Can Open Data empower renters? A look inside the Housing Open Data Challenge.

I attended the Housing Open Data Challenge pre-weekend coaching session at the Open Data Institute. My mission was to find out the what, why and who of this hack-weekend beginning on Saturday 20 September 2014.

The challenge involves participants coming up with ideas to solve a specific question: How can we use open data to help people get the best out of renting?

The event was run by Programme Directors Ed Parks (Nesta) and Briony Phillips (ODI) and served to reinforce the user research aspect of validating a start-up idea, as well as giving similar ideas the chance to merge/collaborate. The teams were set 'homework' to collect user research by interacting with 5 people.

The real focus of this event is the capability and passion of the people taking part. Many have a Housing Association/Social Renter customer focus.

Below is a summary of the teams and their members, with more detail on each idea at the bottom of this article.

Teams - Fraser Henderson, Philip-John (Phil) Peter.
Better Retirement - Paul Wright, Rob Mack.
Better Shape Up - Paul Wright, Rob Mack.
Compare The Rent - Derek Gyateng, Aitese Odigie.
Fair Rent - Lais de Almeida, Helena Trippe, Iban Benzal.
Houpla - Oliver (Ollie) Campbell.
Housing Tinder - Ed Wallace, John Upton.
Landlord check service - Tom
plan/build/rent - Isabelle (Isy) Champion.
PowerToRenters - Luke Jackson, Kevan Forde, George Worllegde, Finn Woodhill.
Safe Houses - Stuart Chalmers, Matthew (Matt) Custard.
Right Home, Right Place - Sue Beecroft, Hendrik Grothuis, Richard Hall, Polly Jackson.
thedottedline - Alice Granville, Jo Salter.
The Open Rent Book - Tim Drye.
Where Can You Live? - Cate Huston, Yuelin Li

Idea/Project details

Better Shape Up - Narratives for tenants using Tripadvisor style data on rental property and embeds it where tenants search for property. The phrase 'bottom up data reform' was used in the pitch. The Property Ombudsman has backed the project.

PowerToRenters - Visually distinctive data available at moments of choice. They analyse verified quality open data to create infographics, badges and scorecards. Homeswapdirect is a partner. They got the room to laugh when stating they "hope to win".

Compare the rent - Publish comparable open data to help people make more informed decisions on property and the most affordable areas. He is an ideas man, looking for web devs and data scientists

Right Home, Right Place - Focus on the commuting decision. People have to make better long term decisions as they are renting for longer. Using commuting time and cost data to help people make better informed choices about where they are going to rent.  After commuting and housing costs, they want to build in other factors to help tenants with decision making. 

Better Retirement - Over 55s who are looking to downsize need better information. The team consists of people working at the National Register of Social Housing and a data analyst from CCHPR (Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research).

Houpla - Open communication between landlords and tenants. Transparency would encourage better behaviour from both sides. They would also be adding to open data (tenant feedback, bill data, maintenance requests and satisfaction reporting). It gives everyone a chance to clearly get an idea what each (landlord and tenant) are like. Open up the communication channel for reminders on rent, bills and maintenance. Possibly monetise from utilities and insurance services. 

Open Rentbook - Many private landlords don't want to let to social tenants, because of concerns around security of tenure and payment. Rentbook wants to link together credit unions with social landlords by creating Rent accounts, where Local Authorities can pay direct to Credit Union/Landlord. Credit unions take £5 to secure rent. Rentbook could take £1 for providing the link. Working with 2 people from hack the city

Where can you live - Their observation is that commercial APIs provide better quality structured data. There is no benchmark for renting in the UK, which they want to create. They'd be wise to speak with Mr. Bridges over at Property Inspector.

Fair Rent - Does what it says on the tin: Looking to solve the "what is fair price to pay" problem. Team consists of people with service design background, product designer and a developer.  They want to make the market more fair, and have a positive impact on the affordable housing market. 

Housing tinder - To get Housing Association customers to think about moving is time/resource intensive. They want to make the process more sexy (possibly literally...). The product aims to also provide more info about the local area and facilitate faster contact with someone to swap properties with. One of three projects from Viridian Housing Association staffers.

Plan build rent - B2B data to help social landlords get into private rental or diversify their current stock. A tool to help decide where development teams should focus their efforts. One of three projects from Viridian Housing Association staffers.

Safe Houses - Help tenants landlords and housing health and safety service (HHSS) with data on common problems in rental homes so solutions can be enforced by Local Authorities. Help make homes safer. They might want to have a chat with Fixflo.

Landlord check service - Take data from prosecutions of landlords and Environmental Health Officers (EHO), and inform EHOs on what other properties those landlords own. Help with enforcement. Value for money for EHO. Tom works for Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.

The dotted line - A mobile app to help renters relieve pressure to sign without any information. All the information you need to make a decision, including legal rights, customer satisfaction rating, prices, convictions for health and safety breaches, and contact with previous tenants. All from an app. One of three projects from Viridian Housing Association staffers.

Housing has become a national crisis issue. Some people earn more by owning property and renting it out, than they could ever dream of by working for a living. And those renters who work have to contribute above 40% of the gross earnings toward housing themselves. They have little chance of ever escaping the 'rent trap'. 

The situation is much worse for social renters, who are being progressively handed over to private landlords, as council housing stock continues to dwindle.

On first glance, Houpla, Open Rentbook and Housing Tinder seem the most achievable and commercial projects. They have a clear user interface in mind, which helps massively with user research. Getting to something that works, in tandem with users, is what 'Lean' start-up methodology says to do.

My favourite idea is The dotted line. The world is increasingly mobile; it's far more convenient that opening a laptop. This, if successfully implemented, could be the key to solving the information asymmetry prevalent in renting property. 

Saying that, the simplest of these projects is Landlord Check Service. It seems almost absurd that this doesn't exist. Minimal effort, maximum bang. As long as the process can be successfully automated. 

On the topic of automation, while many people focus on building technology, the smart teams will be speaking with as many customers as possible and showing them iterative improvements of their idea/product. There are no prizes for ideas that no-one wants to use.

There are, however, questions that will likely follow this hack weekend:

Housing is serious, yet there's been no serious innovation so far. Why?

How long will the likes of Nesta wait before moving in from the fringes to seriously fund innovation in housing?

Anyone who empathises with the plight of renters should keep a keen eye on this coming weekend and the people behind these teams. 

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