Chris Deery, head of housing IT at Solihull Community Housing, and Stewart Davison, head of business development for Capita’s software services, consider how the internet of things will change social housing over the next few years.
The why – Looking at IoT’s benefits and its business case
When I think about smart homes, the first thing that pops into my head is Tony Stark’s impressive mansion in the Iron Man films. As well as having all of the smart home basics, such as automated lighting and temperature control, voice control and automatic doors, the entire system is all tied wirelessly back into Stark’s artificial-intelligence supercomputer, Jarvis. The technology behind this linking together of devices, the internet of things (IoT), is believed by many to be only about 18 months away from being commonplace. But are smart homes only a play thing for the rich or is the technology becoming affordable for the field of social housing? Is this science fiction or is it about to become science fact?
We’ve all probably seen the British Gas adverts for their Hive product that allows customers to control their heating from a smartphone, and there are smoke detectors on the market that are another good example of what makes the internet of things exciting. It’s a normal product that you’d barely ever think about, which just gets smarter when you put a chip in it. It isn’t a spectacular product but it’s a very dependable one, and installing one in your house will make you feel ever so slightly more at ease. For example, pairing the smoke detector up with a thermostat and/or boiler will mean that your boiler can be automatically shut off in case of a fire.
I’m sure that some tenants would love a smart house with automatic lights and thermostats they could control from their smartphones. But in reality, is there a sound business case that would allow housing providers to consider installing smart technology in a social housing context?
I would like to take a couple of examples of how this technology might be used and explore how it could generate savings for housing providers. It is worth noting that the initial cost of smart technology and IoT devices is unlikely to have an immediate or short-term return on investment; business cases should probably be evaluated over a 10-year period, but if you take a longer-term view of the proposals, it’s possible to see substantial savings and improvements in the quality of services provided to tenants.
Let’s take gas safety work. At the moment, everyone in the housing sector needs to have a gas safety certificate for every property with a gas supply. In our case, Solihull Community Housing has around 10,000 properties but not all have a gas supply so that represents about 8,000 gas certificates. Like most housing providers, we don’t wait until the twelfth month to send out an engineer to carry out a safety check, so we generate a new gas safety job for each property about once every 10 months. We spend about £25,000 a year on this process alone. In some rare cases, the tenant cannot or will not allow us access to their property so we also have a dozen or so cases every year where we spend about £700 each on legal costs to gain access to the tenant’s home.
Now imagine a situation where we could get a gas safety certificate without ever needing to visit a tenant’s home. Sensors can be installed in a property to detect even the smallest amount of carbon monoxide or methane. Worcester Bosch smart boilers can diagnose early signs of faults and breakdowns and send information to warn the landlord of a problem long before the tenant knows there is a problem. This would mean that rather than testing the safety of a gas installation every 10 months or so, we could test its safety every hour. You might say that, as well as doing the safety checks, we also need to service the boiler and so someone still needs to visit the property, but there is evidence to suggest that the time when a boiler is most likely to break down is actually just after it’s been serviced. This suggests that servicing a boiler, rather than reducing the likelihood that it will break down, actually increases the chances of a failure.
There are lots of situations like gas servicing in social housing, where we send out an operative in a van, that could be reduced if we had smart humidity sensors in our properties. This could include reducing damp and mould problems, which, in our case, costs around £150,000 a year in monitoring and repairs.
Another non-repairs related example is noise-nuisance ASB cases, of which we have around 300 each year. Each case can take between two days and three weeks to investigate. It can be very distressing for the victim and very expensive for us. Imagine if every property had a sensor that could measure the level of noise within it. When a tenant living in a block of flats calls to complain that his neighbour was playing loud music late at night, the contact centre could access the sonic data and see not only the noise level but also exactly when the music started and when it ended. In addition, you would know not only the noise level in the property of the person playing the music but also the noise that could be heard in the flats on either side, above and below. An ASB case could be dealt with in minutes, even when the complainant wasn’t entirely sure where the noise was coming from. In Solihull, we could save up to £36,000 per year if we had these sorts of sensors in our properties.
It seems to me that the key question at this point is, can we purchase smart sensors that can detect noise levels, carbon monoxide, dust, humidity, methane and vibrations at an affordable price? Stewart Davison from Capita has been looking at this question.
The how: the technology behind IoT and making it a reality
The technology surrounding IoT can be confusing. Do you look at devices with open standards or do you choose a more ‘closed loop’ environment to mitigate any security issues. What do you want to focus on – the property, with smarter asset management, the person, with sheltered and extra care, or a blend of both? How then to find an IoT solution with the technology that ‘fits’ with the reality of social housing?
As a software supplier, you would expect Capita to focus more on how the data produced by IoT sensors could be used within systems such as housing, asset and contractor management, and we have been doing exactly that, looking at the operational processes Chris mentioned earlier.
Initially though, our focus was on the hardware and physical infrastructure associated with a stable and effective IoT offering and how they could be delivered as a commercial package. Some of the areas we looked at included the ease of deploying sensor packages, the security of data transmissions and wi-fi vs. GSM, what sensors to include in the package, and how to create a cost effective solution for an emerging technology that has the capability to grow.
We have spent the past two years looking at these areas in conjunction with Solihull Community Housing running a proof-of-concept to test IoT in a live housing environment.
Any IoT solution needing to be deployed across potentially tens of thousands of properties must be easy to install. It needs to have the capability of being installed either in a fixed-wire capacity or in a more portable way, using a property’s power supply or an internal battery, and it shouldn’t need any specialist skills, instead being installed by a standard electrician.
Security and IoT go hand in hand, so while we have started on fairly innocuous applications of sensors, focusing on the property sensors, we needed to consider future additions, such as energy and utilities consumption. The solution we used had a three-tiered approach to security with the individual sensor sending its data in an encrypted format. This encryption is then used at each step of the transmission process, severely limiting the opportunity to intercept the data and use it maliciously.
Fixed broadband in social housing is still far behind the average in the UK and may even drop as the ubiquitous nature of smartphones and mobile broadband speeds increase in popularity. Therefore any IoT solution that requires either fixed broadband or wi-fi installation could be limited in its ability to be effectively deployed. As a result, the solution we chose uses GSM, which has near universal coverage across the UK.
Focusing on applying IoT specifically to properties, and always with simplicity in mind, led us to select a 5-in-1 sensor device that included temperature, humidity, acoustics, smoke and carbon monoxide detection. The device can report tampering, faults, receive software updates and even carry out some self-diagnosis and fault fixing. The housing itself is innocuous, looking no different from typical smoke and carbon monoxide detection units.
This package enabled a successful proof of concept to be established, which in turn is allowing us to carry out more research to establish return on investment information for housing providers considering IoT programmes.
The costs involved are realistic and the work being done by organisations such as Two Castles Housing and Solihull Community Housing is enabling clearer RoIs and demonstrating that IoT has a real place in social housing.
And if it’s good enough for Iron Man, it’s good enough for us.
Chris Deery is head of housing IT at Solihull Community Housing, and Stewart Davison is head of business development for Capita’s software services.