Monday, 27 March 2017

Appy days

A fortnight ago you met them. Now it’s time to discover what they can do. We challenged the five finalists in the Rising Stars contest - Inside Housing and the Chartered Institute of Housing’s bid to find housing’s top talent - to design a phone app which would improve life for them, their employer, their residents - or all three. Here’s what they came up with.

Once you’ve had a look at the app ideas, you can vote for your favourite Rising Star here

Risha Spolia: neighbourhood manager, Bromford Living

Bromford can tell you what’s out there and help you get hold of it

What it does

  • The Bromford’s Employment app will help customers access information and support for work, skills and training both locally and virtually. The app provides practical support for customers to gain skills and improve their employability.
  • Customers complete a CV template and then receive job alerts. The app performs a skills assessment, matches users to vacancies, sends invites to work clubs, useful information and includes an e-diary to manage appointments.
  • Employers can upload jobs, training, volunteering, apprenticeships and work opportunities and be alerted when a match registers.
  • The app offers customers interview tips and mock assessments, competency-based interview questions and possible answers, Skype access for face-to-face conversations with advisors and dress code tips.
  • An inbuilt benefits calculator lets you assess in-work benefits and points users to useful agencies, while a budgeting tool highlights affordability issues.
  • Users can post feedback.

Challenge diary

23 May

3.31pm Return to desk to see an email titled ‘Inside Housing Challenge’. The adrenaline builds. It feels like being asked to turn your paper over in an exam.
3.32pm Design a smartphone app. OK, interesting… I read on… a diary, a video diary and photos… by Thursday 3pm…
3.35pm Quickly check schedule for next three days. Run to head of housing to plead to cancel my one-to-one tomorrow. I tell her the task and deadline… ‘By when?’ she shrieks.
4.00pm Post message on Bromford’s internal networking site to canvass colleagues for ideas.
5.00pm Brainstorm ideas:

  • Repairs app - report it, get the right tradesperson and track your repair. Ask the customer if they want to do it themselves? Topical with the housing minister’s proposal to pay customers to complete their own repairs.
  • Emergency contact list app - customers can discover their housing manager’s name, details of partners and local agencies, councillors and utilities.
  • Housing Options app - what properties are available? How do I get one?
  • Accounts app - customers can check their account balances.

24 May

7.00am My wife films me in the garden for the video diary.
8.00am See colleagues in the car park… what about a green app, advising customers how to be energy efficient? Feels like colleagues are all thinking apps.
10.00am Attend work event and discuss with customers. Housing options mentioned again, and a frequently asked questions app on estate management issues: ‘Can I build a fence?’, ‘Can I park my caravan on my drive?’
1.00pm To win the Rising Stars challenge I feel I need something up-to -the-minute and new.
2.00pm Got to keep the day job ticking over, but how about an app to combat worklessness? Ties in with ‘welfare to work’ programme. Get customers connected to employers. Give access to skills, training, assist with CVs. The opportunities are endless. The icon could be future opportunities: a fishing hook pulling you in.
3.00pm Spend rest of afternoon and early evening working on the text and icon. Think I am finally on a roll …

26 May

7.00am More filming capturing yesterday’s Eureka moment.
8.00am Reading through my submission before a meeting.
11.00pm Put attachments into an email and about to press send…
11.30am It’s done. Bromford’s Employment app is born. Think this could really work.

Caris Henry: strategy analyst, MITIE Property Management

MiPlace makes living in ‘your place’ better

What it does

  • The MiPlace app aims to help tenants get the most out of their home and community.
  • The app has ‘snackable’ features, such as MiProperty which helps maintain and improve your home, MiLoyalty which rewards loyal customers with e-vouchers, MiOpportunity which helps tenants access information on employment, MiMove which helps tenants find properties for swap, rent or sales, MiCommunity which helps tenants network in their area, find support and access amenities and MiCharity which lets you donate money or time to a range of local organisations.

Challenge diary

23 May

I love this challenge. Initially consider a ‘lifestyle’ app that makes the user’s life easier and enhances interaction with their environment. Have lots of ideas around the app from reporting repairs to electronic discount vouchers.
Struggle with the business model around income generation, but easier to think of the efficiencies it could generate, that is, more accurate diagnoses - right first time. Think some more and develop two income-generating features in addition to core services such as ability to pay rent. The first gives users the ability to purchase security upgrades for their property; the second allows them to donate to a range of local organisations.
Bounce ideas off property services committee at Nottingham City Homes during evening meeting. Get some positive feedback, especially in relation to the health and safety element of my repairs DIY guide.

