Social housing providers are required to meet challenging targets on a daily basis. Occupancy, asset yield, cost control and tenant satisfaction are integral elements in achieving the Government’s Decent Homes standard and securing funding as a result. Key issues faced by managers include changing legislation and managing a diverse and scattered asset base, while providing a professional service to tenants and partner organisations.
Geographical information systems (GIS) are increasingly helping to meet these challenges by providing a centralised solution for the management of any type of information that has a geographical component. Postcodes, addresses and map-based records can all be used to identify where an asset is or where an event takes place and, by referencing all information via an easy-to-use map base, even non-technical staff can readily access essential records.
One of the first steps when implementing GIS is the transfer of paper-based records for use in the digital mapping system. Cheshire’s Weaver Vale Housing Trust employed the data capture specialist GeODC to electronically map the land and 6500 homes managed by the Trust. Delivering cost savings and service efficiencies, the project involved the conversion and geographical referencing of existing paper maps for use in the Trust’s GIS. Detailed boundary information was also mapped to support the Trust’s re-tendering of its grounds maintenance contract.
Joanne Watkins, solicitor, Weaver Vale Housing Trust, said, “Having completed the transfer of housing stock from the local council, we realised that we could not effectively manage the resource or deliver services to our residents efficiently without an up-to-date and accurate mapping system. The detailed property extents within our GIS have let us achieve significant savings on our grounds maintenance contract, supporting our value for money agenda. In addition we can monitor performance with improved accuracy and assign different service standards and objectives.”
A similar project has taken place in Suffolk where community areas have been mapped on behalf of Havebury Housing Partnership which owns and manages around 6000 properties. Paper plans were transformed into map-accurate digital data for use in a GIS, enabling Havebury to review its grounds maintenance and street cleaning contract and improve the provision of services to residents.
David Honeyball, property manager, Havebury Housing Partnership, said, “We entered into a service level agreement with the council at the time of transfer to continue the provision of grounds maintenance and street cleaning services. However, it soon became necessary to replace this agreement with a tendered contract. As the council had used the same workforce for many years, there were no accurate records of the service areas or the specific works undertaken.”
Havebury staff walked each neighbourhood armed with Ordnance Survey plans. Grasslands, shrub beds, woodland, hedges, ponds and other areas to be cleaned were annotated on the paper plans, which were then transferred to larger maps showing entire estates or grouped properties. Each category of land/feature has a number of grades of work and these specific standards and extents of work were also included on the paper maps.
The paper plans were scanned and, in order to use the information within Havebury’s GIS, each map was geo-referenced to place it in its real-world position, and individual features and associated grades of work were captured. Honeyball added, “The completion of this project has not only improved the management of the grounds maintenance and cleaning contract, we have also been able to provide more accurate calculations for the recharging of works to residents.”
Once records have been converted and plans digitised, mapping systems and GIS can be put to effective use, particularly if staff are trained to get the most out of the system. Dale and Valley Homes, an ALMO owned by Wear Valley District Council, has recently implemented a new GIS from GGP Systems. Gee Sung, service standards officer, Dale and Valley Homes, said, “GIS will support a range of projects, such as asset management, regeneration, customer involvement and monitoring, and improving the delivery of housing management services. The training and support we received from GGP not only gave us an introduction to the GIS software, it also gave us extensive background knowledge so we could understand the theories behind the advanced functionality.”
In London, Homes for Haringey, which manages 21,000 tenanted and leasehold homes on behalf of Haringey Council, is also using GIS to improve customer services, maintain accurate housing records and facilitate future web-based communication projects. The GIS is the same software as used by Haringey Council and is used throughout Homes for Haringey, linking with existing management systems.
The GIS is used in building services, design and engineering, and estates services for the creation and management of detailed geographical information relating to housing stock, ownership and the surrounding environment. The GIS from GGP Systems is being integrated with Anite’s Codeman and an SQL-based property database.
Kevin Loomes, head of knowledge management, Homes for Haringey, said, “GIS delivers the information we need, when we need it. By providing desktop access to an array of information held in back-office systems both internally and within the council, we can answer more of our resident’s enquiries, specifically those relating to property improvements and renewals. Using GIS we are hoping to make much of this information available via an online mapping function on our website.”
Over the past six years, Saxon Weald Homes has adopted a phased approach to GIS, which replicates the layers within the GIS environment, enabling each stage of the implementation to deliver more value as more company-specific data is created for the GIS. It started with the mapping of its physical land liabilities, such as registered land titles, properties, and grounds maintenance responsibilities, so that it knew what is owned and where they were. This was followed by the development of estate boundaries for the capture of service charges, mapping properties sold under right-to-buy, boundary responsibilities and identifying land for disposal or granting of licences. The third stage enabled the delivery of this information to Saxon Weald’s staff via its intranet.
Justin Chamberlin, GIS manager, Saxon Weald Homes, said, “We are now concentrating on extrapolating data from our housing management system into the GIS environment. For example, we have done a lot of work on arrears management, ASB, diversity, customer profiling and disabled adaptations. This gives us a better understanding of our neighbourhood profiles and allows us to direct services where they are most needed.”
Referring to its analysis of the impact of ASB on voids, transfer rates and mutual exchange figures, Chamberlin said, “It’s interesting to investigate less geographically quantifiable factors within the GIS and carry out analysis against KPIs – it lets you bring into focus issues that are affecting your residents in a much more graphical and recognisable fashion.”
Although Westlea Housing Association held extensive records of its property portfolio in a central property management system, access to the records was limited to visualising them in tabular and report formats. With separate paper maps of the property locations, key geographic patterns, which were crucial to the efficiency of operations, were being missed.
Westlea contracted Innogistic Software to geo-reference their existing property records and deliver a web based solution based on Cartology.NET. Via Westlea’s intranet, the solution gives all staff access to the property portfolio overlaid on detailed mapping from Ordnance Survey. The use of GIS provides a holistic view of the property stock, which can be themed in numerous ways, to reflect property condition, maintenance history, tenant details, pending jobs and rent arrears.
The future of GIS in social housing has solid foundations and new developments such as online information portals, web-based, self-service facilities, and a greater investment in both mapping and associated information resources, such as the National Land and Property Gazetteer, will all drive future take up of the technology.