Technology: the Greatest Opportunity for Housing Providers?

Posted on the 1st November 2018

When it comes to utilising technology and data for efficiency purposes, housing associations are often early adopters. But what are some of the biggest barriers to the adoption of tech solutions, and what does the future hold?

The Growing Link Between Social Housing and Tech.

Digital provides plenty of answers given the wealth of opportunities it offers the housing association industry, with smart meters being one of the next big investments when it comes to the Internet of Things (IoT). As with most digital solutions, the ambition is to streamline processes to increase efficiency and reduce waste – in terms of resources and time. In an initiative pushed out by the UK Government, energy providers have to offer smart meters alongside manual energy boxes and install them for free until 2020.

The advantages of these smart meters are obvious. They automatically log energy consumption, resulting in more accurate data, ensuring that neither the tenant nor energy provider suffers from unnecessary losses. Additionally, they can – in theory – improve long-standing relationships between customer and provider as the meter provides real-time updates, void of any intervention by the tenant.

Unsurprisingly, the merits that digital solutions provide in terms of scaling efficiencies have caught the attention of housing associations. More and more we are seeing companies investing in the digital platforms and tools that help these automation processes. Indeed, according to research conducted by CIH Housing, 95% of senior leaders at housing providers see updated IT systems as a priority, with 100% seeing these systems as instrumental in driving efficiencies.

The implications of these developments can be far reaching allowing repairs and breakages, alongside a variety of housing-related issues, to be logged digitally. This could be particularly useful for housing associations, who may manage 150-room blocks, to save time and address multiple issues at once, rather than individually. It also allows for a digital transcript of issues to be accessible at all times. These can be referenced when measuring maintenance costs, highlighting where improvements can be made. This data could then be imported into a tool such as Impact to quantify the social outcomes of these efforts.

These social outcomes may be cost-savings experienced by the NHS, which could be reduced by housing associations as they could address the issue that is causing the illness.

For example, following a break-down of a boiler, instead of a tenant manually logging this issue, smart meters would send emergency alerts to the provider – triggering a visit by an engineer. The automation of such a service could have real implications on the quality of the property and the quality of a residents health. These have both economic and social benefits as poor quality housing costs the NHS £1.4 billion per annum.

The Link in Action: PassivHaus – An Exemplary Model?

A rigorous voluntary standard that is garnering a lot of attention and traction, given its ‘low energy’ format, is Passivhaus. Working to this standard results in ultra-low energy buildings that require little energy for space heating or cooling. For some, it is considered to be the ideal solution in the modern-day market, due to the focus on development with sustainability in mind. Using scientific equations, coupled with bespoke designs that adhere to specific standards, Passivhaus promises 90% less energy with savings of £600 per year. Sounds good right?

Not completely. One of the more pressing issues with Passivhaus is the associated cost. These types of homes are more expensive to build by roughly 15-25%, with the doors alone being 60% more costly. What’s more, whilst the buildings are designed to encourage a fresh flow of air as a product of ‘mechanical ventilation’, these homes are not adaptable.  There is responsibility on behalf of the tenant to ‘learn’ when to open windows, change filters and boost ventilation, a high expectation for social housing where 30% of residents are disabled or over the age of 60.

We will always celebrate innovation, and those who pioneer developments, so long as it improves the wellbeing of those who have to live with the implications. It’s noteworthy to see housing associations thinking about their sustainability and social outcomes through the adoption of technology and measuring that impact is equally as crucial.

Social Housing and Technology

The problem? The barriers are quite big.

The adoption and installation of technology are not without its barriers to adoption with two that seem to resonate with most of us.

The problem of tech-speak:

As noted by Olivia Harris of Dolphin Living, many of us are “blinded by ‘tech speak’”.

