Setting up systems to form a golden thread of information about their assets is powering housing providers to think differently about information and the way they interact with customers, as Chris Lees, chief executive of Dataclan, tells Denise Chevin.
The need to develop digital repositories of information about their housing stock is having a galvanising effect on housing providers. It has encouraged the more forward-thinking to explore how sharing data across asset management, housing management and development can benefit their residents while also streamlining their operations.
At the centre of this drive is data standards specialist Chris Lees, who is working with a number of housing providers to develop systems that link together information from different departments.
Lees has been writing standards for commercial property sector organisation OSCRE since the late 90s and collaborating with other data standards through buildingSMART and the UK BIM Alliance, although he originally began working in housing with projects for the Housing Associations’ Charitable Trust (HACT).
“The problem we’re trying to solve is to keep people safe and to do that we need to be able to rely on the information that we have about the building.”
Lees says: “I’ve only worked in housing for a few years. My background has been in drawing up data standards for commercial property development. What I noticed when I entered the sector was that the various departments in housing tend to work in silos.
“But people have started to say, instead of thinking about housing management and assets, let’s really think about the customer – and that spans both, because one of the things that any housing provider will tell you is, if you’re looking at customer satisfaction, the number one problem that customers will report is repairs.
“And so, when you start taking a customer view, that starts to bring together the asset world and the housing management.”
The demands of the Building Safety Bill for a golden thread of information, and housing providers’ own desire to ensure safety of residents in the aftermath of Grenfell, is driving the desire to use data better.
Lees is a member of the Golden Thread Working Group of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee (BRAC), which is establishing protocols for the golden thread. But he stresses we don’t know yet precisely what the full and final details will be.
“Putting aside for a minute what the legislation says, the problem we’re trying to solve is to keep people safe and to do that we need to be able to rely on the information that we have about the building. In many cases, we either don’t have that or it’s impossibly hard to find.”
Lees points to the “crazy” situation where development building information is handed over to the client in boxes full of files, who then commissions a surveyor to tell them what’s in the building: an enormously expensive and evasive process.
Like the construction industry at large, Lees points to the importance of getting design and construction information handed over to the client in a digitally and, importantly, structured format using the standards prescribed in the BIM standard ISO 19650 – OSCRE, IFC or COBie. That also means setting out these essentials in employer’s requirements.
Lees notes: “I have demonstrated that actually IFC and OSCRE standards are interoperable – so if the construction team is using IFC and the client is using OSCRE, it’s fine, it all maps.” He has been doing this interoperability work with fellow consultant Nick Nisbet, director of AEC3 UK.
If housing providers are to harness their data to boost safety and join up ‘customer functions’ with ‘asset type functions’, then just as important as adopting standards in the construction supply chain is standardising data internally too. Lees says that that is normally not the case.
Fire safety flagged up instantly
Dataclan and the pandemic
Dataclan, Lees’ consultancy, was formed 18 months ago by a group of experts who were on the covid-19 expert panels during the pandemic. Two of the team have expertise in property and housing, and both of them are members of the BRAC Golden Thread Working Group. Other members of Dataclan include organisational psychologist Dr Clare Murray, architect and built environment specialist Dr William Fawcett, and clinical expert Professor David Wray.
Lees was originally invited to join the BRAC working group because of the work he’s done for HACT on data standards. He’s also technical director of OSCRE, which develops global real estate data standards.
He paints a future scenario of the ultimate benefits of asset and customer data combining to boost safety: “If a customer rings up to report a door at the end of the corridor is not closing, the technology knows who the person is talking to the customer service agent, who should be able pull up details about that person’s home in 3D, establish through a simple triage process which fire door they are referring to and before the call is finished the housing provider should be able to pinpoint the asset and establish if it’s a critical part of their fire safety system.”
He continues: “You should know that before the customers leaves the call, or finishes online, whichever mode they are communicating through. You don’t want to wait until a repairs request is raised to find out it’s a critical fire door.”
Lees says this is the direction of travel for housing associations, and getting all the digital information in the right form on new build represents good progress, but it will obviously take longer for existing buildings.
He says that for organisations he is currently working with, including Hyde and BIM4Housing Associations, it is all to do with building structures for data.
“You have got to get those data models right. And you’ve got to make sure that the systems you’re using are using those data models. And then the other step is to be able to be intelligent about getting machines to do some of the heavy lifting so as to make sense and use of such large amounts of data.
“If you are going to record all assets and then see they are repaired, updated etc, the asset manager looking at a report at the end of the week won’t want to see 30,000 data updates for all of the tiny, individual things that have happened. So we need the technology to help us and start telling us more what we need to look at.”
He adds: “I think this is the big cultural shift. I think at the moment, there’s a mindset that says it’s people that need to know what they need to look at. And then it’s all about having information management systems that allow them to find it.
“That’s really important. But my argument is that’s only a part of the solution. We need to get to the point where as the customer reports the repair, we know that it’s part of a fire compartment, and we know which fire compartments, who installed it, when it was last inspected, and we know where the certificate is for its commissioning.”
Machine learning is part of the solution
If AI is to be part of the solution, again it’s about getting data in a standardised format so that it can be read by a machine, says Lees.
Success in the current stages of this journey is ensuring what he describes as “less noise and greater visibility of the important stuff”, leaving housing association staff to concentrate on the elements on their critical path. Currently, too much of the focus is on making sure checks and inspections are done on time. “In future, I think we should be saying, ‘Okay, we’ve done the check. And this is what we found’, so let’s make sure we deal with what we found in a really timely and effective way.”
“You have got to get those data models right. And you’ve got to make sure that the systems you’re using are using those data models.”
As part of this transition, housing associations will be upgrading software, either developing their own systems with regular suppliers or, increasingly, adapting application platforms like Microsoft Dynamics and tailoring them to their needs. Cyferd, a so-called low-code/no-code platform, is a company one of Lees’ housing associations clients has been partnering with.
So where are we on this digital journey at the moment?
“There’s certainly a lot of the medium-to-large housing providers really taking hold of the challenge, and from what I’ve seen, very effectively, to address the challenges for safety, which is really encouraging.
“It’s still quite early days. And I think that the people I’m talking to know that they’ve got a tonne of work to do. So there is some anxiety about getting it all done fast enough. I do worry for the smaller housing providers, who still may have high rise in their portfolio, who are not going to have the resources to buy and customise solutions like Dynamics 365 and will be reliant on the suppliers – some of whom are making extraordinary claims, such as their software is ‘compliant with the golden thread for building safety’, which as we know, has not even been defined yet.”
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