At the Housing Technology 2020 conference at the beginning of March, delegates learnt more about GIS and how one housing provider, Orbit, was using this technology to make huge savings of £11 million. This article is an abridged version of Cadcorp and Orbit’s presentation at Housing Technology 2020.
What is GIS?
Any data with a location associated with it, such as an address, can be visualised and analysed in a geographical information system (GIS). The value of visualising data spatially is that it provides housing providers with knowledge of what is happening within their estates. Trends often occur geographically so being able to picture what is happening within a group of properties in relation to one another reveals what was previously unseen.
The relevant data already exists within the organisation and GIS technology connects to these data sources, adds location information, and then delivers insights to aid decision-making processes. GIS is more than simply seeing addresses as points on a map; it is a corporate solution that integrates dynamically with data from asset and housing management systems to provide an understanding of properties, land ownership, responsibilities and opportunities.
Why housing providers use GIS
Housing providers use GIS to understand the location of properties because location often has a bearing on the cost of managing properties; as a first approximation, a densely located portfolio of properties will have to be managed differently to one that is geographically dispersed.
Location is pertinent when making strategic decisions for investment programmes. One approach is to import and analyse licensed HM Land Registry data to clarify responsibilities for grounds maintenance and to pinpoint development opportunities. Another is visualising asset performance data geographically to reveal trends in specific regions or areas, or overlaying the map with other data, such as deprivation statistics, so that housing providers can predict tenants’ support needs more accurately – there are masses of examples of how GIS is helping housing providers meet their responsibilities and achieve their objectives.
Orbit’s GIS journey
Orbit is the seventh largest house builder in the UK’s social housing sector. It started using GIS in 2010 when it invested in Cadcorp Desktop GIS to manage its grounds maintenance contracts. The management of the schemes was digitally recorded using Ordnance Survey mapping data, which enabled Orbit to fully understand the extent of the work involved. This allowed it to retain control of costs by ensuring that only land belonging to Orbit and not a local authority or other organisation was serviced by its contractors.
The use of GIS grew as Orbit’s housing team made use of HM Land Registry data, which shows ownership, to aid them in making more accurate decisions. The production of sales plans by Orbit’s commercial team was brought in-house. This reduced the cost of outsourcing and eliminated the duplication of licensed map data. The property management team requested maps to identify above-average responses to repairs and to identify poor stock performance. This resulted in better property management where 76 per cent of Orbit homes achieve an EPC rating of C or above.
GIS was adopted readily throughout the organisation, with Orbit’s staff requesting specific geographic information, maps and analysis from the GIS team. However, this was becoming unsustainable as the business grew. Orbit decided on a solution where all staff could use the system so the GIS team could concentrate on more strategic projects.
Steve Litchfield, senior GIS analyst, Orbit, said, “It was clear that the benefits of GIS were applicable to the entire organisation. It was providing staff with the tools they needed to deal with customer queries faster and more effectively, which in turn was improving our overall customer satisfaction levels.”
In 2014, Orbit acquired a web-based GIS application from Cadcorp. Staff helped shape the platform and it was branded myM@ps. It offers eight customised views for development, maintenance, lettings and management, grounds maintenance and service charges, sales and sales planning, and other business activities. Staff with little or no GIS experience can access information quickly and on the go, and answer queries quickly with current data to hand, using a bespoke view specific to their area.
Litchfield said, “Together with Cadcorp, we have evolved the system to meet the needs of the business. It has enabled Orbit staff to self-serve and it has improved communication and information sharing. The feedback and usage from staff have been excellent.”
Key uses & successes
myM@ps incorporated all of the data that was already deployed within the desktop GIS. Scaling out the GIS brought many projects to fruition and significant savings quickly became apparent. Grounds maintenance data, with the additional functionality to report when mapped data was incorrect or missing, helped Orbit’s estates services team make grounds maintenance contractor savings of over £1 million per year.
The service charge team completed a project to collate highway adoption data in neighbourhoods where Orbit owned property. This helped them to locate where tenants were being charged for areas that were actually the responsibility of a local authority. The savings are huge, with a predicted lifetime cost-avoidance of £11 million.
Commercial and corporate ownership data supplied by HM Land Registry and then processed into relevant geographical data has been used for strategic asset management. It shows Orbit where properties owned by other housing providers fall within or close to Orbit estates and vice versa. This has enabled stock swaps, which has consequently reduced costs in the management of these assets.
Delivering real value
Orbit is planning numerous projects for the organisation to benefit further from web mapping and GIS. Understanding numbers and values in geographical areas is helping the business to increase productivity. Mapping territories and seeing the resulting information is helping staff be more productive, reducing management costs and ultimately, helping them to provide a better service to tenants.
Fergus Craig is the business development manager for housing at Cadcorp, and Steve Litchfield is a senior GIS analyst at Orbit Group.