Big data, big problems

In the wondrous world that is social housing we collect a shed load of data on our customers/tenants/residents/people what live in our dwellings.  However as a general rule we have not been brilliant at a) using it effectively b) keeping it updated.  As Richard Blundell quite bluntly puts it we have historically been bad with data because we have had very little reason to need to be good with it.  As he also notes with the welfare reforms in full swing it is probably a wise move to get to know our customers.

Mr Blundell’s sales-pitch aside the chap does highlight one or two failings within our sector.  Over the years I have heard horror stories over ‘forgotten’ estates or of social landlords finding they have stock registered in places they don’t even operate in.  Having largely worked in roles that heavily use data (both on stock and households) I know how much of a ballache it is to keep on top of things.  Especially when idiots don’t put stock on the housing management system or, my pet hate, use spreadsheets to keep track of things like planned maintenance works.  If you have a housing management system with a planned maintenance module use the damn thing or failing that find yourself a new job.

If you are reading this and thinking that it doesn’t affect your organisation the chances are you are probably a bit too far up the food chain.  One of things that has struck me from a speech by Sarah Cooke, of Midland Heart fame, at last year’s Young Leaders Experience was her statement that the higher up you go up in social housing the less problems their appear to be with you requests, or with the organisation in general.  This is definitely the case in terms of issues around data.  Senior management want figures, not major caveats around why the figures are next to meaningless.  That is not to say that they are oblivious to the problems concerning data, just that they may not always appreciate how messed up things have been.

If you still thinking your organisation is OK tell me a) how many properties you both own and manage (split by tenure type please) and and b) how many of your customers have a disability.  I guarantee you if you ask question (a) to your finance director, director of housing and the monkey in charge of repairs and maintenance you will get 3 different answers (or at the very least two contradictory ones).  If you ask question (b) especially if you want to know the changes over a period of time, you will get a response with more loopholes than your average piece of tax legislation.

It’s not even the case that many organisations have bad computer systems, we just don’t use them properly or effectively.  Most data input will be done by housing assistants or your contact centre because these are the people that either have the most contact with customers or get handed all the crap jobs.  My question would be how often these poor sods get trained to correctly enter the data, probably not that often.  Actually, definitely not that often as my roles have required me to go and clean up the mess that is left in the wake of them incorrectly storing data.  You find that with a little encouragement, a handily designed idiot’s guide and some time and attention people get what is needed to be done.  Failing that a big stick works (joking…kinda).  Often things just need a little light maintenance.  One of my favourite mistakes to find is a new contact that has been made for an expected child.  Great, but the contact was set up in 2010.  Either that is one hell of a long pregnancy or someone has not been updating their records.  Apparently housing associations, like right wing Americans, appear to only care about children when they are in the womb…

Despite Nick ‘two face’ Clegg and co trying to distance themselves from the monumental travesty that is the bedroom tax (how the hell did Iain Duncan Smith keep his job? Is he their care in the community project?) it is likely to be around for a while.  And with things like Universal Credit and the benefit cap sticking about, better knowledge around our customers is always welcome.  All in all it is time we slightly upped our game around customer records, not quite a ‘must try harder’ but certainly a ‘room for improvement’ grade from me.  On a side note I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who spotted the old political trick of trying to bury bad news on a busy news day.  Kudos Jules Birch.  For more info on the bedroom tax take a look at Speye’s blog.  He is as accurate as he is prolific.

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2 thoughts on “Big data, big problems

  1. The criticism you make of data is largely fair based upon my experience. Sometimes you get different answers to what seems like a straighforward question is that the question itself is not clear enough. In Aster we are setting up a peer review system for ensuring that the data questions and answers match and to be fair to housing management systems they can only deal with the data which has been put into them.

    Your point on disability is interesting. You could ask do housing associations have the right to that information, especially around mental health and therefore the data we hold depends almost entirely on the customers own declarations. Also I would suggest that it is impossible for us to know with complete accuracy how many people live in our homes, this is hugely dynamic with birth deaths, young people leaving home (or returning), relationship breakdowns etc.

    Part of the issue is understanding the limitations of the data and people being prepared to live with that uncertianty while making sure the data we should have – stock holdings, stock condition, delviery of services etc is accurate and well defined.


    1. Valid points all round. I very often get requests that are lacking in clarity, though usually after a short discussion it is possible to nail down what the person actually wants. I would be interested to see how your peer review system develops, sounds like it could have legs.

      Sensitive information is always a tricky proposition, I certainly wouldn’t want to have residents feel like they have to give use that data. I agree there are flaws with self-reporting but that it is also there most ethically suitable option available. Again with the household situation this true, but occasionally I feel we need to be better at data (re)capture. To feed in unobtrusive processes that enable organisations to keep information as up to date as possible without interfering too much in the day to day lives of our customers.

      Couldn’t agree more on the final point, frank discussions occasionally need to be had with operating staff around what can or cannot be collected. They say that there is a place for everything and everything in its place. In relation to data there is a caveat for everything.

      On the whole I feel we are moving in the right direction, though as with everything I guess time will tell if this truly the case.


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