With the technology now surrounding us resembling gadgets from the pages and images of science fiction, it can sometimes be too easy to dismiss these technologies as fads or ‘gadgets for geeks’. Instead of passing on these technologies, shouldn’t we pause to see what these innovative products and applications could introduce into the social housing space?
I recently delivered a seminar session at the Housing Technology 2017 conference on a number of emerging technologies that I thought we should begin to investigate. It was certainly an eye opener to me to find the room packed and with people standing in the aisles for a topic that some may have thought a bit ‘fringe’ so it can’t be said that those in housing are dismissing emerging technologies, rather that the interest certainly seems to be there to discover more about how these devices and services could be adapted and used.
This article will focus on a few of these technologies, starting with the emergence of headless user interfaces.
What is a headless user interface? A simple definition is that it’s software capable of running on a device without the need for a graphical user interface. Common examples recently have been Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Google’s Assistant and the new kid on the block, Alexa from Amazon.
This type of verbal interaction with technology brings to mind HAL from 2001 or KITT from Knight Rider, but the reality is that many of us have used one of these digital assistants, whether it’s asking about the weather, cinema listings or just whether they are Skynet or not! These types of interaction glean answers which require far less ‘point and click’ style navigation through search results and websites.
Natural language processing (NLP) is entering the mainstream and the NLP-empowered virtual assistants could eventually change the way we seek information online by steering us away from traditional apps, many of which are used more and more sparingly.
Gartner recognises the imminence of language as an interface, predicting that by 2020, 30 per cent of browsing will be screen-less, so the need for the more traditional keyboard- and mouse-based interfaces in systems will begin to tail off.
So, is it too far-fetched to see these headless user interfaces in a social housing context? Perhaps we could think about those tenants and residents excluded from digital channels due to low IT literacy. Perhaps it’s a more suitable digital channel to allow verbal communications, assisting those without that ingrained sense of how to navigate online, allowing them the benefits of consuming housing services digitally.
I have already been talking to some housing organisations and met Shane Griffiths, head of IT at Coastal Housing for a discussion on this technology. He said, “I can see great benefit in the area of social and elderly care, where daily calls are made to tenants just to ensure they are up and well, which could be exchanged for an Echo Dot for the tenant to report ‘Alexa, tell Coastal I’m up and well’ or ‘Alexa, ask Coastal to call me’. This technology is also the next evolution in emergency care; no longer would we need to ensure our elderly relatives were wearing their alarm pendants – they could just ask Alexa for emergency help.”
Capita has already been experimenting and creating proof of concepts using Amazon’s Alexa. So far, it’s about driving people to make simple enquires, such as what their current rent balance is, how much is their next rent payment and when it’s due, plus when their next appointment is.
However the potential exists within these technologies for tenants to pay an amount of rent, report a repair, ask for a call back, make an appointment, change an appointment - all of the sorts of things that can be done now via a tenant portal, app or SMS. This type of technology could prove particularly useful for those who find tablet and app technology confusing or difficult; why spend ten minutes on a tablet when you can request a repair in thirty seconds?
As well as talking about Alexa, I also discussed the rise of bots that communicate with other users of internet-based services, via instant messaging-type apps or via chat dialog windows, otherwise known as ‘chat bots’.
The increasing use of chat bots has interested some of the big players such as Microsoft, and led them to conduct studies to understand better how people actually use messaging apps and services. Microsoft’s own study found that 85 per cent of smartphone usage is channelled through just five regular apps, all of which had a strong element of messaging. This led Microsoft to state that rather than try to compete with these ‘top five’ apps, it suggested offering a chat bot service on top of an existing service such as Skype, Facebook Messenger, Apple iMessage or Whatsapp.
It’s surprising how many chat bots are already out there, interacting with the general public. For example, Natwest has been trialling a chat bot for a while, as well as some of the new disruptive tech giants, like Uber, who have embedded a bot in their chat app. Chat bots can even now support you in ordering a pizza!
Getting closer to where we are in social housing is the embedding of a chat bot using machine learning into a proposed 111 NHS app. Capita has been working on this bot with the NHS for a while and it led me to think how a bot could guide someone through the process of making a housing application, logging a repair or even using a bot to provide low-level advice.
We’ve created an example of a repairs logging bot that we have shown a couple of housing organisations as a proof of concept, and even this fairly limited bot has already exposed the promise and potential that bots could bring within the social housing sector.
It’s early days for this technology, but then again, the rapid rise of the use of bots in the wider world means that perhaps we shouldn’t be complacent in social housing and instead look to embrace a potential opportunity that could see lower level enquiries and transactions shifted to a bot-managed digital channel, or posed to a digital assistant like Alexa, freeing up skilled humans to deal with those tricky and sticky situations we come across in social housing every day.
Stewart Davison is head of business development for Capita’s housing business.