Douglas Silverstone, Head of Data, Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing Association shares his thoughts on the potential impact data can have on the housing sector.
Some people suggest this disruption will be along the lines of Airbnb. Others suggest it’ll be more like Uber. Regardless of the model, the presumption is that the disruptors will come from outside the sector. What, though, if we were the disruptors?
After all, we already own the most important element you need to disrupt: data. You might think you’re already doing plenty with data. After all, you use it to determine key-to-key time for voids and how much rent was paid last month. Some housing associations are even using it for predictive analytics.
The reality, though, is that we’ve barely skimmed the surface when it comes to the potential impact data can, and should, have in disrupting our sector. My challenge to the sector is this: how can we use data not only to improve the wellbeing of our tenants, but also to enable them to live in their homes rent-free? Sounds unlikely?
Before you stop reading, have a look around you. Your Gmail account, your Google search, your Google shared drive, all are free because of data. Across the world, companies are waking up to the value of the data they hold. So why aren’t we doing this in our sector?
For example, by monitoring and analysing the data around gas and electricity usage, we could advise tenants about the most economical and fuel-efficient way of heating their homes, saving them money and reducing their carbon footprint. And what if in monitoring this data we noticed that older tenants were only putting their heating on for one hour a day?
Imagine how powerful that information would be if we wanted to lobby government about increasing winter fuel payments? We could use data to develop an odd job platform for tenants living in a block of flats that matched up people needing a small job done with those neighbours who wanted the work. And the share we received from each transaction could be used to lower the cost of rent.
We should also be using data to make our properties more efficient. This might be as simple as fitting sensors onto the windows of our homes so we know when mould is an issue before it becomes a headache.
Or it could be more detailed, fitting numerous sensors to our boilers so we know when they need to be replaced, rather than relying on the way we’ve always done it. With 13 different sensors on every boiler we owned, that would be over 850,000 datapoints every five seconds. And here’s another potential revenue stream: selling that data back to the manufacturers of the boilers, so they can improve the product that they make.
Of course, selling data about our tenants and their homes raises ethical considerations. If we commercialise the data generated by our tenants and they get no reward, this raises ethical issues. But what if all the data we used from our tenants was then used to reduce their rent?
What if we were able to generate so much income that we could let them live in their homes rent-free? Now that would be a genuine disruption to the sector. All of these are embryonic ideas.
As housing associations, we need to be leading the thinking about what we can and can’t do, as well as what we should, and shouldn’t do with data. We also need to think about how we will achieve this. As a sector we need to join together and the obvious place to start is through the use of data standards. These give us a way of sharing all our data efficiently, because then we know we’re talking about the same data.
This would mean that if Metropolitan Thames Valley developed an odd jobs platform, L&Q could use it as well (although we might want to negotiate a fee for our development costs!) And similarly, if Riverside developed an innovative platform around, for example, the monitoring of boilers, we would know it would work for us.
Data, and data standards, would help the sector deliver innovation for all social housing tenants and not just those fortunate enough to live in the homes of one particularly innovative housing association.
The more you think about the potential use of data, the more ideas we can have as a sector. The potential to disrupt is there. It’s up to us to use data to be the disruption we want to see.
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