Housing Technology interviewed IT experts from 1st Touch, Clearview, DXW, Mobysoft and Zonr on smart technologies/metering, the internet of things, connected homes, and big data in social housing.
Smart metering, the internet of things (IoT), connected homes and big data are at the cutting edge of technology in the social housing sector. While only a few housing providers are actively progressing pilot projects in these areas at the moment, we’re confident that these related technologies will enter the mainstream within the next year or so. As things stand now, while each of these four areas can be run as standalone projects, we’ve grouped them together in this article because their combined benefits are so much greater than the sum of their parts.
Looking at big data and how housing providers could take advantage of it, Mobysoft’s CEO, Derek Steele, said, “All the technology and applications being used by housing providers are creating huge amounts of data. The most successful will be those that can join up the dots by intelligently mining and then analysing the data to spot trends and then using predictive technology to forecast macro and micro patterns and behaviours.”
Greg Johns, the CEO of 1st Touch, added, “By using big data in a smart way, housing providers can stream data from multiple sources, (such as sensors, tenant portals, field workers, call centres and IoT devices like traffic systems) to record, report and request tasks, actions and activities in an automated way. For example, using big data to develop patterns of behaviour with vulnerable tenants; this allows carers to understand whether they are at risk of going into arrears or at risk physically and/or mentally. It can also identify whether there are assets in the property which are lower cost to maintain, so that better purchasing decisions can be made.”
Smart technologies and metering, connected homes and the internet of things will provide an avalanche of data for power housing providers’ big data applications and services. However, a key factor will be deciding what data to collect (and how often) and which data to avoid as simply unnecessary ‘noise’.
Zonr’s CEO, Robert Dent, said, “While smart metering can help reduce costs by delivering information to the tenant around energy usage, sensor technology, which measures and monitors room temperatures and humidity, will deliver significant benefits to the housing provider as well. It does this by providing dynamic data about the state of the property and assets within the property such as boilers. This information can be used to significantly drive efficiencies and also to highlight or head off any potential problems.
“Data collected using IoT devices can be finely analysed to provide meaningful intelligence for both a housing provider and its tenants. Smart appliances, meters and sensor technology will all combine to present a complete picture of the state of each property, enabling the housing provider to make better decisions about repairs or replacing assets. And where homes are connected via the internet to a housing provider’s back-office systems, the data collected from the sensors will be automatically processed and analysed, updating the in-house systems without human intervention. This could be used to automatically schedule a repair call, a visit from a housing officer or investigation of other services.”
Benefits to tenants
Commenting on some of the advantages to tenants, Mark Hobart, the managing director of Clearview, said, “If the big data generated by this explosion in data sources is processed and analysed effectively to deliver relevant insight, then housing providers will be able to deliver much better services that tenants see as having greater value because they will be tailored to their specific needs, such as a boiler repair man turning up to fix the boiler just before it breaks.”
Mobysoft’s Steele said, “Organisations that use data intelligently can properly profile tenants and predict behavioural patterns so that all tenants can be provided with the necessary support at the right times throughout their tenancies. When tenants are supported in this way, we’ve found that overall arrears decline, as do evictions.”
Johns from 1st Touch added, “Smart sensors and meters enable tenants to see tasks raised automatically so that issues can be resolved earlier and they can also help to cut their energy bills by up to 30 per cent. At the same time, IoT allows tenants to control the devices in their homes remotely, so they can organise their lives in a more structured way, while also acting as a guardian service for vulnerable tenants.”
Advantages for housing providers
As mentioned above, smart metering, IoT and connected homes act as prolific data sources for big data applications which in turn transform that data into business intelligence. This can then be used to streamline housing providers’ operations and as the basis for better decision-making, often using automated workflows to reduce the need for human intervention.
Clearview’s Hobart said, “If a housing provider puts in place the framework and tools to be data-led in all of its operations, the potential opportunities for service improvements and efficiencies are very significant. Big data, when used effectively, opens the door to predictive analytics giving foresight of potential issues. Imagine being able to predict when the next boiler will break down and take preventative action while you had a repair operative in the area or, in the case of welfare reform, help to identify your next rent default and provide financial support services before the problem arises.”
Looking at how housing providers deal with their tenants, Mobysoft’s Steele said, “One example of big data benefiting housing providers is if they can use the data they hold about their tenants to accurately profile them and predict their behaviour with a greater degree of accuracy, which in turn means they can calculate what resources they will need to support all their tenants. Not only can this deliver huge efficiency savings, but also when new tenants are taken on, they can predict what resources they will need to best support that profile of tenant. The data can also alert organisations when their KPIs move out of set parameters, so they can address issues at the outset to minimise disruption.”
