Dashboard data sample

Death of the dashboard?

A few years ago I spoke about the ‘death of the report’. Now, with UK housing data strategies becoming more sophisticated, I wonder if the ‘death of the dashboard’ is imminent.

Data strategies and associated governance models are critical to any company, not just in social housing. A dashboard is the gateway to specific information, perhaps; but like reports used to be, it’s becoming more of a repository for someone simply wanting a quick answer. That is not a bad thing, but in itself it does not solve many problems we face.

So, reports and dashboards may provide you with an answer or two, and a quick fix. But do they give you solutions to a problem, do they identify where problems lie or indeed what the problem is? I don’t think so, not in their entirety. They hint, they tease and they sound good don’t they: ‘Let’s look at our dashboard’.

I’m not ganging up on the dashboard, so please don’t call me out for ‘dashboardism’, or ‘anti-dash’. I’m not against them. I just think we can do better in designing them. In fact, I know we can do better.

Data strategies: a golden opportunity?

What if we focused on the art of the possible and how data can solve problems, even the ones you don’t know about? Imagine that. Imagine the ability to proactively look at data as an asset you can turn into gold.

There are many ways you can do this. For example:

  • Anomaly detection – where you spot a significant anomaly in the data that needs action. This could be crucial in maintenance, rents, arrears, voids and more; and in many cases, #ukhousing teams have access to real-time data
  • Demand and capacity planning – when you use internal and external data to predict demand and convert to capacity requirements. Repairs and development are two areas that spring to mind, but there could be many more
  • Scenario and outcomes predictions – or crystal ball gazing. Data can help you test what might happen if you do x instead of y, or choose ‘this’ instead of ‘that’
  • Pattern recognition – where you look for significant patterns in raw data. ASB, complaints or any landlord service where information is collected – this is a chance to see what’s going on, and then do something about it
  • Predictive asset maintenance – want to predict when an asset will fail or need maintenance? Data can be your friend here – saving you time and money and protecting your reputation
  • Prescriptive modelling/action – this allows identification of optimal system inputs to generate desired outcomes. So, if you can work out the best starting point, you can aim towards a desired solution
  • Causal analysis – data can show possible ’cause and effect’ and correlation relationships. This approach can be used in neighbourhood management, anti-social behaviour (ASB), arrears and so on. For example, if you are building a case in ASB, you can stretch across multiple cases to see the cause and then detect the actual effects. Basically, if you know the cause and have hard evidence to back this up, you’ve got the tools to do something about it
  • Data structuring – you can convert unstructured and semi-structured data (such as paper, images, audio or spreadsheets) to structured and usable data, using techniques such as Natural Language Processing and Computer Vision. It’s not rocket science, it’s data science and data engineering. With structured data you have the ability to see further, to understand more and to find the answers quicker.

These are just some techniques you can use to bring value to bring value to your data. There are many more. Your systems, and the right technical know-how, can play a fundamental part in helping you to:

  1. Deliver more efficiency and more agility through data
  2. Unlock the value of the data in your housing systems and applications
  3. Make more informed and calculated decisions based on insight and information
  4. Do things faster, easier and costing less. Really!

Want to learn more?

If you’d like to discover how data can help you unearth secret problems, find answers or solutions and provide even more effective and aligned services to tenants – please contact us today.

You have the raw data, so let’s turn it into gold!

Further reading

Data strategy and governance services

Data improvement services

A story of data and perseverance

Let me tell you a story about data. Why? 

Well, I (and many others) believe that story telling is important in business as it gives a real-life insight into how things come about, uses less business jargon, and can bring to life a specific journey without the need for a presentation or anything other than a story. Of course, the story must be true.

A long, long time ago…

This story begins 4 years ago late in the evening in a hotel bar in Aberdeen. I was with my rugby club’s mini’s youth tour. I was a coach and a so-called responsible adult. Hmmm. Our kids were running about causing havoc in the hotel when some of us parents were sipping an orange juice.

There were two other parents that I had not met before and I got talking to, and as luck would have it, we had hit upon the specific topic of data after we got to that moment when someone says: ‘What do you do?’. 

‘I have worked in IT and Systems for the last 3 decades’ I told them, and now own a business delivering consultancy in the social housing sector.

They both owned a data science company that had grown considerably and was delivering great projects for a wide range of companies worldwide, all in the private sector of retail, banking etc. 

Some great customers there I said and jokingly (those who know me, will know I can just blurt things out in the moment) asked if they have ever done work on data in the public or third sector. 

They hadn’t, but there in lay the challenge.

‘Why not?’ I asked.

Our first steps in #ukhousing

This was four years ago, give or take a few months, so those reading this from a social housing track will know that although some were looking at data analysis, reporting (yuk), even a dashboard or two, it wasn’t by any means top of the social landlord’s agenda. 

‘It never hit our radar’ they said, and ‘nobody has ever asked from that sector’ they supplemented. 

I know I used to be a lot more critical back then. I was after all still a young pup in my forties, albeit my late forties, but I did say that one of the issues with the social housing sector, and still is to a degree, is that they are very insular and don’t look for solutions or best practice from the outside. 

