Rent Arrears and the Sweet Science, v.01

As Digital Transformation Manager for Housing Services at Hackney Council, I get to run some really fun and interesting projects. This week saw the start of a great one however, as we kicked off a data science project which we hope will enable us to identify tenants most at risk of falling into rent arrears (it also marks the start of what will no doubt become a remarkably infrequent blog, but that’s another story).

Arrears are bad news for everybody; they cause stress for tenants who may lose their home and have to move out of the borough away from their support networks, and they reduce the amount of money we have to maintain homes and estates. When people fall into arrears we set up repayment plans, but for people on limited incomes the size of the repayment we can realistically expect them to be able to pay consistently on top of their rent is quite low, making debt stubbornly difficult to clear.

But what if there’s a better way, and we can predict those most at risk of falling into arrears so that interventions can be targeted to prevent the problem before it occurs? Within the council we have a Financial Inclusion team that helps residents with financial planning and can point them towards training to help them get better paying jobs. If we could better target that team’s resources to those most at risk then this wouldn’t just help reduce rent arrears, but give our tenants more control of their finances and help tackle unsecured debts, or payday loans.

To try and answer this question we’re working with a company called Pivigo, that run a programme to train candidates with PhD’s in quantitative disciplines to be data scientists. As part of the programme they need organisations to present them with real world problems to solve, so this week I met with our team to discuss the challenge. The team comprises:

  • Francesca Renzi, holder of a PhD in Nuclear Physics and winner of three research grants from the Umbria Region in Italy.
  • Philipp Ludersdorfer, holder of a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience who has previously developed statistical models to predict outcomes and recovery of stroke patients.
  • Tom Northey, holder of a PhD in Bioinformatics and award winner at the TfL Data Science hackathon.

    Over the next month they will be analysing our data using techniques such as clustering, decision trees, and time-series modelling and building a model to try and quantify the risk of a resident falling into arrears. This model should then enable us to play with certain parameters such as anticipated inflation or wage growth rates to see how this may impact on our residents in given scenarios. Microsoft have given us free access to their Azure Machine Learning platform for the duration of the project, but the algorithm we develop will be platform-agnostic and available on Hackney Council’s GitHub repository. We hope that other local authorities and housing associations will test their data against it also and that we can work together to build upon and refine it.

    In a project dealing with such personal data as this privacy is of course incredibly important. Personally identifiable data is not needed to develop the model and so not included in any of the data sets used for analysis or testing. Similarly, should the project be successful and we create something that can be introduced to our working environment it wouldn’t be something that staff would be able to dig around in, but a tool that selectively highlights only those that may be considered vulnerable to the teams that can help them.

    The project is scheduled to run until 7th September and I’ll post again on what we’ve learned, but the end point is really just the MVP and I’m hoping that we can work with other local authorities and housing associations to develop this further.

  • Introducing the Hackney Agile Lifecycle

    Hi my name’s Michael Stevens, I work in Hackney ICT as head of business solutions (Hackney ICT’s team of business analysts/project managers and programme managers). This week I organised a team away day, the purpose of which was to help promote and embed our new agile ways of working the Hackney Agile life-cycle. A new process based on the Local Government Digital Service Standard and the design council’s double diamond process model which I have developed with the head of digital Matthew Cain

    • How was the away day designed ? as a series of role plays, with scripts for each part of the agile lifecycle. We asked attendees to work as part of a team, through a scenario using our agile lifecycle and produce the actual outputs they would in the real world. With one agile team per away day table. At the end of each stage a stage-gate presentation was given to the sponsoring group (sponsor) and permission sought to progress to the next stage.
    • What has the away day achieved? the away day is not the end of the journey in terms of agile, but an enabler for the start of a new chapter for the ICT dept. We will be doing follow up seminars to explore agile techniques in more depth such as Sprint planning , retrospectives and proto-typing, to help everyone in the unit build their knowledge and skills in agile techniques. Working in a more agile way is about us changing our emphasis, from being a support service that fixes things, to focus on being a strategic partner for our colleagues in other services in the council. Having an agile process in place will enable us to work more collaboratively as partners with our colleagues to deliver the excellent digital services of the future that our residents and partners need and deserve.

