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Using data effectively

Sponsored by Capita One

Data is a valuable resource in asset management but, as Justin Fisher explains, it must be collected and used in the right way.  Picture by Getty

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What has been the biggest change in housing asset management over the past year?

Obviously, the tragedy at Grenfell and the subsequent outcomes from the Hackitt Review will influence compliance and asset management for years to come.

But it also highlighted that the management of data in social housing is siloed and that there needs to be a cohesive approach to data management, to ensure our residents’ safety.

Housing providers have access to vast amounts of data. How should that be captured?

One of the issues affecting many housing providers is that data is not represented within their systems in the same way it is structured in the physical world.

For example, take repairs management within a block of flats containing a mix of tenures. That communal space might be represented within the database for each tenure type, with repairs being logged to the wrong communal area; this could lead to the same repair being logged multiple times and communal repairs being logged against dwellings. So, one of the key things with systems is to make sure you get your asset building blocks right.

Within your database, each entity might represent a dwelling and that entity might have a parent record representing a block or a communal space; above that you might have the entire building or the estate. All these entities and the relationships between them need to be represented accurately within any management system.

If you get those basic blocks right then your data will sit at the correct level – resulting in repairs, compliance activities and asset investment being recorded against the right entity.

Once that data is collected, how can it be used effectively?

This is where visualisation comes in. Data in tables is quite stark. Some of the technology that has come into the housing sector in the past few years has enabled us to make that data more animated, and also far more visual.

We’re all familiar with using Google Maps to look up how to get from A to B. If you were looking at that data in a table it would just be represented by longitude and latitude, or displayed in an address format. Google Maps presents that data in a different way.

I don’t think that should be any different in housing: tenants might use a 3D model of a building to log repairs; asset managers might display geographically dispersed stock on a map.

Similarly, chief executives and board members might use visual dashboards to track performance in key compliance areas. By using these tools, you’re able to analyse your data more assuredly than you can by looking at it statically in a table. Visualisation is about bringing data to life.

Whose responsibility is it to make sure data is used in this way?

I think it’s everyone’s responsibility. It’s not just an IT thing. This type of technology is within all our lives now. Everyone has a smartphone. Everyone is used to apps. It’s almost as if we get into a corporate environment and forget about all the consumer applications that people are using every day.

Everyone is familiar with these tools so training costs should be lower – and the data should be much easier to understand. Wherever we deploy this technology – customer services, resident self-service, mobile users – the data is easier to use and understanding is improved.

To what extent does asset management in housing consider the experience of tenants?

I don’t think it does. National housing standards are very property-focused. Assessments focus on building elements, how long they’ve lasted and what condition they’re in. There’s no articulation of the residents’ relationship with the property. Shelter proposed to address this back in October 2016 with the Living Home Standard; it introduced concepts of affordability, space, stability and neighbourhood into a standard, as well as the condition of the property. This was headline news on the day it was announced but wasn’t taken up by the sector.

Similarly, when options appraisals are carried out on housing stock they tend to be informed by their financial viability, using ‘net present value’ as the principle calculation method. That considers the income and expenditure against an asset but it doesn’t consider the people angle.

How long have people lived there? Is there a community? What is the social impact of your decisions on the neighbourhood?

There’s a financial impact, but there’s also a social impact – and there are tools available that allow you to measure those things. You can give a weighting to the social impact on current and future residents if you remove these homes from your portfolio.

Any social impact may affect your potential to partner with a local authority and to build in their area, so it does have a strategic influence.

Financial viability is obviously key but it can and should be nuanced with a range of social impact factors.

Do current asset management systems take into account that human perspective?

A significant amount of compliance activities are recorded on spreadsheets or within software not connected to tenancy records. If you’re just working this way then you’re only going to see one dimension.

Fire risk assessments are a good example. You might spot that a door closer is broken. That has a straightforward outcome: you order a replacement and carry out the repair. However, you might also notice that rubbish has been placed in front of a fire door. That’s an estate management issue as well as an asset management one. The outcome might be more nuanced, complex and people-related. But you can’t necessarily track that on a spreadsheet or non-integrated system.

Is there some anti-social behaviour going on? Are the bin stores sufficient? If you take a broader perspective of an asset you can see those links.

How can automation be used in a way that serves tenants?

Once you have sufficient data and knowledge of behaviour you have the potential to automate. For example, many organisations have staff scheduling gas safety checks. That’s something that could easily be automated.

If you know the date the visit took place last year, you know the interval period, and you know the residents’ access behaviour and appointment success, you can automate the required planning window for the current year’s visit to ensure compliance. This is not about using technology for its own sake; it’s about automating known tasks and processes so managers can invest effort in the right places, where human intervention is most valuable.

What should be the guiding principle behind effective asset management in housing?

Asset management involving people is far more complex than in other asset environments. Fundamental investment strategies often fail to take this into account.

A lot of providers now use the term the ‘single version of the truth’. That’s about making sure everyone is working from the same data. Technology can help break down silos and ensure that your data includes the human perspective. That is essential for effective asset management in the housing sector.