Geographic Information System (GIS) technology has been transforming how we do things here at Sovereign Housing over the past four years, bringing data to life and influencing our future strategy as well as our day-to-day work.
Following a recent merger with Spectrum Housing Group, we’re now one of the largest housing providers in the country with over 56,000 homes. The merger was based on growing within a core geography and generating economies of scale, with significant savings to put back into building more much-needed affordable homes.
GIS informed the merger planning and is now helping us shape our future strategy. And, as we bring the business together, it’s also giving us insights in to how we can work more effectively and provide an even better customer experience to our 130,000 residents.
An ambitious strategy
Sovereign’s journey with GIS started in 2013 when our executive board agreed to develop a sector-leading GIS system. In April 2015, we deployed SEMS (Sovereign Electronic Mapping System) to over 500 employees. Today, all 1,800 staff can access and use the system to support their work.
It’s really embedded the role of location into how the business thinks and acts. The system helps employees across the business see where all our properties are, every parcel of land we own and every piece of land we maintain. We’ve even logged every tree we’re responsible for.
When the merger between Spectrum and Sovereign was being considered, location was a key driver in the benefits case. Across the housing sector, organisations are looking for ways to be more effective and both organisations knew that a combined geography would help them to create a more efficient service delivery. We used SEMS to map out the operating areas so that we could see what the combined organisation would look like; this really helped to show the geographic correlation.
The merger was completed in November 2016 and our GIS team started work on plans to extend SEMS to include the extra 17,000 homes and over 5,000 land titles from Spectrum.
We knew SEMS could be an incredibly important tool to support the new business, but time was a factor. While we wanted to rapidly extend our existing system, we also needed to focus on what we could deliver in the first few months.
Just three months after the merger, we had combined the majority of the critical GIS data in the system while supporting senior managers as they made decisions about our operating area and how to best define new divisions within it.
The team then trained around 150 new employees to inform our day-to-day operations. Alice Rhodes, our GIS analyst who built SEMS and led the post-merger rollout, saw the reaction from employees when they used the system for the first time. She said, “When our colleagues use the system, they immediately see how it can help them in their roles. By having access to SEMS, they can confidently answer questions about our land and properties, which ultimately helps them deliver a better, more efficient service to our residents.”
SEMS’ four core benefits
Enabling employees: Following SEMS training, feedback has been fantastic. Colleagues immediately see how it benefits them and their customers. Using SEMS, any employee can see all of Sovereign’s properties, land assets and grounds maintenance responsibilities. This helps them to deal with customer questions quickly, and often at first point of contact, with the confidence that the information is accurate.
Understanding our customers: By understanding the role of geography, we can better understand our customers and target our work. For managers, SEMS is being used to optimise our ‘patches’, which means less time travelling and more time working with customers. It’s also used to visualise data on our residents. We’ve been working with our communities’ teams to map key customer information such as deprivation, arrears and benefit dependency to identify our priority neighbourhoods. Meanwhile, we’ve also worked with the communications team to map digital opportunities for new online services.
Managing assets: We own and manage over 56,000 homes and are responsible for over 10,000 titles of land – the equivalent of a medium-sized town. With such a large stockholding, it’s key that good systems are used to help manage those assets. That’s one of the biggest benefits of SEMS, helping us understand our assets and liabilities and to plan effectively for the future. With a variety of homes of different ages and varying forward maintenance plans, we needed a data-driven approach to prioritise sites for redevelopment.
As well as viewing all assets across the new organisation, SEMS has also been used to share land data from key partners, such as local authorities.
Strategic research: Following the merger, we need a new strategy for the new Sovereign. We’re undertaking ten research projects to better understand our customers and the operating environment, which will help steer the business in the coming years. SEMS has enabled the strategy team to use location as a key factor to support some of this research. SEMS has been helping us look at how our customers’ affordability challenges vary across our operating area by comparing incomes, our rent charges and the cost of living. The research has revealed which areas are the most and least affordable for customers.
In November 2016, the government’s latest benefit cap came into effect and we used SEMS to predict which local authorities were most likely to be affected. Maps helped raise awareness of these challenges and shaped our response.
Using SEMS means we can understand our customers in a new way, and presenting our research on maps also really captures the audience’s attention and gets the message across quickly.
GIS is at the heart of what we do
We set ourselves the target of building a sector-leading GIS system. I think we’ve come a long way, with SEMS shaping Sovereign’s growth as well as adding huge value across the business every day. It’s allowing us to share knowledge across teams, break down silos and helping us make better decisions. And its uses continue to grow as the business finds new ways to visualise and use data.
The role of the location and use of GIS technology has become embedded in so much of Sovereign’s activities, and this is largely thanks to our approach of creating our own enterprise GIS; it’s a system that quickly pays for itself.
I’d suggest any housing provider without an enterprise GIS takes a good look at what it can do for them; for us, it’s now an absolutely essential part of our business thinking.
Andrew Bradley is a strategic insight manager at Sovereign Housing.