Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, has predicted that, “AI will have a more profound impact than electricity or fire” which is quite a write-up given the impact of both these discoveries.
But behind every new star there’s always a kingmaker and in the case of AI, that kingmaker is data.
For AI to prove as transformational as the buzz and excitement around it suggests, some groundwork is needed because AI can only deliver on its promise if it has the right kind of fuel to feed it. If no one scans the letter or makes a note of the call out in the housing management system, it won’t be available to provide actionable insights in the future.
So, what can housing teams do to create the foundation needed for AI to make a tangible impact on their business?
1. The future is now – the importance of planning for AI
How often have you heard it said that housing providers are sitting on a goldmine of data? While that may well be the case, what’s also true is that you need to be able to harness that data for AI to fulfil its promise. If you can’t, then it might not be so valuable after all.
It’s not just a question of having access to data but having access to the right kind of data. Inaccurate, incomplete or duplicated information held in multiple silos will return multiple copies of the same information and won’t provide the expected outcomes in three years’ time.
Take a quick works order raised for a repair call-out. Perhaps all the details have not been filled in on the system to save time. What might be a quick fix now will mean that there won’t be sufficient detail for AI to be applied effectively down the line.
If there is no record of the repair, the AI will not know if it was a leaky pipe or a faulty boiler. This will restrict the analysis and the opportunity to predict when a repair or a replacement will be needed next. This may then translate into costly and unnecessary repair visits to a boiler that would have been better off being replaced.
What if 20 repairs are needed in one block? Applying AI could identify if the original installations were all done by the same contractor two years ago and the type of fitting used is unsuitable.
The learning across the database could identify similar properties with the same fittings and allow for a replacement schedule to tie in with a planned maintenance programme to keep costs to a minimum. But this is only possible if the correct data is recorded now.
The key learning point for housing providers is that building accurate data sets now will pay dividends later.
2. Creating a data-centric culture
Historically, IT was perceived as a fixer of problems rather than a business driver but as we enter what has been dubbed the fourth industrial revolution, it’s maybe time to adjust this mindset across the organisation.
AI is set to have a huge impact in the workplace so it’s important to make staff part of the journey. Creating a culture around the value and relevance of data capture and accuracy is critical in this process. If staff know the importance of the data to their future role, they will develop an understanding of why it is important to have electronic records of what they do.
Being aware of how AI can free housing teams from mundane tasks and make their jobs more varied will help, as will emphasising how staff will be needed for the tasks that require more nuanced thinking skills that AI can’t (yet) manage.
Housing staff are the front-line; they are the ones able to capture the right information needed to apply AI, so fostering a whole-organisation approach will demonstrate how capturing data will benefit everyone.
3. Focus on all areas
AI’s ability to cross-reference data and spot patterns will have untold benefits for the housing sector, helping accurately target funding which is vital in these times of dwindling budgets. But this can only happen if a consistent approach is taken to data collection.
It is not just collecting data in one part of the organisation that is important. All teams need to be involved so that a complete picture of tenants and properties can be mined to create actionable predictions to save time and money.
For example, take tenants who are late with their rental payments. Analysis of their records with AI may show they are late around Christmas and during the summer but are otherwise good payers. This scenario seems to reveal that it may simply be a question of cash flow rather than a persistent inability or refusal to pay.
AI can learn these trends from the payment history and if it has good data in all systems, AI can cross-reference other weighting factors, such as the type of household or income band and then apply that to the whole database.
A housing provider could perhaps then identify 200 families all with the same demographics and weighting factors. These families could then be targeted for early interventions at these regular financial pressure-points to prevent them from falling behind.
Incomplete data sets will lessen the opportunity to form a holistic picture of tenants and are a potential pitfall that housing providers should act to avoid.
4. From back-office to boardroom
When we compare housing to other sectors, there are very few housing providers with an IT director on the board; it’s time for that to change.
AI will help housing providers make the shift from reactiveness to ‘predict and prevent’ and the potential for cost savings is enormous. But success or failure will rely on housing providers having the right digital capabilities and data processes in place.
It’s time to see IT as less of an operating cost or a tactic and more as a business-transforming opportunity. IT needs to be represented at board level so that the right strategic architecture is in place to keep up with the accelerated pace of change.
Few industries are as rich in data as the housing sector, which will make artificial intelligence a real game changer. But for this to happen, data must be recognised as the lifeblood of the organisation.
The velocity of growth is such, that without a data vision, housing providers could find they are left behind in the AI revolution.
Trevor Hampton is the director of housing solutions at Northgate Public Services.