Housing Technology interviewed experts on the internet of things (IoT) from BT Enterprise, Comms365, iOpt, Northgate Public Services and Shaw Consulting on the ways in which IoT could help housing providers and their tenants, how to go about introducing an IoT programme and deriving useful data from it, and dealing with a plethora of different IoT devices.
Relevance to housing
Commenting on the relevance of IoT to housing providers’ overall operations, Comms365’s head of IoT, Nick Sacke, said, “From improving day-to-day property management and the wellbeing of tenants, to enhancing the safety and security of both, IoT offers substantial benefits. And as demand for social housing continues to grow and greater operational efficiencies are sought, IoT could a ‘secret weapon’ in housing providers’ arsenals.”
BT Enterprise’s IoT consultant, Mark Frost, added, “At a headline level, IoT will help housing providers increase their operational efficiencies while reducing costs. IoT will also help to ensure more consistent regulatory compliance for the social housing sector while reducing complexity and costs.”
Scaling IoT for growth
During the past few years, Housing Technology has reported on numerous pilot projects involving IoT devices and analytics but there have been few, if any, large IoT projects so far.
iOpt’s founder and managing director, Dane Ralston, said, “In terms of larger IoT projects in the housing sector, I believe things will change very soon. The reason is that while the technology has been around for a while, the costs have been such that a scaled roll-out of IoT pilot projects hasn’t been feasible. New technologies, such as LoRaWAN, have now made this much more viable.
“For example, by working with forward-thinking organisations such as Places for People, Leeds City Council and Renfrewshire Council, we’ve built business cases that show our IoT technology provides a good return on investment. As a result, we expect to see scaled up projects in the near future.”
Northgate Public Services’ housing director, Roger Birkinshaw, said, “The IoT trailblazers have been few and far between and one of the reasons for this is the lack of standardisation. If a housing provider has 60,000 appliances, all of the same age, make and model, large-scale pilots are much easier to manage and will be more likely to happen.
“The commercial sector is currently leading the way in getting consumer buy-in and once the right infrastructure is more widely available, housing providers will be encouraged to join the party. But we’re still talking about a five to 10-year timescale before IoT becomes more mainstream in social housing.”
Shaw Consulting’s managing director, Chris Shaw, said, “The challenge to date has been that many of the IoT solutions have been built to solve a specific issue by suppliers who provide the sensor, the hub and the management platform – rather like the Betamax and VHS video-wars in the 1980s. At the same time, the pilot IoT projects have usually been started by a specific team in the business and have rarely considered the wider enterprise nature of IoT and how it could change the operational practices of the entire organisation.”
Benefits to housing providers
In terms of the likely benefits to housing providers and therefore the reasons to consider IoT, BT Enterprise’s Frost said, “At a strategic level, IoT needs to be viewed as a long-term investment by key stakeholders for the business case to stack up. By adopting IoT as part of their overall business and technology strategy, housing providers can use the efficiencies and cost savings derived from IoT elsewhere in their operations.”
iOpt’s Ralston said, “IoT helps housing providers protect their tenants’ health, their assets and themselves through remote, real-time monitoring of their properties. This predictive maintenance identifies tenants vulnerable to fuel poverty and health problems, enabling housing providers to deal with potential problems before they really take hold, significantly cutting down on the amount of time spent on repairs and property visits.”
Chris Shaw from Shaw Consulting’s added, “IoT gives housing providers an opportunity to gain greater insights into the performance and reliability of their assets, with those insights then used to inform future investment decisions and their long-term maintenance and repair cycles. And as well as the long-term benefits, IoT can help with day-to-day operations such as augmented reality for field-based workers, better customer services, and remote sensing for specific properties.”
Benefits to tenants
Comms365’s Sacke said, “Inside properties, IoT can help with the early identification of rises in carbon dioxide, risk of damp and heating problems. In communal areas, IoT devices can alert to incorrect parking across emergency exits, bin fill levels, lighting loss etc. In summary, IoT provides overall improvements to tenants’ homes as well as to the quality of their domestic lives.”
Northgate’s Birkinshaw said, “IoT can help tenants’ budgets go further by enabling homes to be run more efficiently by spotting and rectifying damp or cold spots, setting thermostats to optimise heating costs and ensuring boilers are running economically. At the same time, wellbeing checks monitoring the routines of vulnerable or elderly tenants could be done by tracking water and electricity usage as well as movement in the property.”
BT Enterprise’s Frost added, “Improved asset management will ultimately provide better living environments for tenants as well as faster responses to property-related issues affecting tenants’ daily lives and wellbeing. While most of the initial IoT use cases for housing providers will be focused on asset management in the properties themselves, tenant-focused activities should follow soon after.”
