Site for sore eyes

Article first published August 2000

The concept of IT used to strike fear in the hearts of housing professionals, but no longer, says Sarah Brownlee

For many in the social housing sector, the letters I and T conjured up two words: intimidation and terror. But all that is changing.

By 2030 the lap top computer will have the neuro capacity of the human brain. Meanwhile, prime minister Tony Blair has set out serious modernising targets for the public sector. By 2002, a quarter of dealings between the public and the government must be capable of being handled electronically. Local authorities will also be asked to set and publish targets for electronic delivery in the not too distant future.

Where does this leave housing organisations? With e-commerce revolutionising the commercial world there is a greater, but increasingly baffling, range of options.

Many in the sector could find that ASP - or applications service provider - is the answer.

With the death of the internet subscription fee, and internet access set to go the same way, companies have been clamouring to find a new source of revenue, and they have found it with ASP. This will make it far easier for housing organisations to up-date and modernise their services.

So how does it work? A software company will sell applications like 'customer relationship management' across the web, which are then available for rent.

These new business tools can be introduced immediately and then built up or scaled down at will. Most importantly, it will not be necessary to build an infrastructure to support the application and you can access the services via any device, such as a mobile phone, digital TV, or a pocket PC.

However, the website remains the main and most obvious option. With more than 12 years experience in social housing, Depfa IT's UK manager Ian Gardner understands the anxieties surrounding the implementation of new systems.

He knows how alien the concept of new technology can be to those working in the sector. Depfa offers a package that is sector friendly and takes into account the challenges that housing professionals face today. It designs appropriate sites which enable communication with tenants, suppliers and business partners, and the site can be up and running in a matter of days.

But a web site in itself is not enough. Many housing associations have their own sites, but the majority simply act as advertisements, full of corporate figures and annual reviews. The keyword now has to be interactive.

Tenants don't want to go to the trouble of surfing the net just to discover their landlord has a swish logo, and that some grinning executive is celebrating 15 years with the company. They want to know who is going to come and unblock their drains and when.

London & Quadrant Housing Trust took this into consideration with its tenant focused web site This was launched last year primarily for reporting repairs and helping tenants cope with moving home.

Tenants can cut out the administrative section and go straight to the correct maintenance department. But how many tenants actually have access to the internet? The trust's site receives an average of 1,000 hits a week, but only 3 per cent of tenants have internet access.

To tackle this problem it has sent out 100 internet ready PCs to residents' associations and community groups and has initiated a programme of internet courses to teach residents how to get the most out of the site. The possibility of providing tenants with TV aerials with internet connection will become a viable solution for landlords when internet access becomes free in about a year's time.

Optimists argue there is such a huge choice that landlords are bound to find an IT solution, whether it be web based or otherwise, suited to their specific needs. The trick is to take the time to shop around. The new technology will ultimately be an investment for the future of both the organisation and its tenants.

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