24 May

Scope the app today and amalgamate some of its features. Decide to call it MiPlace because it enables the user to get the most of their community and home, fosters ownership and is a play on MITIE. Finanlise the six main features. First up, MiProperty lets users maintain their home - they can report a repair simply by taking a photo and sending it with accompanying text or video. It goes to the customer service centre which can diagnose the repair - improving efficiency, increasing first-time fixes and reducing costs.
Once logged, the user can choose a preferred date and time for the repair to be carried out - the user will also receive notifications to remind them of their appointment and inform them of the operative’s name. The user can track the repair in real-time showing where the operative is (ie en route). Once the repair is complete the user receives a satisfaction survey.
Then come MiMove, MiCommunity, MiOpportunity; MiLoyalty and MiCharity. These features enable users to share and receive knowledge of all kinds from local amenities to opinions and feedback on products and services.

25 May

Best day so far - looks like we might be launching my app at MITIE. It may also include:

  • MiMoney - with financial inclusion and consumer finance information;
  • MiProfile - with the ability for users to update their personal details;
  • MiSafety - with a panic button.

Chris Hancock: housing needs manager, Exeter Council

Don’t just give change - make one

What it does

  • The Give Change app allows people to donate money directly to rough sleepers.
  • Rough sleepers get a number or barcode from their local outreach service, which people can scan into the app. This lets them donate any amount of money into an account for that specific rough sleeper. The account would be administered by the outreach service.
  • This app reassures people that their donation is used positively, and that the rough sleeper is encouraged to make regular contact with local support services.

Challenge diary

23 May

Receive email regarding the task while on train back from an Empty Homes conference in London. Initial thoughts cover budgeting apps to encourage people to downsize or consider affordable ownership by highlighting savings from leaving their current social home. Or an app for young runaways which picks out their location and lists available support services in that area. Finding it tricky to pitch it right without just using the technology for its own sake.

24 May

Changed mind. Think I should stick to something particularly relevant to me and my work. Exeter has traditionally had a big rough sleeping challenge plus a large population of very well-intentioned residents and wealthy students who want to help. Chew over idea with my colleague, the street outreach manager: donating money to rough sleepers in a constructive way but with the reassurance of knowing that a certain individual would benefit from your contribution. Difficulty is to do it without patronising the beneficiaries. And am I comfortable with issuing a number to homeless people - a bit Orwellian perhaps? (see box: What it does) Finding the video diary a challenge - concerned at Inside Housing’s plans for this, and still haven’t entirely discounted worry that this is an elaborate practical joke.

25 May

Really keen on rough sleeper app idea, feeling quite Don Draper about it all. We have a fortnightly early morning outreach session on Friday so I will take the idea with me and ask people who might actually get something from it what they think. I appreciate this feedback will come after the deadline but I am enthusiastic now and a seed has been sown. I have to get this all written up tonight as I have a whole raft of meetings tomorrow and can’t ignore the day job in all this excitement.

26 May

Usual early start with my 10-month-old son Arthur providing a 5.30am alarm, which at least gives an opportunity to review what I have written. Struggling with the icon - must be meaningful but also legible. A doorway is a bit generic, as is a key, and anything alluding to money a bit crass.
Quite pleased with tagline, although perhaps a little bit ‘motivational speaker’. Guess I need to embrace that a bit through this process as some showing off will inevitably be required. Last minute panic that this app might already exist.

Carla Keegans: head of involvement and policy, City of London Corporation

Spot it, snap it, send it - help look after your estate with iWalkabout

What it does

  • The iWalkabout app is a simple way to help residents report things that need doing on their estate, quickly and effectively, as they go about their daily life.
  • No need to wait for an estate walkabout with a member of staff, no need to spend time telephoning it through, no need to visit the estate office. Simply click on the logo, upload the photo of what needs doing plus details of where -and that’s it.
  • Uploads sent automatically to a designated person/team(s) for action.
  • Residents receive automatic email telling them their request has been logged and passed to the relevant team. The message will also say that all iWalkabout reports will be provided to residents regularly through existing communications, such as newsletters, website, notice boards etc.
  • Encourages residents to promote things they like about their estate, for example, photos that show their estate in a good light for use in future publications.
  • Users can upload details of local community events which are be directed to a central team for wider circulation.

Challenge diary

23 May

3pm First challenge is in - design an app - Apprentice-style. First challenge for me, though, is to make space in my diary at short notice, and enlist the help of my more creative colleagues. A colleague records me on their phone - think I look ridiculous and sound like Big Brother voiceover man.
4.30pm An idea is in the pipeline - this challenge is exciting. I’m about keeping things simple so have come up with iWalkabout. Will talk to a friend tonight who works in digital marketing - just to check there’s not something obvious that would scupper this idea.
9pm Phew! Idea seems to be a goer. Friend has a little knowledge about social housing so good sounding board too. Tomorrow get thoughts from resident involvement group- if it’s a ‘no’ then onto plan B. Feeling positive overall.

24 May

9.30am Show colleagues the logo - everyone seems to really like it and the general idea. Now for a tagline.
4.08pm Argh! I’ve have had no time today for the challenge - let alone come up with a catchy tagline. I hope the residents are in creative mode later.
5.30pm Video diary done, think I’m a natural (ahem!). My colleague interviewing me has definitely missed her calling in news reading. All set for the tenants’ meeting at 6pm - fingers crossed they like the app idea.