Zonr’s Dent added, “One area not yet mentioned is potential problems around budgeting. One of the single most expensive assets (excluding the actual properties themselves) for housing providers is boiler provision, repair and replacement. If a housing provider can repair and maintain a boiler for longer, then they can more accurately predict their budget for the purchase of new boilers. For example, if the lifetime expectancy of a boiler is ten years, and this is included in the budgeting process, then what happens if the boiler only lasts for eight years? That is enough to cause problems for funding a replacement programme. By using IoT technologies, boilers are likely to be used more effectively and thus enjoy longer lives with less maintenance.
“A second area to consider is the need for sustained tenancies. Every time a property is void, there is a cost to the housing provider in terms of lost rent and repairs. If a property can be better maintained then the incidence of a void is reduced, thereby extending the length of the tenancy.”
When considering how to implement these technologies, either separately or as a combined strategy, 1st Touch’s Johns said, “You have to start with understanding how these technologies will help the housing provider deliver its strategic business plan. For many, the first step is to understand what the technologies can offer and then to ensure that the board supports the assessment of how they could be used across their properties and tenants. The business then has the support it needs to run pilot programmes across specific business areas that deliver quick and easily-identifiable returns.”
Mobysoft’s Steele added, “Big data already exists for many housing providers; the trick is being able to mine that data effectively. When adopting these types of solutions, housing providers should look for ‘enabling’ systems, in that the solution provides the analysis which enables the organisation to take action or amend their processes accordingly. What’s more, it’s important that solutions can provide evidence of a tangible return on investment, otherwise technology investments can cost rather than save money.”
Despite smart metering, IoT, connected homes and big data still be very new ideas for most housing providers, what are the future trends in these areas?
1st Touch’s Johns said, “Collectively, the trend will be around expansion and convergence, with data will be captured from multiple sources. Initially, smart metering, IoT and connected homes will capture information relating to high-value assets in properties, such as boilers, to predict failure levels and diagnose issues. But eventually more of the elements of the property will ‘talk’ to each other, to the housing provider and to the tenant. Not only will they provide data, but they will self-diagnose problems, schedule repairs, and inform the tenants through a variety of channels.”
Zonr’s Dent said, “Business analysts predict that there will be two billion sensors in use around the world by 2020. There doesn’t seem to have been any large-scale deployments so far, but a lot of talk about what could be possible. Systems will evolve over time as more needs are recognised, and soon every social home will be fitted with intelligent time- and cost-saving sensor-based technology.
“The number of connected homes is certain to grow. With over four million social homes in the UK alone, it makes sense to accumulate shared data, acquired by connecting homes to intelligent systems. Putting it another way, data collected from one property doesn’t provide a great deal of benefit for the tenant or the housing provider, but where homes are connected en-masse, big data can be being generated on a scale not previously possible.”
Echoing the need to share and aggregate data on a wider scale, Steele from Mobysoft said, “The next challenge will be for housing providers to take their own big data and aggregate it across the sector so organisations can benchmark their performance in all operations, and then copy best practice to deliver a better service with optimised resources. For example, these might include measurements such as void turn-arounds, the average cost of repairs or the effectiveness of different types of communications to reduce arrears.”
Integration with daily operations
Sounding a note of caution and the need to focus on ‘mainstream’ operations, Harry Metcalfe, the managing director of DXW, said, “These are exciting areas of technological development with great potential to improve housing. But I don’t think they’re the things we should focus on now. Many tenants still don’t have usable online tools to pay their rent and arrange repairs. We have to focus on tenants’ needs first, and those are the things most tenants care about most. Let’s get the bread and butter of housing services working properly, and then think about how big data and the internet of things might fit into the picture.”
For many housing providers, these technologies can and should be integrated with their core business applications. As 1st Touch’s Johns concluded, “Housing providers already have many of the tools needed to make a start on using these technologies. Housing management systems, mobile solutions, document management and CRM systems are in place for many, if not all, housing providers. The key is to connect these together so that they can provide a 360° view of all data and sources of data, linked to business process tools that enable tasks, actions and activities to be automated so that the cashable savings, productivity improvements and service enhancements can actually be realised.”
Housing Technology would like to thank Greg Johns (1st Touch), Mark Hobart (Clearview), Harry Metcalfe (DXW), Derek Steele (Mobysoft) and Robert Dent (Zonr) for their editorial contributions to this article.