A black and white headshot of Audrey Lloyd, Data Insights Manager at Sovereign Housing Association

Data is essential and exciting – and I can prove it

First published by Housing Technology Magazine

How many of our employees and residents have Covid or are shielding or isolating? Do we have enough tradespeople to carry out emergency repairs? How many development sites have had to close?

These were just some of the questions that needed answers from Sovereign’s emergency response team at the start of the pandemic. We needed to provide answers and quickly, but where to start?

At Sovereign we own and manage 60,000 homes and have 2,000 employees. Across the business we use just under 50 different systems, not to mention countless spreadsheets.

We had to figure out a way to bring data to the very forefront of keeping ‘Business As Usual’ – or as far as was humanly possible in a global pandemic.

We also knew that we needed to reduce our reliance on people who were operating in a time of crisis having the energy and time to fill in Excel files. Instead, we identified where we could source data directly from our systems, as to remove ‘manual intervention’ removes the risk of errors in the data. That said, there is a time and place for spreadsheets, such as when the data doesn’t already exist and you need a new source quickly. More on that a little later.

We had to decide which information was vital to our pandemic response. Then, once that was done, we needed a way to present the information in one, easy-to-use location.

Fortunately, at Sovereign we already had aspirations to be a modern, connected business – and a Business Information platform strategy was already in the pipeline.

There was no time to wait for sign off, the pandemic had brought the need for a platform to centre stage. And so in just five weeks, working with Microsoft’s data warehousing and reporting systems we pulled an interactive dashboard together offering detailed, operational reports.

The platform pulled data in from our systems – from the People Team’s Open HR, from Developments’ SDS Sequel, to the Housing Team’s Active H – and layered it in such a way that we had a 360° view of what was going on, in day-to-day real time. Our Exec team and Board could make decisions based on what was actually happening right at that moment.

We tracked everything - and were able to focus on those activities that mattered - repurposing trades where needed, speeding up our response to customer complaint hotspots and all the while monitoring the well-being of our people via logon profile data and putting steps in place to encourage healthy ways to work from home.

But, going back to the spreadsheets, what didn’t exist was how to monitor 146 individual processes across the business and how they were being impacted by the pandemic.

Good old Excel still had its place. A template spreadsheet allowed heads of service to record current status and what was planned for four weeks to come. This helped to ensure dependencies from supporting services would be in place to help the recovery of business as usual. Excel provided the source to a Power BI interactive set of reports.

The data we produced during the last year has absolutely shaped our response as a business – and the opportunity to trial the BI platform was a perfect proof of concept for rolling the platform out on a wider basis.

Meanwhile, our BI strategy was indeed signed off – and now we are looking to an exciting future as our colleagues realise the potential of the platform we’ve produced.

As we go forward we’ll be able to use the platform for more and more - it’s not just people, homes, income or repairs data we can track. For example, we also know that we’re responsible for 31,000 trees! And it doesn’t stop with internal data. There’s a plethora of external data we’re tapping into as well – flood risk, crime, demographics and economic factors to name a few.

I want to help bring data alive and inspire the business to see the numbers we crunch in a new way – not just boring flat digits on a page. There’s a real story to be told and decisions to be influenced by how we use data in the future. I want to make things visual – I want everyone to see data in a new way – the way I do.