Housing Technology talked to Dave Clements, head of ICT and office services at Freebridge Community Housing at EACS’ OptimiseIT event in February.
First of all, tell us about Freebridge and your ICT infrastructure.
Freebridge Community Housing started in April 2006 as part of a large-scale voluntary transfer from the local council (King’s Lynn and West Norfolk). We have a portfolio of 7000 dwelling and 2500 domestic garages. My role is to run the ICT department and office services team, comprising five people at our headquarters. In terms of our ICT infrastructure, we have 25 servers, Exchange 2003, voice over IP, 160 ICT users across five sites, a Mitel 3300 PBX, 220 lines, 130 of which are community alarm lines in tenants’ homes, and 30 people with smartphones.
What about your business applications?
We’re running the OPENSystems housing management system and OPENFinancials from IBS as our core business applications. We have had them since 1999, having inherited it pre-stock transfer on version three and we are now on version six.
How does your ICT department fit in with the rest of Freebridge?
We’re completely integrated with all our users as our main offices are open plan. This is great as I don’t want the ICT team to be perceived as a bunch of geeks locked away somewhere. People can contact us by email, telephone, self-service web portal or simply come and see us; that’s our preferred option as they’re in the same building as us.
What is your long-term technology strategy?
Our present strategy was written around the time of the stock transfer, focussing on getting all the systems set up. It’s now two years’ old so this summer I will presenting a revised strategy to the board. The key areas will be virtualisation, electronic document management, Microsoft’s unified communications and substantially reducing our telephony costs. GIS is on our radar, and although we’re not actively pursuing it yet, we are thinking about how GIS could be integrated with OPENHousing.
Will thin-clients follow virtualisation?
We don’t have any thin clients yet, but if we do virtualise our servers then I would also be very interested in matching it with a virtualised desktop infrastructure. Our three-year rolling desktop replacement programme means that next year we could put in BDIs instead of new desktops.
How are you affected by regulations and ‘green compliance’?
Regulations and legislative requirements haven’t had much effect on us, at least from an ICT perspective. But like all housing organisations, Freebridge does need to address the green question and this is one of the reasons for our virtualisation plans as we should be to reduce our 25 servers to just four or five.
How do you compare Freebridge with other housing associations?
Rather than set up a formal benchmarking process, I’ve started a forum for ICT managers at other local housing associations. It’s just Norfolk-based at the moment, comprising Flagship Housing Group, Circle Anglia, North Norfolk Housing Trust and Saffron. We get together informally, chat about what we’re doing, compare notes and discuss challenges. Not surprisingly, we’re all looking into virtualisation, in fact one of the group is doing it right now, and moaning about our telco providers.
Do technology vendors understand the market?
I think this is very important. When I started in the sector many years ago, it was difficult to deal with many of the technology companies as they didn’t understand social housing. That’s changing, and the vendors are now recognising both the size of the market and its unique characteristics.
What stops you doing your job?
Budget is more of an issue now. We spent considerably during the stock transfer as it was effectively a greenfield site, whereas we now need to be more innovative in our technology decisions. That said, budgets are going up but only in line with rent increases.
How has the role of IT changed over the years?
Well, having spent 17 years in this sector, the biggest overall change is that the IT team’s role is now to provide the necessary applications and services to enable the end-users to do their jobs, whereas in the past our role was to look after the users’ data and run the systems for them. For example, I don’t need to know how to process a late rent payment, I simply need to make sure that the right application is available to that particular team or member of staff.
What keeps you awake at night?
We are fairly pragmatic. I sometimes think about the risks we might have taken during a particular upgrade or migration but we are always careful to assess those risks first. We have a good disaster recovery strategy as I think it’s less about being recognised for the things you do well and more about how you cope when things go wrong.