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The need for better data in social housing



Industry voice: PowerObjects, An HCL Technologies Company, says the sector needs to improve its data management to support collaboration and harness new technologies

Data sharing and new technologies are offering great benefits for the social housing sector, but it has to take its data management to a new level and deal with some difficult issues to realise the promise.

A picture of the challenge emerged from a recent exercise in which PowerObjects – An HCL Technologies Company and UKAuthority asked officials from local authorities – with roles that impact on the housing sector – and housing associations about their needs, problems and priorities for the use of digital technology and data.

One of the major issues to emerge was that there has to be a step change in data sharing with other public authorities – such as councils, NHS organisations and police forces – to support operational delivery and strategic planning. It reflects the more holistic outlook that is emerging in public services, with organisations wanting to better manage the way their services interact with those of other agencies.

But many housing authorities are still working with data in the siloes that have come out of ad hoc investments in IT. They need a more cohesive approach in collecting, managing and sharing data, and this can require investment in new systems; and in making these they have to be sure of their strategic priorities and deal with some difficult issues.

A significant barrier is staring them in the face, with the need to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Organisations are still trying to understand how they should handle the details around GDPR and, while useful guidance is emerging from the Information Commissioner’s Office, officials are still finding questions that do not yet have definitive answers.

Creating challenges

This is going to create challenges in all public services, not least housing, for which the personal details of individuals are often crucial in whether they qualify for allocations, what type of accommodation is deemed to be appropriate, and how to respond with any problems in their tenancies.

Housing authorities are still assessing how they will be able to balance this with full compliance with the GDPR, but most are relatively confident. When asked if they feel their organisation is well prepared for GDPR, half said ‘yes’ and the other half said that although not being ready they were working on it.

They face other challenges in the form of problems with the interoperability of IT systems, a cultural resistance to data sharing in some organisations; and there are difficulties in obtaining data to be published openly. Subsequently, most officials see limitations in their current data sharing arrangements: only a third regarded them as being good, with the reminder describing the situation as “varying”.

Problems were also identified with data quality: almost two-thirds of the officials were confident that they had effective systems in place; but little more than a third were satisfied with the quality and ease of access to their data. This can undermine efforts to use the data effectively to meet operational demands and support strategic planning.

Focus on day-to-day

The exercise also revealed that many of the demands on data in social housing are focused on dealing with day-to-day operations and the more immediate pressures of finding accommodation for families in need. This is understandable, but it means the sector is not well placed to pick up the potential of new technologies such as the internet of things – which could support predictive maintenance and help tenants to reduce utility bills – and artificial intelligence, which could revolutionise customer contact.

These emerging technologies could provide solutions for currently intractable problems, help to ease the financial pressures and raise the overall level of service delivery. But they have to be adopted with the right governance systems, to protect the integrity of customers’ personal data and to stay on the right side of the GDPR.

The overall picture is that housing bodies are generally getting by with their existing systems and processes for data management, but need to do more to respond to future challenges and opportunities. They need to examine their systems closely and identify weaknesses in the quality of their data.

This should be a step towards looking at what data could improve their operations and which new technologies could support the effort.

The issues are explored in more detail in a briefing paper from the exercise, which can be downloaded from here. 

Image by Danny Navarro, CC BY 2.0 through flickr

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