The need for a data culture with standards at its heart

By Thames Menteth-Wheelwright, Events and Communications Officer - on 23/04/2020

Data has been crucial to how the housing sector has been able respond to this crisis. How it plans and manages crises in the future will also depend on creating robust and long lasting data cultures.

As we move past the one-month anniversary since the start of the covid-19 lockdown, the country, and the world, is waking up to the crucial importance of data. In how we track, monitor and understand the disease as well as how we identify vulnerable groups and target resources, the value of data as well as the importance of structures which enable the collection, synthesis and application of that data, has never been clearer.


This realisation has been most acute in the context of the NHS, which has had to mobilise rapidly to meet the needs of this crisis and save lives. Early on it was determined that many people with medical problems would be highly at risk of developing complications from covid-19. These people needed to be identified and contacted as a priority.


The question, however, was how the NHS would pull together data that was not all located in one convenient table. The answer, in part, was data standards. After identifying patients for inclusion in the shielded patient list (SPL) using four major national datasets as well as the field-based knowledge of individual GPs, NHS digital developed a new standard to make the monumental exercise of data interrogation, analysis and comparison on this scale much easier.


As a result, 1.5 million people who are “at high risk” have now been identified and placed on the shielded patient list (SPL), while another larger group of “at risk” people, those who are normally susceptible to influenza, have been instructed to socially distance. What the NHS example demonstrates is that you can bring together disparate data from lots of different systems when you need to, but only if you have the right data structures in place to allow you to do so.


In the housing sector, of course, this move towards data has also been happening. And for many housing associations, covid-19 has exposed the gaps in their data culture – incomplete and incorrect datasets and a lack of common data standards have hindered how quickly and effectively some organisations have been able to mobilise resources.


We’ve had numerous conversations with colleagues over the past few weeks during which they have lamented the poor quality of the data they hold on tenants, as well as the time spent on inputting and cross-checking data sets. As one colleague said, “we have no way of automatically cross checking the data with the LA list as we have zero common unique identifiers, so data standards across the board would immediately solve this”.


At the same time, however, there is a desire to overcome those barriers and begin to work more collaboratively to improve data structures and process, and to be able to model and map vulnerability in new ways in order to help residents.


At MTVH, data has been crucial in shaping their response to the crisis. In order to support frontline staff who are making calls and visiting people in their homes, MTVH have developed the COVID19 data application to help its frontline staff log calls made to vulnerable residents and support them in whatever capacity they can in these difficutl times. The app also includes the function to RAG rate, which indicates the level of support required for residents. The app will also enable them to combine new data from recent conversations with hundreds of residents with data from other parts of the organisation.


As well as bringing together data from disparate systems, the app makes it easier for those working on the frontline to report their findings up to senior management and enhance effective decision making. While every housing association is trying to get in touch with vulnerable people, MTVH’s track record as an early adopter of data standards and its robust data architecture puts it in the right place to deploy the technology to support this high-level response.


At Hyde, the data team has been looking not just at crises management now but also ahead at what the coming months might bring. They have been taking the organisation’s data and combining it with scientific research and national data about the geographic and demographic spread of the virus to help them plan for how resident and their staff might be impacted in the future, as well as the implications for the delivery of services.


Doing this effectively requires a data culture that means intelligence gathered by the front line is logged as structured data, making it machine readable and accessible to other colleagues for analysis, reporting and in the long run ensuring the safety of staff, residents and their communities.


Sometimes a crisis is the thing that forces people to change. Often it exposes shortcomings in our current systems and shines a light on better ways of operating, in the short and long term. In the housing sector, it has long been recognised that better data on residents and what services they use enables better understanding of what they need. While most organisations will have parts of that information, few will have a data system which allows them to knit those different strands together into an image of who their most vulnerable residents really are.


Dawning on many is the startling realisation that data will be crucial to how the sector is able to respond to this crisis, but also to how it plans and manages crises in the future. While covid-19 had temporarily shifted the balance of risk and reward, now seems as good a time as ever to learn from this moment and embed a data culture that helps pivot our responses now and in the future.


On 29 April, we’re hosting a webinar about the what, where and how of the UK Housing Data Standards. Register for this event here.

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