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.

How can technology help #ukhousing fight domestic abuse?

Even though England lost, it will have come home for too many people suffering from domestic abuse – what can tech do about it?

England lost last night’s Euro 2020 final to Italy. Even though I’m Dutch and of course a bit sour about ‘my team’ exiting stage left that quickly, I truly wanted the team to do well. Not as much for the country as for the individuals that make up the team, and for those who suffer from domestic abuse.

This team is something else, and regardless of what one makes of the behaviour of a part of the spectators (won’t call them fans) and the media, I personally think it is brilliant to see these young lads stand up (and kneel) for what they believe in; a fairer world where nobody is left behind regardless of the colour of their skin, place of birth, who they love and how they know themselves.

In this light, I also want them to do well because, as is being highlighted more and more over the last few years, there is a very significant relationship between England’s national football team losing and an increase in alcohol-related male-to-female domestic abuse.

As you can read in this brave and sad blog written by a member of staff at a housing provider who for very obvious reasons wants to remain anonymous, football and the emotions and habits that are associated with it (and accepted as such) cannot just be done away with as ‘just a game’; it becomes a sometimes life threatening ordeal of survival. If yesterday’s scenes in London are anything to go by, last night, for too many people like this anonymous author, the only thing that came home was violence and abuse.

Technology isn’t always the saviour

Doing a quick search on ‘technology and domestic abuse’ to see what kind of technology is out there to help victims and survivors of domestic abuse isn’t the great and inspirational read that you may think it is. Indeed, while having access to online sources to search and ask for help, if anything, a lot of these communication technologies that have made their way into our daily habits and lives, such as phones, tablets, laptops and PCs are also the most-used ways to monitor, stalk and harass victims.

Being reachable every time of day already has its downsides, but for those in abusive relationships, a potential constant stream of messages, calls and ‘checking in’ is just the tip of the iceberg. In many abusive relationships, there is no hiding, no locking devices, no passwords, nothing that can keep the abuser from gaining access to what you might be telling your friends and family.

It’s also not just the inherently bad things. Where my partner and I use an app called ‘Life360’ to see whether someone’s on their way home and whether we can start the cooking and the like (and to curb my own anxiety of something happening during the motorcycle commute), others use apps like this to keep track of their victim’s every movement, and refusing or switching it off isn’t an option either, as that will only lead to more (severe) forms of abuse. And let’s not think about hidden ‘nanny cams’ in combination with Wi-Fi…!

Tech for Good: is it possible?

At DTL one of our core mottos is to use Tech for Good. As we have just seen in the previous section, that’s not an easy feat, even the things that we thought we’d design ‘for good’. The government’s encouragement then to ‘design technology products in a way that minimises the opportunities for abuse may help address this issue’ isn’t as straightforward as they make it out to be.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and keep thinking about how we could use technology in ways that make it at least VERY difficult for malice intent to be invited in. As I say all the time, ‘there’s *rseh*l*s everywhere’. One way or another they will find ways to harm people even using tools and tech that were supposed to be helping people, but we have to keep trying, not just by then trying something completely new, but if tech suppliers and designers can acknowledge that their products might be used in ways they didn’t intend, and actively look out for them so they can work their best to close those doors and iteratively learn and improve, we might help at least some people.

Housing providers, domestic abuse and technology

Housing providers, who are tasked with doing the best they can to provide safe and warm homes for the people who live in the homes they manage, have the opportunity and, dare I say, responsibility, to play a part in trying to make things better. I am not alone in this conviction.  

Alison Inman’s CIH Presidential Make a Stand campaign, working with Women’s Aid and Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance (DAHA) recognised this better than anything else, and has urged housing providers of any size and sort to sign up to their pledge to do their utmost to own that responsibility.

Signing up to the pledge and getting DAHA Accreditation would mean committing to implementing practices and procedures, both in relation to their outward going services and, for example, the way tenancies are set up (legally), but also internally in honing their own housing management systems’ and data capabilities, to prevent, to spot (early) signs of domestic abuse, to seek professional support with how to approach these suspicions in the best and safest possible ways, and how to be part of the solution.

Outward services: what you can do?

1. Appoint (a) dedicated member(s) of staff trained to

  • continuously scrutinise and advise on internal domestic abuse procedures and policies.
  • to function as a first point of contact for ALL staff for advice.
  • to ensure ALL members of staff are aware of the procedures and policies, not just staff who go out and meet tenants.
  • ensure staff going out to tenants, have access to and understanding of devices they use and how they can enable them to report and input domestic abuse-related information on the go. We might often think that this means ‘neighbourhood officers’, but actually, it’s repairs and maintenance staff that actually enter peoples’ homes most often. There are specific training opportunities for repairs and maintenance staff to spot the signs and report to the right person within the organisation as efficiently using technology probably already available in your organisation!

2. Quick Escape/Exit Buttons

Websites that contain information on domestic violence or sexual abuse (should) have a ‘quick exit’ button on every (sub)page that allows people who are afraid their abuser or anyone else might walk into the room and see what they are looking into to close the website in a single click, then opening an often-used random page, such as Google’s front page. The most important thing for me here is to have this button ‘floating’, so people can scroll without losing sight of the button, and perhaps even scroll using the arrows on the keyboard and hover with the mouse over the button to increase reaction time.

3. Shielded Websites

Where Quick Escape buttons mainly help with the initial hiding of activity, they do not automatically erase your browser history and other data. The ‘Shielded Website’ initiative by Women’s Refuge New Zealand is a tool that allows people to search for and ask for help online without fear of it showing up in their browser’s history. It is, as they say, a simple icon which can sit on any website and “launch a powerful resource to help end domestic violence”.

Internal Technical Opportunities

1. Ensure you have an excellent Data Culture to start with

Before I go on to tell what you can do with the data you store in your systems to spot signs of and prevent domestic violence from happening, the most important thing is that everyone understands their responsibility towards data. Data isn’t just an administrative pain; It is the bread and butter of any role. It already was before we switched to computers, because data aren’t ‘digital’ per se. The ledgers and tenancy agreements stored in roller archives are and contain data too. In order to provide great services and providing opportunities to help tenants in danger, it is pertinent that data is correct.

2. Put in place the right security measures in your systems to detect and prevent domestic abuse

Whether it is a customer service operative on the phone for a repair, a neighbourhood officer having a chat about ASB or a rent collection officer asking about arrears, ensure that they have clear security protocols in place in the system, asking the right questions to confirm the identity of the person they are speaking to.

3. Spend time with data scientists and analysts to build tailored reports and alerts that can help you spot (potential) signs of domestic abuse early

Section 5 of the SaveLives.org ‘Safe at Home Report’ shows that regular repairs requests for interior doors, holes in walls, as well as break-ins for exterior doors can be a sign of domestic violence, as well as out of hours repairs. Having reporting in place that can identify these potential cases is key in spotting signs of domestic violence and saving lives. Of course, these are not the only signs. There might be hidden messages and hints in phone calls or emails that clever AI tools and machine learning can help you pick up on; the way we speak and write about things can reveal a lot about our situations, if only we learn how to listen.

The examples above are by no means exhaustive and just some of the things you could/should do and consider. We would LOVE to hear from you if you have any other great best practice procedures and tools that can help others to do what they can to spot and offer relief and support for people living with Domestic Violence as early as possible, whether they have to do with technology or not. We have to keep making a stand, day in day out, not just call attention to it when there’s a big football tournament on.


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.