A Q&A with Ian Tinsley, the director of ICT at WM Housing.

As director of ICT for WM Housing in the Midlands, Ian Tinsley is responsible for the association’s adoption of technology and specifically, smart technology. He spoke to us about progress within his organisation at adopting smart technology and the challenges that housing associations face when new technology comes along.

Q: What is the current level of smart technology adoption in your housing association to date?

A: Smart technology is slowly pervading the organisation and changing the way we work and deliver services and we are starting to see examples of where it’s already being adopted right across the organisation.

Domestically we’ve rolled out some smart meters because there’s a government deadline of 2020 to install smart electricity meters. There are also RSLs that have carried out projects where, with the agreement of the householder, they have had shared access to the data for various types of fuel poverty monitoring schemes.  In time, it is predicted that smart meters will be able to manage energy around the home, controlling appliances, lighting and heating to make the best use of low cost tariffs throughout the day and reduce costs – but other than trials, that functionality isn’t there yet. We also have some air quality sensors in use to monitor and evaluate temperature and humidity in properties.

WM is also using smart meters for communal landlord’s supply across the group and we are working with our energy procurer to actively install them to all communal supplies.  We have access to the data and can view it through our energy procurer’s web-based portal – it records manual meter readings, smart meter data and copies of bills.  In future we can use the smart meter data to identify energy wastage, but we’re currently limited in the information available and the meters only connect to the main electricity supply, so don’t control sensors, but do provide usage data. It’s a start, but there’s much more to be done.

We’ve also made a good start in our offices – some have smart meters and building management systems, and we’re able to view the smart meter data for energy management purposes. The building management systems control energy technology within the building such as sensors and timers. We’re also trialling new technology from Enerbrain which will sit between the smart meter and the building management system via sensors fitted throughout. This will provide much more detailed energy data than ever before and will also actively control the heating/lighting/cooling systems, i.e. reducing the amount of time certain items are on, to save costs.

Q: Where can you see there being most benefits for smart technology?

A: Undoubtedly in the area of assistive technology – where there are perhaps vulnerable or elderly people living in the property. In areas where resident support is high, there will be faster adoption of technology like motion sensors and monitoring technology to check on the wellbeing of residents.

There will also be smart applications in smoke and fire detection, air quality filtering, testing for damp – and even in areas like boiler servicing. But sometimes it’s the age-old issue of equipment suppliers keeping up with the times. You can look to install boiler service detection smart-systems, but the boilers have to have the technology in them – and not all do. Lack of supplier choice makes it expensive, but as boilers have those detection systems fitted as standard, it will eventually become a different proposition.

Q: What are the biggest barriers to adopting smart technology?

A: As I’ve already alluded to, smart technology has not been a critical business priority – we’ve had some big transformational changes over the last two to three years. We have taken on a huge stock improvement programme in the Coventry area and it required a lot of work to provide a facelift to the housing and deliver improvements in the local community surroundings. So we’ve been focused on doing the things that matter most to residents. Smart technology doesn’t capture their imaginations the way a new kitchen might!

The other challenge is broadband connections. Many of our residents live very much hand to mouth and the cost of monthly broadband is a step too far, which obviously limits the usefulness of smart meters in their homes. It’s a barrier that incurs further cost for the housing association.

And then there is the simple logistics of fitting technology into 30,000 properties spread across many counties. It’s a huge task to get it installed and not something that can be done quickly or without thought for the business case.

Q: How accepting do you think your customers would be to smart technology? Do you think some might feel threatened?

It’s a good question and the single biggest barrier to installation of new technologies is selling the benefits, some residents are completely digitally excluded and some struggle to see how technology can help them.  Using fire alarms as an example, some people just do not like the disruption they oppose the necessity to leave the building during tests, so often we find that it’s not as simple as us suggesting new technology, we have to put our energy into winning hearts and minds first – that’s as important as the technology itself.

Q: And what about security?

A: There have been so many big headlines around computer viruses and security putting up another barrier against adoption of new technology. We put a tremendous amount of effort into keeping our internal networks and data safe, but once we have smart devices in homes, it undoubtedly throws up wider security issues. How do you promote or even enforce security on the tenants? It’s difficult to police it in a home environment and the opportunities for home appliances to be hacked are real world issues!  We can provide as much guidance as we like, but ultimately its up to the residents to use the technology and make sure they’re doing so responsibly.

Q: So where do you go from here?

A: Our focus for now is the delivery of our Digital Strategy, changing the way we communicate with tenants across the multiple digital channels – away from the phone and into our portal technology as much as possible. There is undoubtedly a benefit to having smart devices but we also have to be mindful of the European General Data Protection Regulations coming into force next year and consider how that may affect our adoption of new technology. What data are we collecting and how do we process the information within the new legal frameworks? Smart devices only exacerbate that question as we collect more and more data. Data protection is now part of our core training within our organisation, and there are a lot of discussions about the re-working of processes across our Group to ensure the effective storage and management of customer data.

Our first question must always be what data do we have, how do we manage it and how does it affect our data security? Without doing this first, data management could become a barrier to adoption of smart devices.