Community Insight: A new open data tool for housing providers

For those impatient for the traditional festive ritual of hiding behind the sofa during the Doctor Who Christmas Special (and this year it looks very scary indeed), it might be worth pointing out a few sources of terror to fill the few short weeks now to Boxing Day.

A good point to start might be this summer’s catchily titled Funding outlook for councils from 2010/11 to 2019/20: preliminary modelling which takes a time traveller-style trip forward to look at the likely state of local government funding towards the end of the decade.

If that doesn’t provide enough of a seasonal chill, the recent IFS report published ahead of the autumn statement holds out the prospect that austerity will need to run until 2017-2018, with a further £8bn of cuts and £11bn of tax rises (or more cuts) needed on top of those under the current settlement.  All of which presents a dystopian future of a sort that rivals any encountered by a timelord exiting his Tardis, and one that – still safe in 2012 – few have fully appreciated is likely to emerge very soon indeed.

In the face of a retreating state and continued economic troubles, those institutions still standing will face increased pressure to meet the needs of populations who in the past would have looked to the state for support and assistance, whether in getting jobs, starting a business or improving their health and wellbeing.

As independent, ethos-driven businesses rooted in place and communities, with a strong asset base and – for now – relatively stable incomes, the housing association sector will find it hard to avoid the challenge.  Landlords to 1 in 8 households across England, with property located in many of our already most disadvantaged areas, they will have little choice about whether to engage.  Much of the impact of the disappearance of state provision will fall on the communities and individuals who are their day to day business.  The question is not if but how they respond.

To cope and respond to the extent of social and economic dislocation that we are likely to seen over the next six to eight years, traditional community investment approaches will not be enough.  Housing associations will need to mobilise the full potential of their turnover, assets and people to generate new value – social and economic – for their communities, and they will need to generate it through everything that they do.

That should not be because of state-driven legislation (whatever the recent ResPublica report may seek to advocate), but rather because of ethos, purpose and social mission – the drivers that underpinned the founding of the movement some 150 years ago, and its rebirth in the 1960s wave of community-based housing activity – when my own organisation was founded as part of that new housing movement (and Doctor Who first came on our screens).

Traditional approaches to impact measurement, such as social return on investment generated on a project by project basis, will not be enough to underpin that shift. Instead, new technologies and tools will need to be developed to understand the community context of housing activity, forecast and model impact and support the optimisation of the social returns of whole businesses.

HACT is starting to develop a range of those tools and approaches, working with a growing number of housing providers looking to equip themselves for a challenging future.  This week we launched new mapping software  – www.communityinsight.org – allowing housing providers to instantly access always up to date data about the communities they work in. It provides vital information on the communities housing providers work in, and includes access to a wide range of data sets and indicators, including indices of deprivation, economic deprivation and child wellbeing, up to the minute data on unemployment and benefits, educational attainment, health and crime by neighbourhood.

In early January, we will be publishing cutting edge research on new approaches to measuring and evidencing social and economic impact, ahead of a year of work on social impact measurement.  The future is coming fast, and we can’t afford to hide behind the sofa.

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