You don’t need to be a data scientist to embrace new housing tech

22nd November 2022

Civica’s Sarah Paxton looks at how smart technology has the power to transform housing further – we just need to clearly show the benefits

How can advances in technology and data analytics help deliver better housing services? This was a key point discussed at the Housemark Housing Data Analytics summit which I was pleased to present at.

One important question we debated was how can we convince housing boards to embrace new and emerging technologies and bring all employees along on the journey? There is a potential barrier to introducing new technology – the idea that you need to be a data specialist to understand how it works.

New tech can be difficult to understand and may put people off, with suspicions about machine learning or artificial intelligence making predictions about real people. So building trust is crucial. The key here is to be able to explain the problem the technology is going to solve – to convince people without a technical background how and why it will help. For example, if the aim is to stop damp and mould in a property, start with this issue, rather than the technology fix.

It’s also showing that it’s a long-term investment. Some technologies such as chat bots and predictive analytics will require supervision to ensure that the algorithms remain effective and some will need retraining on new data. Just like a human staff member, machine learning needs updated training and supervision to make sure they’re performing at their best!

Housing leading the way

While the Internet of things (IoT) is not a new concept, more and more innovative ideas are coming through all the time – and the housing sector is well placed to embrace it.

Residents are no strangers to smart technology, with many owning Alexa’s or Smart TV’s and even smart lightbulbs activated by voice control. Smart sensor’s, boilers and alarms are being rolled out into the housing stock to monitor various aspects of a home, collecting useful data every day.

Fire and building safety are a top priority for organisations across the UK. Devices and sensors can transform the way we monitor homes and identify potential safety issues such as fire risk and act upon them quickly. IoT sensors can pick up not just real fires but also ‘near misses’: if there is a small amount of smoke detected but it keeps happening, patterns can be recognised and, through integration to housing management systems, staff can be prompted to check everything is OK. These sensors can be monitored in real time, not just when an inspection is due – prompting a letter, call or visit to the customer or even alert the emergency services. This helps keep residents safe – potentially saving lives.

In the wider care setting, another recent example is ‘Smart Socks’ to help people living with dementia, who tend to dislike wearing tracking devices. The socks measure functions such as heart rate, sweat levels and motion to give insight into how anxiety levels and allow care staff to act when signs of stress are noticed.

A real data opportunity

The use of AI to help organisations target their resources where most needed is already underway, but new ways are emerging. When you have a problem to solve, machines are a possible solution. While humans can analyse data and make predictions, machines can do it much, much faster.

With stronger investment in IoT and smart homes, we’re collecting vast amounts of data we’ve never had before. This is a real opportunity to further analyse the data and find trends and patterns with predictive analytics; we can start to understand when a piece of equipment, such as a boiler, may fail, or understand the characteristics of assets and residents to make better decisions about future installations.

So perhaps it’s time we stopped talking about ‘emerging technology’ in the housing sector. The fact is, it’s already here and being consumed in earnest. We have immense computing power and vast data sets at our fingertips – and the technology is becoming more affordable. The more we can invest in technology such as digital twins, IoT and connected devices, the bigger the benefit for social housing residents.

And it’s a development we can’t afford to ignore. With disrepair claims regularly in the news, this has a huge impact on people’s lives, particularly among the most vulnerable in society. In these increasingly tough times, the more we can do to use smart technology and data effectively, the better housing services and homes we’ll create for the future.

Sarah Paxton is Business Analyst, social housing at Civica.