Paul Wood, ICT service director at Wakefield and District Housing, explains how, at a time when 70 per cent of people who live in social housing never enjoy the benefits of the internet, the housing provider has numerous plans to increase digital inclusion.
Wakefield and District Housing became the largest single housing stock transfer organisation in 2005 with over 31,000 homes in the Wakefield area. The Wakefield district comprises 350 square miles of which over two-thirds is rural. Deprivation indices, including PC ownership and connectivity, lag behind the national average. Overall, 55 per cent of residents in the district have access to a PC but ownership among WDH tenants is 28 per cent, of which only half have broadband access.
Tenants transacting online
The cornerstone of WDH’s digital inclusion strategy is our website which contains transactional features such as rent statements, request repairs and complaints management. And in 2007 we launched a choice-based lettings scheme, based on a number of digital platforms such as SMS, IVR, and digital TV. Despite the low connectivity levels above, over 73 per cent of weekly transactions are now performed digitally.
However, it is clear that increasing PC ownership and connectivity would increase benefits overall. We are therefore working in partnership with local organisations, with an IT training suite installed in one local community centre and WDH information kiosks in others. Local internet centres are also planned and we are working with local colleges to mentor IT Diploma students, including helping in the development of a community web site as part of their curriculum. WDH is also working with local trusts to create sustainable IT apprenticeships in the area.
Sustainable homes support inclusion
Home improvement schemes also provide an opportunity to plan for increased connectivity and inclusion. Digital switchover in Wakefield is scheduled for 2011 and WDH has already implemented integrated reception systems to provide a choice of interactive digital channels. At the same time, the development of SMART home schemes and Code 6 sustainable home improvements will drive demand for energy efficiency management systems. As a result, we expect to see convergence in domestic IT systems with the development of local hubs, which in turn will help increase digital inclusion.
While younger tenants are a priority, we are not using social media at the moment: only 300 tenants (0.5%) have indicated a desire to communicate using the likes of Bebo, Twitter and Facebook. From a purely business perspective, the cost of providing a social media communications channel makes it unviable, but we haven’t ruled it out completely. As with our choice-based lettings service three years’ ago, should what appears to be a poor business case be overlooked in order to drive what may turn out to be the start of greater inclusion among younger tenants?
Digital exclusion is often accompanied by financial exclusion, and vice versa, so we have developed a separate financial inclusion website which receives around 1000 unique visitors per month. This has been supplemented with practical initiatives such as face-to-face ‘Money Matters’ learning sessions and close work with the Personal Finance Educational Body to profile the highest needs. IT assistance has also been provided to the local credit union, allowing tenants access to financial expertise. In parallel, lifestyle profiling is routinely carried with our local primary care trust and the NHS to proactively identify needs and target resource.
Access point in every home
Our vision of digital inclusion in 2005 was a ‘service access point in every home’, where communications between tenants and WDH would be routinely digital. At the time, this would have meant the provision of a PC for every tenant but logistics and costs made this impossible. But connectivity is easier today, with advances in wireless WANs and technology convergence making the vision achievable; the initial cost of such an investment would be balanced by a rapid RoI on network infrastructure savings alone, without even taking into account other measurable benefits.
However, we are still uncertain about which device to use for tenant access. 98 per cent of our tenants have mobile phones but this would require specially-developed content. Digital TV is used for choice-based lettings but transactions are low volume, despite 95 per cent of tenants possessing a television. PCs would appear to be the conventional route but ownership is low so it’s difficult to predict where our investment would have the greatest impact.
Digital inclusion in housing perhaps hinges on whether the housing provider sees itself as having a responsibility to reach out technologically to customers; this is clearly part of our overall vision. We hope that our strategy of investing in cheaper and more efficient technology, driving increased digital interaction and promoting sustainability is a compelling blend.
Paul Wood is ICT service director at Wakefield and District Housing.