Housing Technology interviewed experts on geographic information systems (GIS) from Ancoris, Civica, Northern Ireland Housing Executive, Orbit Group and Orchard Information Systems about how housing providers can use GIS to improve business performance, save money and boost tenant services.
Understanding GIS and mapping
As a brief one-sentence summary of GIS before we cover how it can help housing providers, Steve Ainsworth, managing director for community protection at Civica, said, “A geographic information system (GIS) is a software application that enables a clear visual representation of data on a map, allowing people to easily see, analyse and understand trends to make better business decisions.”
Craig Tither, Orchard Information Systems’ marketing officer, added, “GIS is based on three fundamental components – mapping data, software, and people; one without the other two will not succeed. It’s also important to understand that GIS will only provide useful answers to scenarios if the user has asked the right questions and is then able to analyse and interpret the resulting data in order to understand relationships, patterns and trends.”
GIS examples in housing
The power of GIS is that it can be used for so many areas of housing providers’ operations, from short-term, day-to-day aspects such as ASB and fly-tipping, through to long-term new-build programmes and planned maintenance cycles.
Patrick McGarry, GIS manager for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE), said, “GIS can be used to answer so many questions, such as where are our properties, what land do we own, how do we know which grass to cut, where are the most deprived communities, are there hotspots of ASB in an estate, and are there any viable properties available for a tenant within a five-mile radius of their current home?
“Some operational examples include managing housing stock, maintaining land ownership boundaries, designing new schemes and reporting ASB locations. GIS can also be used to analyse patterns and geographic distributions of data to show, for example, concentrations of void or vacant properties, areas with an above-average elderly or youthful population from the census, locations of utility networks when designing a new scheme, and showing hotspots of house prices.”
Luke Stewart, geo practice manager, Ancoris, said, “GIS can be used by housing providers to visualise all the information they need to manage their property portfolios. It can hold data such as property locations and information about properties or an area in order to drive better decision making, improve staff productivity, and better communicate with tenants. Housing providers can also use GIS to improve operations, and specifically reduce rent arrears, ensure repairs are completed on time, reduce voids and better manage their maintenance programmes.”
Orbit Group’s GIS consultant, Steve Litchfield, added, “Some of the areas that we use GIS for include re-tendering for ground maintenance and resurfacing contracts, property ownership queries, resource management and identifying potential sites for new-build developments.”
Saving money with GIS
While the initial investment in GIS and the associated mapping licences may be relatively high, the consensus is that GIS provides a fast and measurable return on investment, aside from any additional qualitative benefits derived from the use of GIS. For example, one of Ancoris’s housing customers reported that by using GIS to enable them to increase their housing officers’ visits from six to seven per day, they immediately saved up to £70,000 per year in that area alone.
NIHE’s McGarry said, “It really makes sense to invest in a technology [GIS] that shows you where your assets are, enables the overlay of other relevant geographic data, such as census information, deprivation rates and house prices, and has the functionality to analyse that data to produce customised outputs in the form of maps, reports or dashboards. In my experience, the common feedback from staff who now use GIS is that they can’t imagine how they got by before.”
Orchard’s Tither said, “Giving all staff access to GIS leads to greater efficiencies and a more joined-up business through sharing and collaboration. For example, if information about maintenance, rent or repairs is in one place, any member of front-line or customer-service staff can handle tenants’ queries without needing to refer or pass callers between different departments. As another example, you can reduce costs by only maintaining what you own by using GIS to map and visualise ground maintenance areas for more accurate cost analysis and calculation of service charges.”
GIS also offers additional qualitative and quantitative benefits beyond basic mapping and costs savings. Civica’s Ainsworth said, “GIS can add both accuracy and efficiency benefits to otherwise laborious processes. For example, if it’s essential to know which properties are within a conservation area, housing providers can use GIS to create a spatial query, which is much easier and faster than manually cross-referencing property records. Spatial searches can also be combined with text-based searches to allow housing providers to speed up searches of housing records. For example, with GIS you can quickly access data on houses built during a certain year or when they were last inspected, rather than trawling through a mass of paper-based records.”
McGarry from NIHE said, “People like to view information via graphics and maps. Complex data relationships can be shown in an easy-to-understand format via the intelligent use of GIS-based maps and charts. A skilled GIS professional can work with business units and their specific data sources to produce mapping and associated reports that can reveal hidden spatial relationships or highlight an issue that could save time and resources.”
Orbit’s Litchfield said, “Some of the other areas for GIS include stock rationalisation, whereby plotting all properties in a portfolio may highlight remote properties which should be sold off, identifying more efficient ‘patches’ for housing officers, making service charges more transparent and fair, and providing lists of amenities close to a particular location.”
