Picture of Claire Hyland, Data and Analytics Director

The power of data is never ending

First published in Housing Technology on 21 July 2023 and republished by Sovereign Housing Association. 

Busy people often see their interaction with data as transactional, it’s provided by a system that they may input into, but the connection’s missed to their role in curating or owning the data, or what it could really do for them. To have real impact, people must engage holistically with data, building it, owning it, understanding it, and improving it.

Over the last two years we've embarked on an ambitious data observability odyssey to improve our processes, systems, and data; all to transform how data is engaged with and used by our people. It’s been an exciting experience, and we’ve learnt a huge amount along the way.

Identifying our key data assets

While we’ve invested strongly in data, there is only ever finite resource. Good data has to be prioritised and focused in the right place, delivering the right impact. Taking a customer and asset journey approach guided how we identified and mapped Critical Data Elements across the business. This helped us to identify risks and issues around them. From this we created a heat map of issues that visualised the areas to be addressed and prioritised. For us it was Building Safety and Compliance, followed by Asset in support of our ambitious and bold strategic asset management strategy.

Building a data culture

Culture change is famously difficult, but our experience is that it can be propelled by the enthusiasm of people throughout the organisation when they buy into the potential. Our Executive Board saw both the need to address data issues and its role in meeting our long-term plans. They have been powerful sponsors who were behind our strategy from the start, building data into our corporate plan, and landing the message that data is everyone’s responsibility. This advocacy became so strong that our team played data message bingo during our ‘EB Live’ all-staff webinars.

Constantly selling the concept of data alongside recruiting data champions and data stewards across the business got the data message out and built a level understanding, but moving from reporting to action-led focus with real-world outcomes moved the dial with an appreciable impact for early adopters.

The momentum of success, supported by a platform comprised of Microsoft Azure and Power BI, made progress so much easier. As teams saw the benefit, a virtuous cycle gained traction of people engaging, leading to better data and better outcomes that others in the business could see, leading to more people engaging and better outcomes, and so on. In 18 months, the number of people empowered to engage with and use data has radically expanded from under 50 to over 750 and growing.

With more people using data, we upped training and updated all job descriptions with data responsibilities around data ownership and stewardship. Mandatory Data Awareness training for all staff has underlined that our people all own data and have a responsibility for it.

Making it easy, making it work

While we are making good progress and we’re seeing culture change in progress, the risk remains that the enthusiasm and excitement that carries momentum in building a good data culture soon wanes if people’s experience is that it makes their working lives harder. We couldn’t have built the cycle of success that drove the project through if word had spread that our strategy was slowing the business, rather than supporting it.

Bringing in Microsoft Purview’s capabilities as a unified data governance solution to help manage and govern data has been a critical tool in making data easy for our people. Power BI is used to consume the information rather than teams building offline in Excel. Our people now have a single window to access data with a search engine like experience that is intuitive.

By giving data users a holistic, up-to-date map of our data landscape with automated data discovery, data classification, end-to-end data lineage and a central data dictionary, our people have been able to easily access valuable, trustworthy data that they can easily understand and put to work.

Proactive problem-solving

Maintaining proactivity, even when things seem to be going well, has proven critical. At no point can data teams just sit back and wait for people to tell us that there is a problem. Using data through Purview means we can see if people are using reports. This helps us gently find out if not, why not. We can also see what data points people are searching for most regularly to see what they do and, more importantly, don't find.

The same proactive approach has helped us to be confident that the large increase in data hasn’t led to a decrease in quality, in fact, the opposite. By creating data quality focus groups for data stewards alongside the central data team has been highly effective to identify where data quality isn't as good as we would like. Because it’s a collaborative effort, people aren’t defensive, and once we know there is a problem, it opens the door to run a root-cause analysis with the central team working closely with the data owner to implement remediation. Something as simple as adding a drop-down box or some additional training has made a huge difference in many cases.

Data is Controlled, Catalogued and Designed into all solutions whether system or integration and old or new. By creating a Data Architect role we’ve proactively understood any new systems, to enable integration and inbuilt quality functionality. This role enabled us to constantly ask how we can build-in ways to make our people’s lives easier while also improving the quality of data. Again, functions like drop down menus and auto complete ensure we can access the data for central use and link across other systems, improving the experience for all.

As an example of the impact of the focus on data quality on our systems around 14,000 of our customers’ mobile and 13,000 of their home phone numbers had a space or words after them. This prevented automated messaging, but also meant we couldn’t identify a customer from their inbound call, so the customer’s information had to be taken each time, taking up extra time for them and our call centre team, which in turn meant longer waiting times for other customers. The numbers are now fixed in the source systems, and we can identify the customer when phoning in and pull their account up on screen ready for the call. We now continually monitor these, so if any numbers go on the system in the incorrect form, we send alerts for these to be amended. Across our experience over the last 18 months, including for critical building safety issues, alerts have worked brilliantly as a proactive tool to prompt people and make it easier for them to get the data, and the action, right until it becomes a habit.

What’s next?

The opportunities from data within housing are enormous and never ending. The power of success means that our team and the whole organisation wants to maintain momentum and find the next opportunity.

AI is subject to a lot of hype, but with the right basics now in place, we have confidence to actively explore how it can help us maintain our proactive approach and give our current and future customers a better experience in their home.