Smart mapping for digital transformation

Over 50 delegates from housing associations gathered to hear how innovative use of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) are helping to power digital transformation within the sector.

Bracknell - Map showing outputs of garage units and sites surveys colour coded by projected 30 year costs

Understanding where things are, and why, is essential for rational decision-making within housing.

During the event, attendees saw how location can be used to connect data and workflows in a way that improves the use of corporate information, which in turn can lead to better management of a portfolio and improved profitability.

Other sessions showed how modern mapping and spatial analysis is a lot more than just dots on maps, or simple maps used to display static data. Today, dynamic maps can be used to answer complex questions, undertake scenario modelling, run deep analytical processes on big datasets or satellite imagery, revealing patterns and trends that would otherwise be difficult to visualise and understand.

Throughout the day, attendees heard how organisations such as Sovereign Housing and Bracknell Forest Homes are finding powerful new ways to use location-based technology across their business to make a difference, as they look to introduce more efficient processes, gain strategic insights for future planning, tackle new legislation and reduce costs.

Interestingly, delegates were from diverse backgrounds – not just GIS departments – demonstrating how today there is a much wider recognition of the value of location-based information and geographic analysis than ever before.

In fact, a poll of delegates showed half are currently engaged in a programme to increase the use of GIS across their business, while a further 28 percent stated they would start implementing plans to do so in the next 12 months.


Sovereign Housing

Sovereign Housing gave an insight into how it made the strategic decision three years ago to expand its use of GIS, from just two specialist staff to training over 500 to use the technology today, including members of the board. This quest to give all staff access to GIS was kick-started when the board backed an enterprise-wide growth of the technology and challenged the GIS team to ‘show us what you can do’, and prove it was worth the investment.

Advances in technology mean organisations like Sovereign can take digital mapping out of the back-office and put it into the hands of any worker. The power of geographic information has never been more accessible.

And this is exactly what Sovereign has done. As location has become key to everything the business does, it created a new location platform based on Esri technology and placed it at the heart of the business. This provides organisation-wide access to authoritative map content and capabilities on any device and is being enthusiastically embraced across the company, driving multiple business benefits.

Projects range from using GIS to model the impact of new legislation, to planning for strategic growth and helping to verify options for its merger with Spectrum Housing.

Sovereign’s strategy to place mapping into the hands of all employees is supported by its ability to easily create different map applications – 35 so far. These are designed primarily to improve efficiencies of frontline services including Housing, Property, Legal and Customer Service teams.

A popular topic throughout the event was how best to tackle legislation. It was interesting to see how GIS is giving Sovereign new ways of understanding the impact of new legislation, such as Local Housing Allowances, the Benefit Cap and supporting its Asset & Liabilities register. For example, with the Benefit Cap, staff can see all properties affected by it and to what degree. GIS analysis revealed some surprises and interesting geographic patterns, which in turn, helped inform the ongoing strategy to manage it.

Sovereign also highlighted how its Development team uses smart mapping to uncover opportunities to use stock more efficiently, or spot parcels of land and properties which can be redeveloped, based on any number of data layers and visualised criteria, such as voids, maintenance costs, revenue, repairs, etc.


Bracknell Forest Homes

Making GIS work harder and achieving value for money was the primary theme of Bracknell Forest Homes’ session. Delegates heard how Bracknell is using GIS as part of its digital transformation strategy to create new streamlined processes. From reducing under-occupancy rates to minimising its exposure to tree risks, GIS now underpins an increasing number of operational processes.

Bracknell’s journey with GIS began by giving the organisation a better method of managing its trees, reducing the risk of potential litigation. With around 10,000 trees to look after, Bracknell is presented with a larger risk from trees compared to the average housing association. So finding the most efficient approach to tree management was essential.

And this is where GIS has excelled, helping the Tree Team take a measured approach to managing risk. Using mobile apps, they can now manage all 10,000 trees with just two staff, carrying out double the amount of tree surveys in a day on handheld devices, compared to the old paper method, which is saving Bracknell around £50,000 a year.

Bracknell also explained how it recently moved almost its entire under occupancy process onto GIS, which is now helping to reduce under-occupancy rates. A new mobile GIS survey app first helps staff assess the needs of tenants out in the field, which feeds back into the system. The Project Officer can then use various filters to examine this information using a map interface, helping to make decisions that drive the process forward.

The new method helps staff understand who might be under occupying, assess their willingness to move and quickly examine any void properties when they become available, to see if there are customers nearby who match the criteria. The process is executed in the field on a smart phone or tablet within the GIS by one officer, who has found it easy to use. This significantly speeds up the process of matching candidates to more appropriately sized properties. Overall, it’s helping Bracknell find more suitable homes for tenants.

The efficiency theme was in evidence as Bracknell told of other streamlined services based on mobile GIS, which are helping improve customer service. One example related to inbound complaints it might receive about graffiti or fly-tipping. Office staff drop a pin on the map with all the details and assign staff in the field to carry out any work needed. Using handheld devices, they in turn confirm when tasks are complete, attach photos and update the status.

Using GIS in this way means that Bracknell is not only fulfilling its requirements to act on complaints but also making use of the geographic trends and hotspots it reveals. This allows them to modify processes to decrease the amount of future requests or complaints and therefore reduce costs too.


Future opportunities

Some other technology innovations predicted to become widespread in coming months, included the increased use of live data feeds such as traffic flows, drone data in multiple guises and the rise of 3D mapping. All combining to further enhance the ability to understand a business and make better decisions.

What was clear by the end of the event, was that many housing associations are continually looking at how best to adopt a location strategy to help change their processes for the better, increase automation, speed up workflows and gain more strategic insights.