Digital transformation in social housing with smart mapping

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 17

Bracknell Forest Homes is applying digital mapping in new ways to improve internal processes and, in some cases, introduce completely new ways of operating. Andrew Keljarrett, its business improvement manager, outlines how the housing association is using a GIS (Geographic Information System) as part of its digital transformation strategy.

GIS mapping was traditionally used in housing to inform staff of the location of assets, establish land ownership rights or see where property boundaries lay. But things have moved on. Today, new technology is allowing us to introduce the benefit of smart mapping across our organisation, to reduce under-occupancy rates, find new development opportunities and reduce the risk of tree damage. 

Reducing risk from trees 

Our journey with digital mapping began by giving us a better method of managing our trees, reducing the risk of potential litigation. Trees are of particular importance to Bracknell Forest Homes, as we have 10,000 of them to look after, in addition to our 6,000 homes and 1,075 leaseholder properties.

GIS helps our tree team take a measured approach to risk from possible tree damage. Now, using a mobile GIS app, the team can 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 us around £50,000 a year. The GIS approach has also allowed staff to prioritise trees for inspection, depending on their potential danger level to the public or property, creating a more intelligent way of working and further reducing risk. 

Reducing under-occupancy 

With the introduction of new online mapping tools, we have also been able to solve other problems. We recently moved almost our entire under-occupancy process onto GIS, which is now helping to reduce under-occupancy rates. 

A new mobile survey app first helps staff assess the needs of tenants out in the field, with the resulting data feeding directly into the GIS. The project officer can then use various filters to examine this information using the 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. This whole process is executed within the GIS by one officer and significantly speeds up the process of matching candidates to more appropriately-sized properties. Overall, it’s helping us find more suitable homes for tenants and minimises any conversion costs, which are usually involved in making larger homes more suitable for elderly residents. 

Better use of assets 

Bracknell Forest Homes has started looking at how GIS can help make strategic, value-for-money-led decisions. One example is loading data about the stock condition of garages into a map application, then analysing it using variables such as location, condition, repair costs and rent revenue. This will help us make strategic decisions on how best to utilise these garage sites. 

Examples include further investment in stock, alternate use such as brightly lit parking spaces or even redevelopment. This should lead to reduced long-term maintenance costs, improved facilities for residents and create new revenue opportunities. 

Improved customer service 

Other new streamlined services at Bracknell are based on mobile GIS, which make internal processes more efficient and reduce response times to customer complaints. When we receive an inbound complaint about graffiti or fly-tipping, for example, office staff drop a pin on the map with the details and assign staff in the field to carry out any work. Using handheld devices, they in turn confirm tasks are complete, attach photos and then update the status. 

To make all of these new ways of working possible, we introduced a mix of mobile, Cloud and web-based GIS, integrated into a single mapping system to create ‘one version of the truth’. And there’s certainly a lot more we can achieve in other areas of the business with it. 

Plans for the future include placing more of our internal processes into the GIS and expanding the automation of tasks that it provides. Projects will include looking at our assets in more depth to determine possible alternative use, to adopting a more proactive stance on land sales. It’s smarter ways of working like this that GIS can support, which helps transform the business for the better.

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