Until recently this large housing association was dependent on specialist GIS experts to provide its staff with the maps and geographic information they required to carry out their work. Today a customised intranet application known as ‘PinPoint’ serves as a single point of entry for all things geographic in Midland Heart. All employees are now able to find the geographic information they require, quickly and easily.
Midland Heart is one of the top ten housing and care organisations in the UK. It can trace its origins to the 1920s when, as the pioneering association COPEC, it was active in improving slum housing in Birmingham and campaigning for slum clearance. Its present identity stems from the merger of two large groups of housing associations in April 2006 - Keynote based in Coventry, and Prime Focus in Birmingham. Today, Midland Heart owns and manages more than 32,000 homes across 54 local authority areas and invests in
excess of £100 million each year.
With the merger of the two groups in 2006, the newly-formed Midland Heart found it had inherited data records held in different formats and across a variety of systems; often of variable quality. This meant that it was difficult to provide a quick and definitive answer to even the most fundamental question for a housing association, such as ‘Where are our properties?’ Geographic information was only available to a small number of people in the Innovation and Research Department, who found that instead of spending the bulk of their time on strategic work, they were being used as a bureau service responding to requests such as ‘Show me the legal extent of these land parcels’ or ‘Print me a map of our properties on this street.’ It was apparent that having to channel requests for geographic information through a single point of access was both inefficient and ineffective.
Midland Heart Research Manager, Stephen Russell, judged that best way forward was to employ a solution that would allow employees of the housing association to find the information they required, quickly and easily themselves. “The need to support a self-service model, was key to the GIS procurement” notes Stephen. “Once you have accepted the fundamental importance of self-service, other components of the solution fall into place. It means for example, that an application has to be easy to use and widely available. These requirements alone begin to point to web rather than desktop GIS.”Following an extensive review of products, Midland Heart selected Cadcorp Web Map Layers as its corporate web mapping and web GIS application, coupled with a centralised PostGIS database. James Jervis, was responsible for deploying the systems in his combined role of GIS manager and systems administrator.
“Web Map Layers met the key requirements we set out” reported James. “These were flexibility, functionality, and responsiveness. We needed a system that would be easy to implement, and at the same time capable of being tailored to meet our specific needs. It had to be possible for me, as systems administrator, to perform any necessary customisation without recourse to programming.” A customised intranet application known as ‘PinPoint’ now serves as a single point of entry for all things geographic in Midland Heart. A number of data sources feed into PinPoint, ranging from enterprise databases through to Excel® spreadsheets. PinPoint, in turn, presents this information using location as the key. “Rather than having to interrogate each one of these systems separately PinPoint provides our staff with a consistent front-end into all these data sources. It uses shared location as the glue that binds the different systems together, and provides a onestop- shop for general asset queries.”
Approximately 1200 staff in Midland Heart now have access to PinPoint, some of them using the application remotely. Perhaps surprisingly, Midland Heart has not trained any of its staff in using the system. “We wanted the application to be so intuitive that users didn’t have to go through a formal training programme to become competent” commented James. "We spent a significant amount of time creating an on-line help guide as well as trying to understand what users really want from the system and tailoring it accordingly”.
Midland Heart staff use PinPoint for a variety of purposes. The most commonly-used application is to display a map centred on a property or parcel, and to reveal any documents such as title deeds or photographs associated with that property or parcel. Surveyors have found that they can now estimate the extent of a property’s grounds from maps and aerial photographs in PinPoint, without having either to make a field visit themselves, or to request that the Innovation and Research team provide them with this information.
In turn, the Innovation and Research team now find that thanks to the success of the self-service model, they are able to devote more of their time to strategic and analytical tasks. “I get far fewer requests for assistance since PinPoint has gone online” said James. “Any requests I do get, I tend to handle in a smarter way. Previously most requests were answered by me providing someone with a printed map, or emailing an image, often repeating the process until the query has been resolved. Nowadays, I don’t often even see the query in the first place and, if I do, I can simply send the user a URL showing the query and they can do the rest”.
- The organisation has a consistent, spatially enabled, front-end to a number of business systems, making it easier for users to interrogate and collate information from them
- Queries concerning land and property issues can be answered almost instantaneously and more cost effectively, improving customer response
- The housing association’s reliance on an internal GIS service bureau has been reduced, saving costs
- Researchers have been freed up to concentrate on strategic and analytical tasks
- Cost savings have been achieved through a reduction in the number of expensive field visits