How many of our employees and residents have coronavirus or are shielding or isolating? Do we have enough tradespeople to carry out emergency repairs? How many development sites have had to close?
These were just a few of the questions that needed answers from Sovereign’s emergency response team at the start of the pandemic. We needed to provide answers and quickly, but where to start?
Sovereign owns and manages 60,000 homes and has 2,000 employees. Across our operations, we use around 50 different IT systems, not to mention countless spreadsheets. With that in mind, we had to find a way to bring data to the very forefront of maintaining ‘business as usual’ or at least as far as was humanly possible in a pandemic.
Reducing errors & manual interventions
We also knew that we needed to reduce our reliance on people, themselves operating in a time of crisis, having the energy and time to fill in Excel files. Instead, we identified where we could source data direct from our systems; removing manual interventions substantially reduces the risk of errors in the data. That said, there is a time and place for spreadsheets, such as when the data doesn’t already exist and you need a new source quickly, but more on that later.
We first had to decide which information was vital to our pandemic response. Once that was done, we needed a way to present that information in a single, easy-to-use location.
Fortunately, Sovereign always aspires to be a modern, connected business and we already had a strategy for a business-information platform in the pipeline.
There was no time to wait for sign off; the pandemic had brought the need for a platform to centre stage. And so within just five weeks, working with Microsoft’s data warehousing and reporting systems, we pulled together an interactive dashboard for detailed operational reports.
The platform pulled data in from various systems, including Open HR, SDS Sequel and Active H, and then layered it so that we had a 360-degree, real-time view of what was going on. Our executive team and board could therefore make decisions based on what was actually happening right at that moment.
We tracked everything and focused on those activities that mattered most – repurposing trades where needed, speeding up our response to customer complaint hotspots and all the while monitoring the well-being of our people via logon profile data and putting steps in place to encourage healthy ways to work from home.
But, going back to the spreadsheets, what didn’t exist was how to monitor 146 individual processes across the business and how they were being affected by the pandemic.
Back to spreadsheets…
Good old Excel still had its place. A template spreadsheet allowed our heads of different service areas to record their current statuses and what they had planned for four weeks to come. This helped to ensure dependencies from supporting services would be in place to help the recovery of business as usual. Excel provided the source to a set of Power BI-based interactive reports.
The data we produced during the past year has absolutely shaped our response as a business, and the opportunity to trial the BI platform was a perfect proof-of-concept for rolling the platform out on a wider basis.
Meanwhile, our BI strategy was indeed signed off and now we are looking to an exciting future as our colleagues realise the potential of the platform we’ve produced.
More trackable data
Looking ahead, we’ll be able to use the platform for more and more because it’s not only people, homes, income or repairs data that we can track. For example, we also know that we’re responsible for 31,000 trees! And it doesn’t stop with internal data; there’s a wealth of external data that we’re tapping into as well, such as flood risk, crime, demographics and economic factors.
I want to help bring data alive and inspire Sovereign to see the numbers we crunch in a new way, not just as boring flat digits on a page. There’s a real story to be told and decisions to be influenced by how we use data in the future. I want to make things visual; I want everyone to see data in a new way, just as I do.
Audrey Lloyd is the data insights manager at Sovereign Housing.