Coronavirus has turned everything we take for granted upside down. Time-travellers from a year ago would take one look at the headlines and believe they had landed in the middle of a dystopian novel.
For the most vulnerable people in society who already had more than their fair share of problems such as health conditions, financial hardship and loneliness, these difficulties have multiplied in the face of the global crisis. To keep people safe in their homes, housing staff have had to go above and beyond to deliver vital emergency services.
Technology had already started to play a vital role in helping housing providers tackle the challenges of a pre-pandemic world, and organisations have witnessed the positive impact of emerging innovations that can bolster the safety and wellbeing of residents.
Predicting areas of need
The housing sector is increasingly plugging the gap in support services as residents find themselves battling poverty and getting used to large scale welfare reform.
In the current climate, the challenges have become even more deeply entrenched. Before Covid-19 cast its long shadow over the nation, technology had started to offer the housing sector a means to support residents and communities more effectively.
For example, predictive analytics can provide better intelligence and enhance the understanding of customers’ needs as Neil Pollitt, assistant director of business intelligence and insight, First Choice Homes Oldham, explained, “We’re aiming to create a 360-degree view of the customer which enables us to identify difficulties they may be facing. We can spot the signs of financial stress, for instance, through arrears data, cash collections and cancelled direct debits.”
Knowing more about their customers will enable housing providers to step in with practical support, whether that’s advice on financial planning to manage rent payments or helping people to get their CV up to speed so they can find work.
Housing organisations with good quality customer data will also be better placed to anticipate which people are most likely to need a helping hand during times of crisis.
Engaging residents & communities
We have seen IT emerge as a force for good in these extraordinary times. Video conferencing and social platforms have helped us to stay in touch with loved ones, kept our children’s education on track and enabled us to work from home.
Our lockdown experience has shown that maintaining a dialogue has never been so important. Before Covid-19 changed our outlook on the world, housing organisations were already using digital communication channels to strengthen links with individuals and communities.
Shaun Aldis, chief executive at Wolverhampton Homes has been harnessing the power of social channels to engage with people on a wider scale. He said, “We held ‘get together’ events three times a year for members of the local community, which draw up to a hundred people or so. We broadcast these events live via Facebook; those watching at home are invited to post comments and questions, and I will repeat their question to the audience in the room and give them instant answers.
“It is incredibly interactive, and we have found that thousands of people will engage with us through Facebook, helping us to reach a wider audience.”
The important thing to remember here is that successful customer engagement is achieved with the right blend of interactive technology and the human touch.
John Paul, director of IT, Anchor Hanover said, “You can achieve positive community engagement through Facebook, for example, but there still has to be a person at the end of the social media channel.”
Keeping people safe in their homes
Technology is also instrumental in enabling the housing sector to support the UK’s ageing population, and there’s an urgent need for providers to help keep elderly people in their homes for longer, where they can manage their health conditions and live independent lives.
Artificial intelligence has the potential to transform the way housing providers monitor the health, safety and wellbeing of their oldest residents. For example, AI built into the fabric of a property can help to prevent accidents from happening and reduce the need to move people away from their homes and neighbourhoods.
Joe Logan, chief executive, Tai Calon Community Housing, said, “Elderly people live happier lives in familiar surroundings so if we can develop homes which can be fitted with pressure pads, movement sensors and alarms, people can stay in their homes for longer.
“We’re starting to see examples of this, such as intelligent showers which regulate the temperature of water so people can’t scald themselves.”
The need to ensure a safe living environment has taken on an even greater degree of urgency in recent months. Elderly citizens have been hit particularly hard by Covid-19, and social distancing has prevented relatives and friends from visiting. In this example, the use of AI could be stepped up to keep injuries and accidents at bay.
Early warning system
Similarly, smart devices around the home can provide a lifeline for elderly and vulnerable tenants. For instance, housing providers are increasingly calling on IoT to monitor how a resident is using their household appliances to identify any changes in their daily routine. Providers can then spot unusual patterns, such as a resident not boiling their kettle for 12 hours when they usually have five cups of tea a day.
Paddy Gray OBE, professor of housing at Ulster University and non-executive director of Wheatley Group, recognises the importance of equipping properties with IoT-enabled devices. He said, “Sensors can already reveal how many times the fridge door has been opened today and draw attention to any unusual behaviour which might indicate all is not well. Appropriate action can then be taken to address any issues.”
In our times of social distancing and restricted movement, it has become all the more important to be able to keep a virtual eye on people who are at risk and ensure that they are safe and well.
There is enormous potential for technologies such as digital communications, AI and IoT to transform the way housing providers support their most vulnerable residents and relieve some of the pressures the housing sector faces.
The experiences of recent months serve to confirm that for the housing sector, technology should be at the core of an organisation’s strategy, helping to address critical short-term needs and turning the longer-term vision of smarter, safer homes into a reality.
For more information, please have a look at Northgate Public Services’ white paper, ‘A smart, safe and sustainable future’ (northgateps.com/housingwhitepaper) which explores the views of housing providers and thought-leaders on emerging technology in housing.
Roger Birkinshaw is the housing director at Northgate Public Services.