Tech@Housing main theatre
The main tech theatre at last month's CIH Housing 2018 conference used its stage to highlight various cases and ways in which the sector can benefit from innovation

How housing associations are adapting to tech

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Nicola Byrne

Technology companies are turning towards social housing and exploring how their products can benefit a large sector that has a keen eye on affordability and efficiency.

At the CIH Housing 2018 conference in Manchester last month, tech took up a large part of the three-day programme and the exhibitor floor with two stages out five and around 50 out of 120 seminars dedicated to tech.

Kush Rawal, commercial director of Thames Valley Housing, which owns and manages 15,000 homes, explains how technology is being applied to existing processes. “We’re doing a lot of work around creating virtual reality versions of our new homes. On all of our sites that we’re developing, typically, we’ll be selling off plan which can be anywhere up to a year. It helps us ensure that we’re confident we can carry on building when you’ve got these big expensive towers, we’ve got the ability to sell people into that idea quite early on.”

The housing association has a shared ownership scheme and customers have to demonstrate they can afford it. Thames Valley has been working with MetroFinance, to introduce a chatbot on its website. This would allow customers to go online, anytime of the day, put in their information and learn in minutes whether or not the headline affordability was there.

“What it does for the customer is that it gives them a view very quickly of whether that property is pursuable or not from an extra perspective, and from our point of view it helps sort the many applications we’ll get for a home,” explained Rawal.

Another bit of tech Thames Valley has created is an online platform called My TVH where customers can log repairs. Rawal explained: “If you imagine you’re living in a block of flats, 150 flats within the block, a light might have gone in one of the hallways. What would happen in the past is we’d get 150 phone calls from customers saying ‘the light doesn’t work’. Here, if somebody says the light doesn’t work, we put it up on the area so all the residents living in that block will now know someone’s logged that repair and we’ll give them a view of when it will be repaired and we’ll let them know once it’s done as well.”

The association also uses geo-mapping and component mapping to provide information and data on stock condition across the country. This provides insight into the products fitted in properties and helps with repair and replacement.

Paul Taylor, innovation coach at Bromford housing association, is part of the team behind the Bromford Lab. Taylor said the main concern at the moment was to completely clean out the organisation’s infrastructure and create a new service design which will allow an easier transition for new technologies to be applied, rather than keep up with the latest technology trends.

“A big issue, but also a big opportunity for many organisations, is that they have have got layers of legacy tech that’s built up over years and at the moment, for many, it’s quite dislocated.”

However, at the lab, tech companies are invited in, presented with a problem and asked whether they can help solve it.

“The lab is a safe place to explore different ideas, to test concepts that don’t cost a lot of money. Failing fast is one of our founding principles. If we don’t fail, how do we know what’s going to work,” said Taylor.

Why are technology companies interested in social housing?

Propeller is a cloud-based system that allows users to monitor, manage and control repairs and maintenance programmes across service areas including gas, fire, electrical, oil, water and asbestos – as well as measure how compliant clients are to regulations. The business currently works with Great Places Housing Group, Clarion Housing and Liberty Living.

Propeller

Dave Wilson, operations manager at Propeller, said: “It’s been a natural progression for us as with a lot of housing associations, we’ve worked with them through their contractors over the years, and what we’ve found is that a lot of housing associations have a massive impulse now to really get an overview of how compliant they are. There’s been several things in recent years, obviously the Grenfell Tower disaster being the first and foremost that springs to mind, of really giving a reality check for councils and housing associations.”

AskPorter is an AI communications platform that optimises property and facilities management, enabling users to be more efficient, reduce costs, and improve customer service.

AskPorter

Tom Shrive, CEO of AskPorter, explained why his company is interested in this market. He said: “Social housing in the UK has been an after-thought for a lot of people. I think for affordable housing and social housing there’s ways that it can be improved, and be made more profitable for managing agents and for developers to build. I think fundamentally that can come down to good application of technology and that’s kind of what we’re doing.

“Our mission is to resolve the transactional elements of being in a property – the things that should just happen. They should be tracked, they should be logged, and they should be done as efficiently as possible. People living in social housing at the moment are suffering, typically because, and I don’t want to be disparaging of the way [housing associations] have operated, but it’s just been a ‘don’t talk to me, I don’t want to hear you’ situation because every single one of these interactions is a cost fundamentally for them.

“I think across not just the social housing but larger facilities, for example the NHS, there’s a huge opportunity that technology can start to make the running of these things, a) seem more seamless for the people that are occupying it but b) also actually give tools to the people that manage it, so they’re not just running away from people when they need help.”

AskPorter is currently enrolled on the Housing Associations’ Charitable Trust accelerator, HACT: Innovation Launch Pad.

Housing accelerator

The Innovation Launch Pad supports technologies being developed for the housing sector. From initial ideas to market-ready products, HACT supports tech companies by offering a range of product development, sales and marketing expertise. This support package helps build the business cases for the housing sector and gives startups access to a market of more than 4m homes, while giving registered housing providers access to the latest innovations in return.

HACT Technologies

Innovation Launch Pad website displays technologies that are new, market-ready or a startup

HACT also publishes guides for housing associations to understand Internet of Things, GDPR, smart thermostats and more.

With the housing sector facing continued pressure on budgets from Government, anything that can help reduce the amount of legwork they have to do to maintain their large estates will surely be welcomed. This makes for a good reason for tech to step in.

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