25 May

8.30am Meeting with tenants went really well last night. I presented the idea as part of Any Other Business and they unanimously said they would use the app - fantastic news and a big relief. They were all very excited about the competition and wished me luck.
3pm Lots of activity today in-between the day job. Discussed the idea with the IT people and office app users. Have come up with a tagline, hope it’s ‘snappy’. The app idea is simple and so I hope the tagline ‘does what is says on the tin’.
After these successes, I headed to our closest estate, Golden Lane, to take some photos of the app ‘in action’. Glorious day - the city’s estates really are gleaming on days like these.

26 May

1pm Two hours to go before the deadline. Started off with a glitch - my video entry from last night at home did not transfer over at work, drat. Never mind, we recorded a new one so back on track.
Colleagues doing sterling job of helping to upload photos and videos into one place - we’ve been using different cameras and phones depending on who has been around at the time, cables everywhere. Team spirit has been great throughout.
Final video entry to do (outside if it stops raining), final selection of five photos to send in, and that’s it - challenge complete.
2.15pm About to submit before the 3pm deadline. Have really enjoyed the challenge. Only difficulty was squeezing it between existing diary commitments and the unplanned events that always crop up in the world of social housing.

Suzanne Ralphson: group project manager, LHA-ASRA

Housepoints share and shop: we learn and you earn

What it does

  • The Housepoints app allows residents to give immediate feedback on interactions and log issues direct from their smart phone.
  • On installation, the app registers the customer’s mobile number, integration with our existing customer relationship management system ensures contacts are logged against the correct person.
  • Users can provide feedback every time they interact with the landlord using a simple ‘good or bad’ option.
  • They can raise any issues by choosing the camera (photograph a repair), instant-chat or phone (we call you) functions to communicate with our contact centre.
  • Feedback and media content appear as a new case in CRM so we can track actions to resolve any reported problems.
  • As an incentive, whenever the customer uses the app they receive ‘house points’, loyalty points which can be redeemed at local shops, encouraging local-community spending.

Challenge diary

23 May

3.39pm Receive email with the Smart Phone Apps Challenge. Re-read the bit about this being due by Thursday. Juggle a few meetings and deadlines around in the diary, (unstoppable force meets immovable object) but I do like a challenge. Hope my previous IT implementation experience helps.
5pm Right - make an app that really delivers something. What’s missing from housing? Do our residents use smart phones? Do we? Snoop around Android and iPhone online apps and send out a little questionnaire to colleagues before home. Have a look at the Mycouncil app for iPhone. Great concept, but quite wordy. I want something simpler. Speed and usability are key.
8.30pm Updating Twitter. It occurs to me that I’ve got access to expert opinion at my fingertips. Tweet a question out and direct message @grantshapps and @alisonseabeck to see if I can get some higher level feedback. Now time to watch Saturday’s episode of Dr Who before bed.

24 May

8:30am Some great responses from colleagues. A few votes for a rent balance app, but as we already have this facility by SMS I’d like to try something different. Some sort of customer feedback app is a popular idea.
10am Gatecrash the service evaluation group to consult involved residents on their view. Of 11 residents, two have smart phones and think that can only increase. I’m also guessing that our younger residents may have a higher ratio. All say they would use a feedback/comment app.
1:20pm Lovely chat with Jamie at the iPhone shop. Advises me that lots of stores use loyalty card apps, might be something here… can’t decide between rewards or feedback app. How about combining them?
6:30pm On with the day job this afternoon, so back to Rising Stars now. Planning actions for tomorrow - doodle some initial designs for what might work. But have to put this away now and go to karate class.
8.10pm Short-listing images over a glass of pinot, while canvassing opinions from partner, kids and cats (cats not very helpful).

25 May

11am Project meeting. Take the opportunity to ask opinions of app in ‘any other business’. Good response. Final design narrowed down. Need to actually try to mock-up the app rather than just describe it.
7.40pm Having returned from the kids’ piano/trampolining run and cooked a passable risotto, can now get out the laptop and start drawing.
8pm Happy with final design and description.
10.26pm Aha! Twitter rules! Direct message sent by @alisonseabeck. A little late to affect the design, but great to get the shadow housing minister’s view: repairs is in there, but she does say there’s ‘too much to consider’.
10.45pm …and so to bed. (PS: Still no response from Grant Shapps - will have to have a word with him at the Chartered Institute of Housing conference in Harrogate).

26 May

8.45am Sending final version as in meetings for the rest of today. Reflect on how invigorating a little innovation can be. This really got people talking about future communications development. It seems like too good an idea to waste. Even if only 5 per cent of residents have a smart phone now, we should be innovating to the best technology while the world catches up. Running idea past our IT developers with a view to making the app a reality. Watch this space.

You can find out more about the finalists and vote for your favourite Rising Star here. The winner will be announced at the CIH conference and exhibition in Harrogate. For tickets go to

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