So, was there a way we could join forces to look at data solutions for the sector by using my consultancies knowledge of the sector and their specific expertise in data science and engineering?

You bet there was. 

We designed some services that brought data analytics and Power BI dashboards to several landlords, and it worked well. However, in business some things throw you off-piste. In this case, they were acquired by a large American company and were taken in some different directions that meant our dream of saving the social housing worlds data-based problems through data science, engineering and problem solving was off the table.

And that was that.

Let’s try again!

Until that is the founders of that business, the two I bumped into that night recently brought up the subject of trying again. They now had a new business full of talented data scientists, engineers, analysts, and problem solvers.

And so, we did try again. This time it’s even better, and it’s now a service that is about to make some serious in roads to helping landlords with their data-based problems. 

We both love that joining of forces where we can bring some of the UK’s leading minds in data, working alongside my own company that is so determined to make a difference and create change in the sector, this time with one of your most valuable assets, and you could argue, perhaps over that late night orange juice, your most important asset. Data!

Find out more and get in touch about our brand new Data Improvement Services.

Not all swamps are as cute as Shrek’s.

You may have heard about a Data Lake, but you might not have heard about a Data Swamp. Yes, they are a thing.

We all know that more and more data is being collected by companies. The need to collect increasing amounts of data and of course store it, risks creating data swamps. The word swamp came about as a way of describing the out of control, somewhat messy version of what was intended to be a data lake. I generally use the term for any scenario where the overall data repositories are messy, somewhat disorganised.

A data swamp is a horrible place, unlike a data lake which is a beautiful place that allows companies to retrieve and use their data efficiently and effectively.

The uglier, smelly, dangerous even, data swamps can make both those goals very difficult and perhaps impossible. They are a sign of mishandling data for sometimes years. They are a sign of poor data management and strategies.

However, all is not lost.

There are a number of strategies you can employ to ensure you don’t sink into the murky depths of a data swamp, which let’s face it, a number of those reading this will have one foot in already.

Data management strategy and governance

Ask yourself this. Do we have an actual over-arching data strategy? In response to this we have heard the following from landlords. Surely, we don’t need one if our systems are working ok. Surely that is for really large companies? Surely all we need to do is follow GDPR. All wrong, and indeed dangerous.

Excellent data governance is what equips your organisation to maintain a high level of data quality throughout the entire data lifecycle from creation to destruction.

Data governance defines how to work with data, who should access it, handle it, how long you retain the information for, deciding where the data is stored and so much more.

It simply isn’t enough to assume that these clever systems you have spent a lot of money on will do it for you. Sure, setting up roles and permissions in a system, in your active directory, and perhaps even making these the same thing isn’t enough. You need a strategy and indeed associated policies. You also need a strong governance model. They all go hand in hand so don’t scrimp. Get started, or get improving now, before it is too late.

Set yourself some homework to avoid a data swamp

You don’t get results from sitting back and doing nothing. A good strategy and policies ensure you have regular homework to do. If homework is a term that fills you with fear from your school days, then it’s easy, think of it as admin or maintenance. Maintenance is very apt as we all know that working parts need maintenance for them to continue to work at their best. Data is no different. It can very much be seen as a moving part in the operations of your company.

Tasks you would expect to do need to be formalised, structured and set owners, and those responsible for carrying them out. This is absolutely critical to the ongoing success of data management and turning your data into gold. One specific task that I wanted to highlight is that of cleaning your data. It links to the later area of data quality. If you don’t ensure your data is a clean or indeed tidy (not messy), then a great deal else falls into place neatly. Analytics make more sense, report and dashboards can be trusted and staff and customers are happier.

Reach for quality: having irrelevant data, old data, nonsensical data is simply not acceptable.

This is the cardinal sin of a great deal of companies across the world, in many sectors. It’s not something specific to social housing. We talk about rubbish in-rubbish-out. Well, I certainly mention this regularly. Imagine you need to make a decision based on the life span of a boiler part, but this information is messy, with some wrong dates in there. It may be that this was human error, or perhaps even the way your new system managed the data. The point here is that if you are not on it, and the data is not accurate, relevant or indeed even spelled wrong then decisions based on this data can end in disaster, literally.

The main take away here is that there is homework to be done. There is maintenance required, and if you don’t do it, and don’t set it out in the strategies and policies then expect a data swamp, expect mistakes, expect costs to rise and expect unhappy customers.

The next steps towards preventing a data swamp

So, above outlines three straight forward yet challenging areas to get sorted. To be fair, you can apply these to not just avoiding your data lake becoming a swamp, but you can simply use them as guides to better manage your data, lake or not. Need some help with that? Get in touch!

The Data Chainsaw Massacre: Digital Skills Training

The Tree

I can hear you think, what does a chainsaw have to do with digital skills training?

Imagine I was moaning to someone about the massive tree in my back garden blocking out the summer sunshine from my home and garden. ‘Really need to do something about that….’ And I’ve been saying that for a few years now, while the tree gets bigger and bigger. We all know how things like that go…

The person I was moaning to has had enough of me moaning, and one day comes by with a surprise: A CHAINSAW!