Indeed, the issue of tech jargon, and in fact jargon, in general, is something that almost all industries suffer from. If we take the marketing industry as an example, there are a whole host of buzzwords and acronyms. ‘Big Data’, ‘Content is King’, ‘Optimisation’ are all particularly reputable. Fortunately, these words are relatively straightforward and explicit in their meaning. ‘WYSIWYG’, however, is less transparent – it stands for ‘what you see is what you get’ by the way.

Granted, the motivations behind using jargon and with a specific vernacular is understandable – it creates a sense of community and builds internal relationships by aligning people’s interests using familiar words. However, it is important to speak the language of your audience. The issue with jargon is that it can alienate the consumer. This is extremely detrimental within the context of tech use by housing associations as it limits comfort levels with technological developments, consequentially impeding its level of adoption. In order to really incentivise the use of technologies on behalf of housing associations, tech and/or digital organisations need to consciously address the language they use, making the way technological changes are communicated more understandable.

GDPR, data, consent, Oh My!’

Whilst there are relevant discussions about how energy companies can sell you smart meters, and the GDPR implications of those activities, what about the collection of data from ‘smart’ boxes once they are installed?

GDPR is a legal process that plays a significant role in the collection of a consumer’s private data, transferring more rights to the consumer themselves. Whilst research conducted by Phoenix Software (2017) found that 75% of housing associations did not believe that their company is storing data effectively, BDO’s study concluded that 89% of respondents have invested in GDPR compliance processes, showing a clear commitment to the importance of their consumer [tenant] rights.

Best practice around GDPR and smart meters are relatively straightforward, with Article 20 stipulating seven principles to be applied when rolling out smart meters. Essentially, it seems to dictate that the collection of this data is sound, and more importantly legal, but only so long as providers ensure that their consumers are informed – with clarity – at the time of installation about the sharing and processing of their personal data. Now that is all well and good, but what about when these smart meters become more intricate and begin to involve artificial intelligence (AI)…

The Big Brother Conundrum.

So, what does the future look like when it comes to smart technology and housing associations?

As technology and housing associations become more intertwined, we are likely to see a rush of new, efficacious solutions that continue to improve the experiences of both tenants and housing providers alike. And like most digital tools, things are only going to get ‘smarter’.

You guessed it, AI.

In fact, these advancements have already become the subject of various studies and academic discussions. One such study was the focus of Roland Berger in their work ‘Artificial Intelligence: A Smart Move For Utilities’ which highlights an expected >20% efficiency gains within the next 1-5 years, as a result of merging AI with utilities. They provide a host of examples including benefits to: business support and customer service (page 10), sales (page 10), rooftop solar cells (page 11), and wirelessly controlled washing machines and heaters that learn – through AI –  to optimise energy usage against user habits and real-time electricity prices, with the idea to buy power in bulk when electricity prices are at a low.

We like the idea of AI controlled humidity and temperature sensors:

They could address problems around mould, by measuring the humidity against temperature, learning to modify the temperature to limit the development of mould – which for one property cost an estimated £2,500 to rectify. Even better, smart sensors could gauge the environmental conditions preemptively and provide solutions before it becomes a severe and costly issue.

  • These sensors may also track whether the heating is being turned on at all. This ‘activity’ – or lack of – could trigger an intervention, to query the tenant about whether they can afford to use the heating at all, highlighting if some tenants may be living below the poverty line, encouraging deeper levels of help, and thus providing richer levels of social impact.

A social value reporting tool such as Impact has the capability to tap into the APIs of the sensors embedded within the software. The data can be exported in real time, providing insight into the social value created by adopting such tech solutions and translate this into meaningful social impact reports. For any more details on how we could help you measure your social impact, click here.

About the Author:

Lee Smorthit

Marketing and Social Value Executive

Following the completion of his MSc in Digital Marketing Communications, Lee joined the Impact team in 2018 to set a marketing direction for the company, and to apply his research capabilities to further develop the Impact tool, ensuring that our software as a service (SaaS) is client-friendly and accessible.

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