Integration with core applications
GIS and mapping applications need to be closely integrated with housing providers’ existing core business applications, such as housing and finance management systems, mobile and scheduling applications, CRM and other tenant-facing applications.
Stewart from Ancoris said, “Integrating GIS and mapping with housing providers’ core applications is essential. Insights can be gained, especially with regards to financials details and reducing rent arrears. For example, visualising rent arrears from a housing management system and anti-social behavioural patterns from a CRM, combined with demographic data, can give real insights into an area and what is going on.”
Civica’s Ainsworth said, “GIS can be used to plot the location of any record with coordinates on a map. This means that, at the most basic level, GIS can be used to show the distribution of assets just by accessing the housing stock or premises database. Additionally, by integrating the GIS with the housing management system, tenants can raise service requests direct because the software will simultaneously update the housing management or CRM systems as part of the process.
Commenting on the actual integration process, Litchfield from Orbit said, “There are several ways GIS can be integrated, each dependent on the range of in-house skills and resources. Orbit has chosen to integrate its GIS in-house and receives a daily extract from our housing management system which then gets imported into a specific GIS database. This frequency reflects any changes to the existing portfolio the next day and is adequate for our current needs. There are two GIS specialists dealing with administration and data analysis on a desktop GIS, while users across the business can access a web-based GIS via Orbit’s intranet and via mobile devices.”
The use of GIS was previously only really the preserve of highly-trained users, in part due to the complexity of the software itself. Nowadays, most GIS are very user-friendly and don’t require specialist geo/mapping skills. However, depending on how much GIS and mapping are intended to be integrated into housing providers’ operations, dedicated GIS professionals are sometimes needed.
Civica’s Ainsworth said, “Modern web-based GIS require only overview training to gain familiarisation, rather than specialist training. This is mainly because of the trend towards creating an interface that is closer to the common mapping applications, such as Google Maps, which most people use on a daily basis.”
McGarry from NIHE said, “In the past, GIS was regarded as a specialist area that could only be operated by fully-trained staff, using complex desktop products. This is changing with the availability of more accessible and less complex web-based mapping products and more open spatial data sources.
“However, if an organisation needs a fully enterprise-level GIS infrastructure, it needs to invest in GIS professionals who have the experience of using GIS software and data and understand the business requirements of the organisation. A centralised GIS team can produce custom applications that require minimal staff training and can also provide analytical services to the organisation via the more complex desktop solutions.”
Orchard’s Tither added, “In order to benefit from the maximum capability of GIS, well-trained professionals knowledgeable in spatial analysis and skilled in using GIS software are essential to the GIS process. Nevertheless, GIS are continually transforming and, through their evolution, have become increasingly intuitive.
“For our sector, it means that housing providers are no longer restricted by the need to have an in-house GIS expert in order to use GIS and see a return on their investment. A specific example of how developments in GIS are benefiting those in our sector is the growth of self-service GIS. This enables all employees to now view, find and work with the geographic information they require, quickly and easily via a customised portal application that serves as a single point of entry.”
Five years ago, GIS was only being used by the larger and more technologically-advanced housing providers but its ease of use and lower cost has opened up the market to smaller housing providers.
Stewart from Ancoris said, “We see GIS taking two main directions. Large housing providers will continue to use full-blown GIS to help manage and analyse their properties and grounds. However, we expect to see another stream emerge that we call ‘business mapping’; easy-to-use mapping, visualisation and analysis tools that are available to the entire organisation and don’t require specialised training. These tools provide the same high level of insight as traditional GIS, but are much simpler to use and better able to expose, distribute and visualise geographic information.”
Orchard’s Tither said, “GIS provides a platform for more efficient and effective planning and decision making. Not only mapping and visualisation but also modelling, spatial analysis, data management, web services and mobile solutions. The consensus is that GIS will play a greater role in housing as a sophisticated operational and strategic tool. An example of this is evidenced by Orchard’s business partner ESRI’s Drone2Map. The use of this technology will enable the creation of ortho-mosaics, three-dimensional meshes, and more, in ArcGIS from your drone-captured still imagery, in hours rather than days.”
Last word goes to NIHE’s McGarry. He said, “GIS shouldn’t be seen as purely a piece of software. It should be a way of optimising an organisation’s locational data and integrating that with other corporate information management systems. In this context, there are so many more opportunities for GIS in housing in future. Other future benefits include 3-D mapping of planned housing developments/estates, integration with building information modelling (BIM) and visualising geographic data along with data analytic dashboards.”
Housing Technology would like to thank Luke Stewart (Ancoris), Steve Ainsworth (Civica), Patrick McGarry (Northern Ireland Housing Executive), Steve Litchfield (Orbit Group) and Craig Tither (Orchard Information Systems) for their editorial contributions to this article.