Starting out with IoT
When thinking about how housing providers could go about adopting some form of IoT deployment, iOpt’s Ralston said, “Don’t overcomplicate it – our advice is to keep it simple to start with, go for the low-hanging fruit and ‘bank’ those benefits. There’s no need to roll out a massive project in one go; get people working with it and they will then begin to understand the role IoT can play and its benefits. After that, you can develop more sophisticated systems that create more strategic value.”
Comms365’s Sacke said, “Like most technology-related projects, an IoT programme should follow a staged process model, with emphasis on talking to other housing providers about their experiences with this relatively new technology, assigning a project leader as the ‘lynch-pin’ for all stakeholders, prioritising the plethora of potential IoT use cases and their related suppliers, opting for a phased deployment with full audit trails and actively involving some of interest and/or involved tenants.”
Northgate’s Birkinshaw said, “A good starting point would be to make it a contractual obligation within the tenders for all new builds for the developers to put IoT into the fabric of the buildings, and appliances could be chosen with IoT devices such as heat sensors already installed. But it’s vital that these appliances also have the capability to provide diagnostic information on their performance and live data feeds installed at source.”
IoT, data mining and predictive analytics
In many cases, housing providers testing IoT deployments have made a rough distinction between using IoT-based data for monitoring specific properties versus using it for larger-scale data-mining and predictive analytics applications. Comms365’s Sacke explained, “The first is a precursor to the second. The greater the volume of data harvested from individual properties, the more trending and predictive analysis can be done based on data, leading to enhanced accuracy and new ways of viewing that data.”
BT Enterprise’s Frost said, “IoT data from an individual property is important for managing standalone properties, but it’s also be possible to use the same data as a subset of a larger pool of data for large-scale data mining and predictive analytics. A possible use of the larger data sets is to identify common and recurring issues across the housing assets that could be addressed in a proactive and predictive manner.”
Chris Shaw said, “The key reasons for deploying IoT devices is to collect data and then, based on a combination of rules, thresholds and trends, do something about it. Most of the IoT devices and platforms work on the basis of ‘if this, then that’ (IFTTT), that is to say, if the data tells me this then do something about it. Different systems and platforms will have different degrees of automation; some will use a basic setup of rules and thresholds whereas others will encompass AI and machine learning for increased automation.”
So many devices, so little time…
The growth in IoT means that most housing providers will have to deal with the consequences of having a multitude of different IoT devices in each property, each from different suppliers for different IoT applications, leading to monitoring, reporting and analytical headaches. However, there seems to be a consensus that IoT and machine-to-machine (M2M) standards will alleviate some of those difficulties (sound familiar?).
BT Enterprise’s Frost said, “As long as common standards are adopted, the interoperability and management of multiple devices shouldn’t be too complex or demanding. Over time, I suspect that individual devices will become increasingly functional, reducing the overall ‘device clutter’, as well as devices becoming smaller and more integrated into the fabric of the properties.”
Chris Shaw added, “There will always be new devices coming to the market and at the sensing level, these will need to comply with open standards, so that enterprise IoT platforms can receive, consume and act on the data, irrespective of the IoT device itself. That’s why it is absolutely critical to consider IoT initiatives at the enterprise level and to not focus just on a series of siloed areas of the business.”
The future of IoT
Comms365’s Sacke said, “In five years’ time, IoT-based services will be much more agile, responsive and tailored to tenants’ needs. And properties that are better managed and more cost-efficient to run will result in more satisfied, safer tenants. Housing providers that can deliver more capacity and manage more complex operational processes with the aid of IoT will have the ultimate advantage of being in a much stronger strategic position.”
iOpt’s Ralston said, “In future, IoT-based property services will be more like a one-stop shop. Individual sensors will have more systems in them that can be turned on and off based on the needs of the tenants. They will be far more integrated with housing providers’ existing systems. The technologies involved will get cheaper, making IoT a much more viable option for asset managers, coupled with a greater awareness on the part of tenants regarding how IoT devices can help them.”
Northgate’s Birkinshaw concluded, “I believe we will see the mass adoption of IoT in the housing sector within a decade, largely driven by refurbishment programmes and new builds, which will increase the number of properties that are ‘IoT ready’.
Housing Technology would like to thank BT Enterprise (Mark Frost), Comms365 (Nick Sacke), iOpt (Dane Ralston), Northgate Public Services (Roger Birkinshaw) and Shaw Consulting (Chris Shaw) for their editorial contributions to this article.