    To access the away day scenario & scripts check out our drop box.

    Developing digital services for all

    We’ve been working hard over the last few months to understand how to accelerate our delivery of digital services that are so good, people prefer to use them. It’s not a controversial idea, but we’ve got a lot of hard work to achieve it.

    The starting point is our HackIT manifesto which explains how we want to work and what’s important to us. We’ve produced this because we wanted to set out a clear and easily understood set of principles that we can use to make sure we’re all taking a consistent approach to delivering digital change at Hackney. The manifesto gives us a lens through which to examine everything we do.

    We are committing to the Local Government Digital Service Standard (the manifesto reminds us we’re part of a wider community working to deliver excellent digital local services). Everything we buy, commission or build will be assessed according to whether it meets the Standard. Important services will be assessed by external reviewers with expertise in digital services. This will help us make sure that our digital services put people first. If you are able to help as a reviewer, please get in touch.

    Next, we’re going to deliver our work using the Hackney Agile Lifecycle. This owes a huge debt to the UK Government Service Design Manual and similar approaches in the US and Australia. However, it’s rooted in the Design Council’s double diamond model of delivery. Anyone who’s working with us (Council officers, partners, other agencies) can understand our process. The job of creating digital services isn’t just an ICT thing- it’s a globally-recognised design challenge and we need to stand on the shoulders of giants.

    We’re opening up. We’re starting to publish our code on GitHub. We’re blogging about our work and what we learn and we’re spending time with residents to learn what they really need – and then making sure our services meet those needs. This will help us make decisions together. Our Tactics Manual brings together techniques from Google Ventures, 18F as well as our own experiences to help any team work collaboratively to tackle a problem at pace. Everything we’re producing is shared openly on GitHub and we’re really keen to hear from. others who want to copy, edit or propose improvements.

    Designing a new digital service is just the first step and the work mustn’t stop there. Typically it’s much easier to do a project well than it is to continuously improve a service. The fourth stage of our design lifecycle is: improve. It sets an expectation that once it’s fully operational a service will need continued leadership, review and focus to meet people’s changing expectations.

    Finally, we’re trying to move from mandating a way of doing something, towards finding many routes to high quality outcomes. We trust the team to find their preferred way of doing something – provided it meets users needs.

    This is the start of our journey. We’re fortunate that we can learn from the hard work of so many colleagues and share ideas for ways we can make public services better. We can play our part in designing digital services for everyone.

    Adopting the local government digital service standard

    Have you ever used the “GOV.UK” website to find some information or to use an online central government service?  If so, you may have seen that some of the pages are marked “Beta”. Here is an example at the time of writing:

    This does not mean that the information is wrong or the service is not yet ready.  Everything that is provided works as it should and the “Beta” marking is simply there to invite comments from users so that the webpage or service can be improved before it is formally considered to be “live”.  Once it is live, the “Beta” marking is removed but even then the information or service will still continue to be reviewed and updated throughout its life.

    This way of working is part of the Government Digital Strategy that was launched back in 2012 and set out how government intended to redesign its digital services so well that people prefer to use them.  The approach includes making usable versions of digital services available as quickly as possible, and obtaining user views early in the process. The criteria for this approach have been documented in a Digital Service Standard and this is used to assess whether a digital service has been created in accordance with the Strategy.

    Local Government has been following all of this with interest and an increasing number of councils are starting to adopt similar ways of working.  A steering group was formed last year and, with input from over 60 councils, a Local Government Digital Service Standard was created based on the one for central government. It suggests a common approach for local authorities to deliver good quality, user centred, value for money digital services.

    The idea of a “standard” might sound theoretical and maybe even bureaucratic, but in reality the points in the Standard are very practical and might be considered to be common sense. As such they provide a useful checklist to help Hackney create online services that people want to use.

    ICT has been exploring what the adoption of the Standard might mean for Hackney.  As well as sessions to exchange ideas with other councils, we have held three short, focused workshops to look at the implications of some of the points in the Standard.

