For six years, the Smartline project has been researching how digital technology can help people live healthier, happier lives. Sensors in 300 social housing properties in Cornwall have been monitoring environmental conditions inside homes, while surveys and questionnaires with customers have been building a richer picture of their lives.
The project is funded by the European Regional Development Fund, and researchers are using the data to explore how indoor environments affect residents’ health and wellbeing, and the potential of this technology for housing and health providers. In this exclusive interview for Housing Technology, Professor Emma Bland from the University of Exeter and Mark England from Coastline Housing reflect on the Smartline project.
How did Smartline come about?
Mark England: We wanted to look at how we could use technology to establish what was going on inside homes and how well those homes are performing. Cornwall has a very mild and damp climate, and like many landlords we have a mixture of new and older housing stock, so we knew that some of our properties had humidity problems and we all know that excess humidity can affect health and wellbeing. We started talking to the University of Exeter about our ideas and that gradually evolved into the Smartline project.
Emma Bland: As a university, our aim was to look at the role of everyday technologies in understanding home environments. We were hoping to inform service provision, particularly for people on lower incomes or living with chronic health conditions.
Were customers worried about being monitored like this?
ME: One of the biggest risks was that customers wouldn’t want us to put the technology in their homes. We had discussions with our customers about whether indoor environmental monitoring was ‘Big Brother’ or something that could help and improve health and wellbeing, and people were positive about it. It’s all been voluntary, and customers have seemed to welcome getting involved in a project that could improve housing.
What have you learned from being involved in the project?
ME: The game-changer for us was once we developed a proper dashboard. To be able to see in an instant which properties are performing best and those where there might be a problem, and then be able to call those customers and have a chat with them or visit them has been really helpful.
Some customers didn’t realise how humid their homes were, some didn’t realise they were over-heating their homes which is costing them more money, and some were under-heating which may have been causing them other health issues. And in asset management terms, if we can keep a healthy environment in a home, that helps to reduce our repairs and maintenance costs.
The dashboards are particularly useful when something changes. For example, if we can see in a particular property that the heating is now off when it’s been used consistently for many years, we know that something has changed in that household so then it’s a quick call or a visit to find out what’s going on and provide support if needed.
EB: Something that’s come through very clearly is the importance of person-to-person engagement. It’s important to understand that the technology primarily allows you to target services more effectively, not remove the need for face-to-face interactions to assess where help and support are really needed.
Technology isn’t the whole answer
EB: One of the things that has arisen from the Smartline project is the wider social context and the challenges people face, particularly when they’re on low incomes, older or more isolated. For example, it can be easy to assume there’s a simple explanation for why people aren’t using technology and therefore an easy solution, but it’s more complicated than that. Technology has a real role to play but we need to be careful not to add to the challenges and inequalities people already face, and use technology intelligently to inform and support services, and not use it to replace person-to-person engagement.
What message do you have for other housing providers?
ME: I see this technology becoming part of ‘business as usual’ in the very near future. The opportunity is there, the technology is coming down in terms of cost and there is a demonstrable return on investment. The technology allows you to pick your priority homes very quickly and start predicting where something is going wrong, such as when the temperatures aren’t quite where they should be and how that could be the first indication of a problem.
The more you look after your housing asset and the customers in them, the better landlord you can be. Your assets should last longer and the health and wellbeing of your customers should be better.
EB: It’s about understanding the breadth and scope of the potential, so when you’re thinking about the costs of installing a sensor network in your homes, understand that it almost certainly has added values across a variety of unexpected areas.
One of the interesting things that’s emerged is that by having this data, Coastline Housing has been able to intervene earlier, which means their staff are dealing with people who have a problem rather than a crisis, and that in turn reduces staff stress and pressure. So it has value at different levels and recognising that is possibly one of the wider implementation challenges.
What is the future potential for this technology?
ME: From a housing provider’s perspective, there’s a lot of value in using sensors before doing any decarbonisation improvements on a home to show us how well the property performed before and after, and allowing us to benchmark against other homes that have had similar work.
With the transition to sustainable heating systems, our customers can’t always adjust to those systems immediately so they sometimes need a bit more support. The technology will help housing providers check that their systems are performing the way that they were designed to. If you can’t see into a property and if you can’t see the data, then you won’t know the customer’s not using the system quite right and inadvertently costing themselves lots of money.
EB: As well as the climate agenda, we see real potential for working more closely with health services. For example, can we use this technology to help get people home from hospital earlier or help them stay at home for longer and prevent conditions deteriorating? That requires different services to work more closely together so we’re working with the health services and with the voluntary sector to see how this kind of technology could be used. There’s lots of potential and we’re keen to take the lessons from Smartline further.
Professor Emma Bland is the associate professor of practice in the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter Medical School. Mark England is the head of innovation, maintenance and group procurement at Coastline Housing.