across the economy – from Uber for taxis, Airbnb for holiday lets to Crowdcube for startup investment – new and disruptive technologies and distribution platforms are emerging, harnessing rich sources of data, and promising customers both financial savings and better designed and delivered services. Some of them are levering the combined power of data and increasingly ubiquitous connectivity to create services that were never previously capable of existing.

Whether it is smartphones, connected homes or online retail, the internet and the data flows that underpin it are redefining customer experiences, creating new expectations, and informing the very nature of the services people purchase and receive.

If we look at media, travel, shopping or telecoms, the changes that have taken place in the last five years are breathtaking. It is not just about old industries making themselves mobile, or creating online presences. We are in the middle of a revolution that is transforming every aspect of the world around us. In less than 10 years, we’ve gone from an age in which the internet was something accessed by a few via desktop computers and dial-up connections to an era in which the primary means of buying services online is via mobile devices.

The data-led economy has arrived, and if housing isn’t to find itself looking like an analogue relic from a previous age, we need to embrace it and fast. This isn’t about being radical or experimental. Outside of housing, digital is happening everywhere you look. The ‘connected economy’ is now a bigger contributor to the UK economy than health, education or construction, and set to grow at a faster rate than any of them over the next 10 years. 

But we’ve got a lot to do to catch up. Sure, we’ve all turned up at the (endless) digital housing conferences. We’re collectively investing millions in digital inclusion initiatives to get residents online and ready for universal credit. We’re mobilising our staff. And, increasingly, we’re seeing terrible corporate websites replaced by responsive, customer-focused portals that prioritise useful services rather than unread press releases. But that’s only a fraction of what needs to happen if as a sector we’re going to get our digital act in order. The brutal truth is that as a sector we are still way behind the curve; too much of UK housing is still living in the digital dark ages.

As a bare minimum, we need to get serious about the data we collect and the potential it offers to transform the way we design, target and deliver services. That means collecting business-relevant data more routinely and extensively, and when we have it putting it to much better use. 

Key to the future

Effective data collection and usage is inevitably going to become a key issue in relation to organisational governance over the coming years. How many providers at the moment would be capable if challenged of providing assurances that they have the data to hand to provide evidence that they fully understand cost and performance drivers in their business? And whilst it might be enough to satisfy the regulator for the time being, the bottom line is that it is no longer sufficient for us, as a sector, to rely on crude comparisons of aggregated cost and output data to prove we’re delivering value for money. Housing needs – urgently – to look at more sophisticated approaches to understanding drivers of both demand and cost across their businesses. And that can only happen through more effective use of data we hold and could hold.   

There’s also huge potential value to be released from looking at business data in the context of much wider shared data from across the sector – an approach HACT has been piloting over the last 18 months in relation to rent arrears and repairs. It’s something we hope – over time – to both consolidate and extend to broader areas of housing provider activities. But – as we’ve learned over the last year or so – that won’t be a straightforward process. Embracing a shared data economy in housing will require significant moves towards standardising the ways in which, as a sector, we define, record and store data on what we do. 

This doesn’t need to be a huge bureaucratic exercise or one driven by top-down regulatory dictat. Considerable progress might be made, and quickly, by incremental consolidation around, and adoption of, common definitions and data formats as they emerge and develop. I’m looking forward massively, in that regard, to the output of work currently taking place in Birmingham Council around the publication of standardised housing data, building on a data scheme developed as part of recent HACT big data research. 

In the long-term, however, conventional business approaches, and data frameworks which still have roots in the 1990s digitisation of housing management approaches often developed in the 1970s and 1980s, are likely to have less of an impact on UK housing than a bigger data revolution that is now just around the corner.

The ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) is a term currently appearing almost everywhere. It is used to describe the rapid growth of connected technologies embedded in everyday household objects – from smart lightbulbs to intelligent central heating systems. 

Connected, data-driven products and services enabled by the IoT have quickly become a significant part of the forward business strategy of every major technology company. The market for these products is predicted to triple in size between 2014 and 2020 – with much of that growth being driven by the emergence of technologies aimed at transforming the ways in which people use and experience their homes. While early market entrants, such as Nest, Hive and Smart Things, have focused initially on targeting owner-occupiers, we are increasingly going to see the emergence of products delivering solutions relevant to large-scale landlords.

Smart heating systems are now coming onto the market on a significant scale, offering better levels of home comfort and lower fuel bills at a price point well below levels of investment previously targeted at home insulation. Smart, connected locks offer the potential for new ways to secure properties and manage entry at price points that may soon not be significantly higher than conventional deadbolts. Connected water sensors and instrumented boilers offer the prospect of faster, cheaper ways of identifying maintenance priorities in managed properties. Embedded noise and movement sensors may provide radically more efficient ways of monitoring and managing tenancies and maintaining assets.  

And the big data-driven insights that will in time become available from the streaming sensor technology embedded in many of these products offer the prospect of a step change in the ways in which housing providers use data in their own businesses. Harnessed effectively, they hold out the potential of massive new opportunities to rethink the way services are delivered, and achieve greater value for money through technology and data-driven business transformation. Its something very much at the heart of the mission of the Connected Home Consortium, launched last month by Nick Atkin, Matthew Fox and myself, and currently recruiting members from across the sector.  As a sector, we need to grasp the opportunities offered by the Internet of Things.  And in the process make a leap from being a primarily analogue sector into a new digital age.

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