    One of the main conclusions was that more engagement with service areas, users and perhaps residents will be needed during development than might have been the case previously. Service areas might find themselves invited to be part of project teams and to be given an early view of proposed developments and the chance to influence the direction. This will no doubt place greater demands on everyone’s time although the reward that is sought is the faster delivery of digital services that are intuitive to use, meet service area needs and can better respond to change.

    Within ICT we recognise that as well as finding ways to achieve this greater engagement, we will need to bring together a wider range of new technologies and services in the future. We also need to be able to assess the effectiveness of the digital services both through user and service area feedback and the use of appropriate monitoring tools.

    This will require new skills and methods in running projects, designing solutions, creating user interfaces that are simple and intuitive, measuring service performance and obtaining and acting upon comments about Hackney’s digital services. Good communication will be more important than ever. There is a lot for everyone to learn but also an opportunity to make full use of anything that already works well and to draw on the wider experience in digital services that is being gained across local government.




    Your data, protection and the right to know

    Hi, I’m Neil Lang, and I am helping Hackney Council prepare for new legislation about Data Protection and how we use your personal information. This is the first of a series of blogs I will be posting over the next year about how the Council works with your information and the steps we are taking to put you in the driving seat for how it is used.

    Have you ever wondered what information an organisation holds about you? In the information age, as we use online systems, we leave quite a digital footprint behind us. For example, when using free services from Google, you are making a deal. You get to use YouTube, search, Gmail, Drive and Google Maps for free.
    In exchange for this free use, you agree to share information about yourself that Google can share with advertisers to target their ads and make them more effective. For instance, airlines want to present to people who love to travel. Toy makers want to target children of the right age group and interests. Read on to find out how to find out what Google already knows about you!
    Google uses a lot of methods to learn about you. Some of it, you tell Google when you sign up for its services (your name, phone number, location, etc…) Other information may be less obvious. As you browse the internet, your searches all give clues to your interests — which Google collects for advertisers to direct their offerings to you. Of course, it’s not a perfect world, which is why from time to time you see adverts you might consider quite inappropriate!
    But Google also takes user privacy seriously. It knows what information it holds about you (that might seem obvious, but a lot of organisations don’t have a good handle on this, or the tools to readily discover it) – and Google is able to remove information about you so it doesn’t come up in searches (the so called ‘right to be forgotten’).

    New legislation

    Public authorities, like Hackney, also have to look after your personal information responsibly. Next May, a new piece of legislation – known as the General Data Protection Regulation – comes into force. This will replace our existing Data Protection Act, and introduces some important new rights about how we look after and use information about you.

    • It applies to both public and most private companies.
    • It reduces the time to respond to requests for information about you (known as ‘subject access requests’) from 40 days to one month;
    • it will require parental consent for processing children’s data;
    • it provides for a right to have your data corrected, or removed (with certain exceptions);
    • it requires clear consent to data processing;
    • it allows you to object to automated processing/profiling using your personal information;
    • and you may request (following a subject access request) to have your data provided to you in a portable, machine readable format.

    Hackney Borough Council is currently preparing to be able to fulfil all of these new rights, and wants to build solid digital trust with its residents in the way we store and use your data. Unlike profit-making commercial organisations such as Google, we simply want to use your information to deliver better services to you. In particular, residents often have concerns about information being shared between different parts of the Council. We will be transparent about how and why we do this, and we will only do this with your consent. Allowing us to do this will enable us to provide you with great, value for money services, at a time when all Councils are facing reductions in their overall funding.

    What does Google know about you?

    So how do you find out everything Google knows about you?
    By visiting a page called “Web & App Activity,” you can see what Google is watching.
    Then by visiting a site called “Ads Settings,” you can see what Google thinks it knows about you, and you can change what it’s telling advertisers about you.
    It’s not easy to find your “Web & App Activity” page. First, you have to be logged into Google. Once logged in, go to “” and click on “all time.”
    This brings up a long list of all the web pages you searched. You can delete them, but Google doesn’t make it particularly easy – it only lets you delete one day at a time. You’ll get a warning from Google suggesting that you don’t really want to delete this information (because, in truth, Google doesn’t want you to delete it). Don’t worry if you do, you won’t break the internet or your Google account if you hit the delete button!.
    Until next time, happy browsing!