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15 May 2020

We asked Terry Philips, IT Programme Manager at Sovini for his thoughts on how technology is continuing to help the delivery of services by housing providers to their residents. He told us about his hopes for future technologies such as AI and how technology can help our senior citizens.


Q: Over the past few years how do you feel technology has evolved to support housing needs?

Many people may look at the technological evolution over the past few years and pick out themes such as; internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and social media as being key areas.  For me most of these areas are still in their infancy and/or under-utilised within housing services - although undoubtedly they will play an important part of future strategies.

One area I feel which has significantly improved is the area of integrated systems.  Most housing solution providers can now offer a multi-company product allowing housing providers to operate efficiently, sourcing essential services from one supplier rather than 3 or 4.  Housing Management Systems incorporate or tightly integrate with CRM & EDM modules, kiosks, customer portals, mobile apps, workflow engines and repairs diagnostic/scheduling tools.  Technology has been developed to allow organisations to automate repetitive tasks and on top of this benefit from the efficiencies and business continuity benefits offered by cloud based solutions.  As recent as five years ago this wasn’t the case, suppliers could offer part solutions, had to partner with companies to co-provide solutions (with varying degrees of success) or were busy developing such services.      

With many local authorities having stock transferred or moved housing stock to arm’s-length management organisations, the needs of housing service providers have changed.  Registered providers have merged with each other, joined or formed group structures and spent significant effort optimising workforces.  Successful housing groups such as Sovini now extended their services far beyond traditional housing provision into supply chain management and offering shared services both within and outside the group.  Multi-company integrated solutions allow housing providers to join housing groups and benefit from the shared costs involved with implementing, interfacing, managing and developing business systems, directly reducing management costs. 


Q: What areas do you feel that housing associations and local authorities need to focus on in order to fully utilise technology?

I expect the emerging technologies mentioned earlier to become more common place within housing and most IT strategies to focus on them over the next 5-10 years. 

Smart products powered by IoT and the arrival of 5G will soon touch every aspect of our lives, performing actions on our behalf and even thinking for us.  The efficiencies possible through IoT are endless.  How far are we away from a boiler system or white goods automatically notifying a web service of a failure, the service sending a message to the customer to book an appointment slot, the part ordered and an engineer scheduled all within a matter of minutes? Works vans are already self-reporting issues and arranging for breakdown recovery to attend.  All of these improvements promise efficiencies which result in workforces achieving more than they currently can.

AI is fast becoming the focal point of many technology suppliers, automation through machine learning is already common place in many sectors.  Chabot’s are an obvious place to introduce AI to housing providers and an area I feel housing providers and local authorities need to focus on. But what about utilising the decision making and rationalisation power of AI? Generally, when a decision is made within a company, it is made based on a limited amount of data. With AI you are capable of analysing larger data sets to get a much better picture.  I have no doubt that AI can significantly improve decision-making within a company. When AI is involved in decision-making, it becomes less emotional and based purely on fact.  Virtual board members have been around for a number of years now, although it may take housing a little longer to catch-up.  

This all said, shiny new toys to one side for a moment, the core of any IT strategy should be around sustaining business as usual.  It’s easy to spend time and commit significant resource looking into the latest and greatest idea and lose sight of what is in front of you.  Upgrading current technology and working with existing suppliers to improve their products can reap significant rewards.  It can also help maintain customer satisfaction and reduce the need for, and of expense of, large scale system replacements. 


Q: How can technology help more ‘senior’ residents in residential care properties?

There are a number of areas where technology can support residents in care properties, such as; providing safety and reassurance, preventing isolation, managing assessments and care plans, monitoring health and wellbeing and making services easier to access.

Smart security such as CCTV, door entry and access control systems are ways that residential care and independent living providers can ensure safe and secure residencies.  Mobile emergency assistance, fall detection, home care and lifeline services are also available, giving residents some reassurance that an emergency response will be available should it be needed. 

Smart technology and digital services which bring convenience to most of us can open up access to services that some residents otherwise wouldn’t have, allowing them to maintain their independence.  Technology driven solutions such as; customer self-service, direct debits/automated payment processing services, IoT and mobile working can all play a part in helping to support residential care and independent living service users.

In the future, this is another area I can see AI and smart technology being able to play a major role, combining with IoT to build up behavioural profiles and alerting support services when an unexpected behaviour takes place or perhaps more importantly when an expected behaviour doesn’t.   This along with technology monitoring resident’s health status can certainly get support to residents in a timely manner giving piece of mind to residents and their families.        


Q: How does/can the data generated by technology help tailor services to residents?

Customer self-service, robotics, AI and seamless automation are inevitably steering businesses in a direction of less human interaction both with people and systems.  While in housing services there is, and likely always will be the need for face to face services.  A reduction in human interactions will inevitably result in large housing providers becoming more dependent on insight through data analysis to support its decision makers, especially when the information can be presented in an uncomplicated way.  

There are a number of software providers offering predictive analytics packages as part of their solutions or as a bolt-on.  Large data sets are needed to make predicting behaviour accurate, typically more than what a single organisation can provide.  Data generated from various sources is used to create accurate algorithms which are then implemented to generate recommended actions.  Most people will already be familiar with the analytics available to profile people and behaviour relating to rent collection, some in the sector will have come across repairs analytics used to predict and advise about recommended spend.  But very few use data held by the social media giants to target property adverts at groups of individuals likely to result in sustainable tenancies, food for thought.


Q: Has technology changed the roles that people do within your organisation / or deliver huge benefits in their daily roles?

Most large scale housing providers will have been on a similar journey in recent years, after all bench marking and sharing of best practise is something the sector does very well. 

Many organisations will have closed neighbourhood offices, channelling some communications through websites, social media, email and kiosks but largely through customer contact centres.  Roles originally based at outreach offices have become centralised, transferred to customer services, or changed to home/remote based roles.  In our case technology has enabled this business transformation to happen rather than being the rationale for the change.

Customer self-service has had a significant impact on our business with over 50% of payments collected being processed through our digital service offering.  This hasn’t dramatically changed the way staff work but it has allowed us to manage staff numbers by reducing the need to handle such interactions.

Technology has enabled most of our staff to work remotely when needed, which in the event of bad weather or unforeseen circumstances allows our businesses to continue to operate.

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