Taken from May's edition of Housing Technology, our Chief Executive Matt Leach discusses the benefits of online mapping software to the housing sector.
The success of HACT’s Community Insight – affordable, GIS-powered community profiling and housing data mapping software now used by more than half of the largest 150 housing providers in the UK – demonstrates the value of carefully-focused feature sets, workflow integration, immediate cost savings through implementation, and low training and installation overheads.
One of the biggest changes we’ve seen during the last 20 years in housing has been the move from technology as a tool for specialists towards sophisticated digital tools being available to any staff.
With mobile working now mainstream, we’ve seen technology leaving offices and being placed in the hands of housing providers’ mobile workforces. And with the coming shift to resident self-administration of their own homes, we’ll see a further outward movement of the boundaries of housing technology to tenants and leaseholders.
Among the consequences of these shifts has been the rethinking of what technology is and needs to be. A move from complex systems and interfaces to simple, dedicated apps has required are thinking of user interfaces, and a focus on workflow and the widest possible usability above bloated (and often unused) feature sets and specialist users.
It has also flagged up issues around the real cost of system roll-outs and training; if you are putting technology in the hands of an entire workforce, staff need to be capable of being trained to use them quickly and cheaply.
When we launched Community Insight in early 2013, the ambition was to deliver a simple, low cost data-mapping tool which would enable anyone in a housing provider to access sophisticated social, economic and demographic data on any of their neighbourhoods. Most importantly, we wanted anyone in a housing provider to be able to do it with the click of a mouse, with zero installation overheads, a workflow-oriented feature set and no more than a 90-second learning curve to get a user started.
The initial market was intended to be community investment and tenancy sustainment professionals, but over the last three years we have seen the user base grow significantly beyond that, drawing in users from across housing management, central strategy and development teams.
This wasn’t new capability for housing providers; a significant number of larger housing providers had or were in the process of installing sophisticated GIS systems to map assets and access wider internal and external datasets. But almost all of these systems came at a cost. The need (in some cases) for integration with (often integration-averse) business systems, the need to employ specialist staff to use complex tools (thereby limiting access to an expensive and important resource) and the need to invest in keeping data up-to-date to avoid being owners of nothing more than an expensive historic data archive.
By way of contrast, there were also a significant number of housing providers without the capacity to implement GIS. Housing providers often resorted to hand-crafted mapping and investing significant staff resources in accessing and presenting profiling data, often in non-optimal ways, and with little certainty about whether the sources it was accessed from were reliable and up to date.
An approach to development based on the new wave of app-based technologies has provided a model for addressing both of these issues, and a strong driver for the direction of the Community Insight tool.
We’ve based Community Insight on a Google Maps platform, providing a recognisable interface that people are already comfortable with, reducing any need for training or familiarisation. We stripped features out from the outset in order to provide tools that addressed 80-90 per cent of the needs of the user base, such as simple heat-mapping, matrix-based traffic lighting and full community profile preparation, all of which could be used with little or no specialist training, rather than loading on capabilities most users wouldn’t normally need or use. A simple wizard-led process for uploading organisational data provided greater flexibility and removed the cost and complexity arising from
having to address system integration issues. Even the licensing requirements were simple and straightforward; a single price for the product, with no installation or integration costs and unlimited user licenses.
Most importantly, by partnering with OCSI, the data business that created the Index of Multiple Deprivation for the Government, we were able to ensure there was no data maintenance overhead; all of the thousands of data sets on Community Insight are always up-to-date, without the need for staff resources to maintain the tool.
As a consequence, at a time when budgets are under pressure across the housing sector, we’ve seen an increase in subscriptions to Community Insight. And we’ve seen housing providers with extensive GIS capacity subscribing to Community Insight as a way of providing basic mapping and analytic tools for staff to do their own place-based profiling and analysis, leaving specialist staff to do more specialist and value-adding work for the business.
All of this points to an interesting split in technology trends within housing. While there is clearly a need to look at ways to rationalise and integrate core systems and reduce the sheer number of bits of technology used by housing providers, there are also business areas where simpler and more straight-forward app-based approaches can provide more effective solutions. GIS-based mapping looks likely to be a test-bed for this as mapping technologies fall in price and the ability of ordinary users to access and deploy analytic tools, previously the domain of specialists, becomes mainstreamed.
There is clearly huge value available for those organisations able to invest in integrated mapping solutions to complement their core business management systems. But at the same time, a growing market for non-specialist, app-based, off-the-shelf solutions provides a significant element of that value to a much broader user base, but at a significantly lower cost.