“There you go”, they say, “problem solved! Use this chainsaw to cut down the tree or at least some of the big branches!”, and, muttered under their breath ‘and then please stop moaning…

I look at the chainsaw, then at the tree, and then back at the chainsaw, and think ‘oh dear…

The tree IS massive. And that chainsaw is quite heavy and scary. And, really, should I be using that? Or, well, technically what I meant was that I’d need to ring someone, like a professional. A tree surgeon for example, to come and solve my problem, as well, me using a chainsaw… Really? And adding to that, it’s raining a bit now, and my arm is still a bit sore from weights training, so I’ll put it in the shed for now…

A chainsaw is a tool, a heavy tool, not to be wielded lightly. It’s not a solution; giving me a chainsaw is not going to solve my problems for at least three reasons. First of all, I do not have the knowledge to use it. Second, and because of number one, I don’t have the confidence to use it. Third, even if I did have one and two, I do not have the other tools needed to use the chainsaw safely and effectively.

So… the chainsaw will sit there in the garage, (probably forever). My friend wasted their money, and the tree still blocks my sun. Still, I dare not moan about it anymore when meeting with that friend because they’d simply say ‘…well, I gave you a chainsaw…!’ On top of that I’d have to admit my lack of knowledge, confidence, the fact I’m not investing in other tools (decent ladder, any safety kit perhaps…). The only problem that got solved was me moaning about a tree, not the actual tree and the fact that it is blocking out the sun.

Digital Tools, not Solutions

I see the same happening with Digital Tools in housing associations (and it happens in other sectors as well, probably).

Digital Transformation is at the forefront of every single housing association I’m checking out/applying for/interviewing with at the moment. And rightfully so. Every day someone somewhere thinks of something new, starts developing a new application, device, website or data management system. Most of them will fail, some of them will change our lives forever.

If the Covid Pandemic has shown us anything, it is that we need to embrace these failures and successes in order to get better at working more agile, more digital, and more flexible with that. It has also, hopefully, taught us that just giving people a tablet or a phone or a laptop, or making a web-application ‘responsive’ isn’t a solution; it’s providing people with tools that need to be used correctly, with confidence and often in tandem with other tools in order to solve any (part of a) problem. You can achieve this by providing (ongoing) digital skills training.

But, you mentioned the Data Chainsaw Massacre!?

Whatever digital tools you use, whether it’s hardware or software, they are a way to input, manage, and manipulate the data you use to run your organisation financially, sustainably and socially. If there are members of staff that don’t feel comfortable with the ‘solution’ handed to them, it could be detrimental to your data integrity, and with that your services and entire business.

So, if you think you have handed them ‘the solution’, but the tablets and laptops stay in desk drawers because they are too bulky, too scary or too much hassle to use ‘out and about’, your data is at serious risk. They might feel daft asking for more training and practice, embarrassed because it ‘should be so easy’.

Equally, if people do try to use them but in the incorrect way, they risk losing valuable information themselves to be able to do their jobs correctly, which in turn has an effect on the tenant.

Tools have a tendency to not work in isolation. Whether that’s a chisel without a hammer, a hammer without a nail, or a chainsaw without the confidence and physical strength to wield it. The same is true for your organisation; whether it’s about hardware, software or the knowledge, mindset, and confidence to work with the previous two in the correct way.

Tools don’t make the professional

Sometimes it’s best to leave things to professionals. Even though you might have access to the same physical tools they have. I will not be cutting back or down that tree in my garden on my own. I will pay a professional to do it in my stead. Why? I know that if I would try it, there would be a significant risk I’d not only hurt myself. I might hurt other people and buildings as well; although I’d ask them to stay clear before I’d get chopping, obviously.

The difference between me and that professional are that they have had adequate training and hours and hours of practice in handling that chainsaw. They didn’t just receive a chainsaw from a friend (although, who knows, it might have started out like that!). Instead, they have all the other bits and bobs needed to make the cutting down or back of trees a success with minimal risk to others.

So, what do we do? Digital Skills Training!

If you decide to invest in providing people with digital tools to help your organisation provide better services, you have to make sure those tools aren’t just handed over with minimal instruction and an open invite to ‘come and find us if you have any questions’. You have to provide them with digital skills training. You have to make sure you choose and set them up in a way that also make your staff’s work easier and not more difficult. That will keep them from using it, meaning your investment is not just void, but even detrimental to your service. This is all part of your data strategy.

Make sure you have one correct way of doing things. Provide one clear expectation of entering and working with data. Provide not just one-off but continuous digital skills training to make sure that tools and skills align. This also makes sure that training is for everyone and nobody feels ‘less’ than someone else for asking for more help or explanation.

And, let’s not forget, people might think they know how to use it, but they might not realise they actually don’t. Providing training for everyone means you have more control over the impact you want your digital tools to have.

Provide the correct frameworks, training and support materials to help your staff understand what you expect of them. Show them that if they put in the effort of learning how to use it can make their lives easier. Otherwise, that tree might come crashing down on not just your own house, but also those of your tenants.