As not-for-profit organisations, housing providers are constantly looking for ways to operate as cost efficiently as possible, reinvesting any revenue income to create homes and communities that residents can take pride in. But how can housing providers and local authorities manage evolving property portfolios while providing a better standard of accommodation?
The benefits of geographic information systems (GIS) as systems of record for predictive analytics and data visualisation are well known and documented in a wide range of sectors. However, what is less known is the transition from GIS in the office to its use with mobile workforces enabled with mobile devices running apps that extend the GIS capabilities into the field. Organisations are now starting to realise significant operational efficiencies and improvements in customer service through the dynamic real-time operations that this new approach enables.
Improving a mobile working strategy
Housing providers face a variety of challenges and, as a result, require efficient operations to manage costs, ensure a rapid response to any issues and provide exemplary levels of customer service to tenants. A significant contribution to achieving this is to review the strategy for mobile workers as they play a key role in operations.
There are a number of issues that potentially hinder reliable mobile working. For example, housing providers’ staff regularly collect information by hand in the field and then bring paper notes back to the office to be manually transferred into a digital format. However, by the time that data has been input into a system, it’s not uncommon for inaccuracies to have crept in, for the data to already be out-of-date and in some cases, even redundant. This is combined with valuable time being wasted with trips back and forth to the office to record the information, complete administrative tasks and receive the next assignment.
By equipping a mobile workforce undertaking maintenance tasks, inspecting damage, maintaining grounds and responding to tenants’ complaints with mobile devices running GIS apps, they can communicate direct with those that are stationed in the office. This significantly improves data accuracy as information captured in the field can be communicated and analysed in real time without delays and errors in transposition. It also allows field-based workers to receive new assignments based on their geographic location, while remaining out in the field, minimising response time and maximising efficiency.
Gaining operational efficiencies
Maintenance tasks, issues and customer complaints are all accessible through the GIS platform, making them available for internal and external teams to access. Direct communication with field-based workers provides operations managers with an almost real-time picture of what’s going on, what the priorities are and any new issues that may arise, allowing them to become more agile, to make more informed decisions and to adapt forward planning. New assignments can be quickly and easily assigned to the nearest field teams based on their skill and location to provide optimal efficiencies.
It’s even possible to predict the future and plan maintenance projects before issues arise. For example, by looking at a collection of properties that all share the same problem, such as flood damage, broken roof tiles or single-glazed windows needing to be replaced, a housing provider can create economies of scale, allowing it to address a range of issues in a given area at speed.
Enhancing internal and external communication through apps
Housing providers can now develop mobile applications that their tenants can use to report any issues direct to the office through an app installed on a mobile device, dramatically improving response times. If a housing provider has existing data about housing stock and resident details, they can easily publish a native mobile app to iOS and Android with very minimal software development. This cuts out time wasted on the more conventional methods of registering complaints and requests through traditional phone calls and sometimes even via post.
Until fairly recently, it would have taken a substantial amount of software development to deploy a mobile app interface to a GIS system. However, it can now be done conveniently and quickly using core technology within the Esri ArcGIS platform, which includes a range of configurable out-of-the-box mobile apps native to the main mobile platforms.
One source of truth
GIS is often talked about as the system of record. It’s the one authoritative ‘source of truth’, providing data about the assets of that organisation, and can be used to make information intuitively available to whoever needs it, wherever they need it. For example, asset management can sometimes be problematic because it’s not always easy to determine the boundary lines between council- or housing provider-owned land and those owned by other organisations, meaning that maintenance tasks on boundary lines are either missed or irregularly checked. GIS can not only provide location data about properties and owned land within a boundary, it can also be used to provide centralised access to external data feeds that may affect them such as the environment, including information on the weather or infrastructure.
One of the biggest benefits of having ‘one source of truth’ is the ability to share this information, making it available to others in the organisation at the point they need it most, whether that’s the customer service team dealing with a boundary enquiry, the operations team assessing the scale of a maintenance project, or a field worker needing to know the previous history of a project or location information on a property by accessing the GIS platform via a mobile app on the go.
GIS in action
Sovereign Housing manages and maintains more than 38,000 homes across the south and south-west of England. Already one of the UK’s largest housing associations, the organisation aims to grow to 50,000 homes by 2018 to help address the critical shortage of affordable property in those parts of the country. However, it is often difficult to identify suitable development sites that will pass the scrutiny of planning authorities, so Sovereign has to be able to work closely with local councils to facilitate its growth plans.
Sovereign had been using GIS to manage spatial data for some time, but it took the strategic decision to exploit the analytical capabilities of Esri’s ArcGIS extensively across the organisation, and aimed to train 500 employees by last summer. With help from Esri UK, it built a centralised GIS-based app to deliver accurate information to all employees about properties, assets, land and residents. The enterprise-wide use of ArcGIS has transformed the way in which employees work and has begun to deliver long-term benefits for the organisation.
Sovereign Housing uses ArcGIS as a system of record to conduct analysis and gain a deeper insight into business issues and tenants’ needs. For instance, the company collected data on the incomes and living costs of its tenants, at all of its different locations, to assess the impact that the government’s new ‘benefits cap’ would have on tenants over a period of 5-10 years. They were then able to draw conclusions from the data and identify where and when different types of households would start to struggle, helping them to respond accordingly.
It has also allowed them to successfully identify and qualify development opportunities using ArcGIS Online to share information with councils and start negotiations about mutually-beneficial new housing projects.
Realising the power of location through GIS
The benefits of GIS to housing providers and local authorities are vast. From driving operational efficiency to delivering exceptional customer service, and from improving underlying data quality to empowering a mobile workforce, GIS has become a prominent force in many organisations and will continue to become a fundamental part of core business operations.
Simon Weaver is an analytics programme manager at Esri UK.