Open data tool allowing housing staff to understand social trends

As we approach the end of the second week since the Community Insight launch, things are yet to die down at our headquarters. Welcomed with an array of positive feedback and with the future looking to hold yet greater things for the open data housing tool, Matt Leach, chief executive at HACT, discusses the benefits and future of Community Insight on the Guardian Housing Network.

A new digital tool will help housing providers map data about their stock on top of statistical information about their areas, from crime rates to use of local mental health services. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

The lifespan of flagship government initiatives can be butterfly-short; the ‘big society’ was an astonishing example of policy launch, relaunch, redefinition and abandonment in less than 12 months. Some last longer but without ever achieving discernible results – the ‘third way’ delivered an endless stream of pamphlets and seminars, but achieved far less in terms of lasting impact.

Some initiatives launched with without fanfare, however, can start to drive structural shifts in the ways our society works, without imprinting themselves on the public consciousness or making it far beyond the specialist press. The government’s open data white paper quietly fired the starting gun on a wave of innovation in the way citizens engage, understand and interact with the state, providing increasing access to information which help us understand our government and the communities we live in.

From being a nation characterised by relatively closed government, with information held close to decision-makers and rarely shared, the UK has become a world leader in terms of the availability of publicly-owned data. The radical shift that accompanies this promises to change both expectations and experiences of the way public services are provided at both national and local level in ways we are just starting to understand.

As David Hand noted earlier this year, “open data empowers communities: the truth about crime rates, educational achievement, social services and so on is laid bare… open data may even lead to more accurate conclusions and better decisions, as a wider variety of interested parties have the opportunity to examine the facts”.

Change rarely happens for one reason alone; often it is driven by a coming together of factors. In the case of open data, it is a combination of newly available datastreams, increasingly sophisticated and affordable mapping technology and an explosion in innovation driven by new tools to create both web and mobile apps capable of delivering services that, until recently, required specialist staff and expensive technology to access.

The housing sector is starting to lever the power of data and mapping to drive their businesses. Andy Bradley from Aster highlighted the great work it is doing on the Guardian Housing Network last month. Over the last few weeks, Hact has be holding seminars in Manchester, Birmingham and London with the newly launched Open Data Institute at which Aster, Places for People and Midland Heart will all showcase what they have achieved in their businesses through levering the power of data to improve their businesses and deliver more for their communities.

Hact has also launched its own data tool for the housing sector. Together with OCSI we have created Community Insight, a web-based information service allowing housing providers to access, analyse and report on a huge range of publicly available data sources relevant to their communities.

Community Insight has been designed from scratch for use by staff at all levels within the housing sector. It provides graphic mapping of social indicators in housing provider neighbourhoods, creating community profiles on demand. It is based on the latest data released by national government and other agencies, and will always been up to date.

Like the best web and mobile apps, Community Insight is designed to be simple to use: a housing provider simply uploads data about their stock and can instantly generate maps and reports on the areas they work in.

It doesn’t just overlay stock on top of data maps: it allows custom definition of neighbourhoods (literally by drawing on a map), bespoke reporting and the ability to compare need and change against other neighbourhoods and communities. Part of it will also be free for anyone to use from early next year – we aim to have the site open to all in February 2013.

Using Community Insight requires no special training in GIS mapping or data analysis. Anyone in any organisation can use the information and generate their own reports. It is designed so anyone can pick up, understand and use it within 90 seconds of logging in for the first time. It reduces the burdens on data and analytical staff to provide community-focused information, providing strategic information for those making decision about how to spend resources, and where. Thanks to the data that is freely available, housing professionals can have instant access to social data for all staff who need it – when they need it.

 Original article can be found here on the Guardian Housing Network. 

Community Insight; preparing housing providers for the seasonal chill

Matt Leach (CEO, HACT) talks us through the (terror filled) festive season and the challenges that businesses rooted in place and communities will face in light of extended austerity measures. Despite the seasonal chill, housing associations need only hide behind their sofas during the Dr. Who Christmas special!

For those impatient for the traditional festive ritual of hiding behind the sofa during the Doctor Who Christmas Special (and this year it looks very scary indeed), it might be worth pointing out a few sources of terror to fill the few short weeks now to Boxing Day.

[source BBC promo pictures release]

A good point to start might be this summer’s catchily titled Funding outlook for councils from 2010/11 to 2019/20: preliminary modelling which takes a time traveller-style trip forward to look at the likely state of local government funding towards the end of the decade.

[Source: LGA 2012]

If that doesn’t provide enough of a seasonal chill, the recent IFS report published ahead of the autumn statement holds out the prospect that austerity will need to run until 2017-2018, with a further £8bn of cuts and £11bn of tax rises (or more cuts) needed on top of those under the current settlement.  All of which presents a dystopian future of a sort that rivals any encountered by a timelord exiting his Tardis, and one that – still safe in 2012 – few have fully appreciated is likely to emerge very soon indeed.

In the face of a retreating state and continued economic troubles, those institutions still standing will face increased pressure to meet the needs of populations who in the past would have looked to the state for support and assistance, whether in getting jobs, starting a business or improving their health and wellbeing.

As independent, ethos-driven businesses rooted in place and communities, with a strong asset base and – for now – relatively stable incomes, the housing association sector will find it hard to avoid the challenge.  Landlords to 1 in 8 households across England, with property located in many of our already most disadvantaged areas, they will have little choice about whether to engage.  Much of the impact of the disappearance of state provision will fall on the communities and individuals who are their day to day business.  The question is not if but how they respond.

To cope and respond to the extent of social and economic dislocation that we are likely to seen over the next six to eight years, traditional community investment approaches will not be enough.  Housing associations will need to mobilise the full potential of their turnover, assets and people to generate new value – social and economic – for their communities, and they will need to generate it through everything that they do.

That should not be because of state-driven legislation (whatever the recent ResPublica report may seek to advocate), but rather because of ethos, purpose and social mission – the drivers that underpinned the founding of the movement some 150 years ago, and its rebirth in the 1960s wave of community-based housing activity – when my own organisation was founded as part of that new housing movement (and Doctor Who first came on our screens).

Traditional approaches to impact measurement, such as social return on investment generated on a project by project basis, will not be enough to underpin that shift. Instead, new technologies and tools will need to be developed to understand the community context of housing activity, forecast and model impact and support the optimisation of the social returns of whole businesses.

HACT is starting to develop a range of those tools and approaches, working with a growing number of housing providers looking to equip themselves for a challenging future.  This week we launched new mapping software  – – allowing housing providers to instantly access always up to date data about the communities they work in. It provides vital information on the communities housing providers work in, and includes access to a wide range of data sets and indicators, including indices of deprivation, economic deprivation and child wellbeing, up to the minute data on unemployment and benefits, educational attainment, health and crime by neighbourhood.

In early January, we will be publishing cutting edge research on new approaches to measuring and evidencing social and economic impact, ahead of a year of work on social impact measurement.  The future is coming fast, and we can’t afford to hide behind the sofa.

This article originally appeared in New Start Magazine