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Housing and homelessness charity Shelter is looking at ways of doing more with its data as it continues its digital transformation plan.
The charity handles about four million queries a year and has one million people in its supporter database. However, since its founding 50 years ago, the way it interacts with stakeholders has changed significantly, according to CIO Stuart McSkimming.
“Back in the 1960s, the way to offer advice was through face-to-face interactions with people going into our advice centres where an advice worker would be able to give assistance,” he says.
“Now there are lots of digital ways that we can interact with clients. So we’re going through a process of standardising our systems to enable us to direct people to the correct channels based on the urgency of their situation,” the CIO tells Computer Weekly.
“A lot of our projects now are around being able to act as a knowledge-based organisation, but doing that more in the digital world and less in the face-to-face world.”
Bringing data together
According to McSkimming, handling disparate data sources is at the heart of Shelter’s digital transformation plan, which started in 2012 with the replacement of some in-house systems with Microsoft Dynamics CRM in the cloud as the central case management system.
The Dynamics roll-out, completed in the most critical areas of the business in 2014, was a big project for the charity and covered some 800 users. However, this was only the start of the digital transformation journey.
“We want to ensure that we are very careful about our data as we work with vulnerable people and have a lot of sensitive information about them”
Stuart McSkimming, Shelter
“We started with focusing on core areas where we already had systems in place, but they were inadequate. What we’re doing now is to take the remaining areas of the business and integrate them into that central case management system,” says McSkimming.
That remaining part of the implementation will be ongoing for the next two years.
Another major project also related to unifying data and systems is an implementation of an enterprise resource planning (ERP) suite from Unit 4, which will be complete by the end of the year.
Improving data security
Bringing disparate data sources together in a secure manner is also a priority for the charity. “Information management is critical to Shelter because we do have a lot of data and we want to keep it secure,” says McSkimming.
The IT team is working out ways that the data Shelter has can be used to help clients better, while ensuring the correct controls are in place.
“We’re investing more in security, particularly because of the changing threat landscape. It’s business as usual, but an area where we’re bringing in a lot more investment this year than we normally would,” says McSkimming.
“[Increased investment in security] is something that’s common across most organisations, but since we’re within the charity sector, we want to ensure that we are very careful about our data as we work with vulnerable people and have a lot of sensitive information.”
Rather than rolling out a specific system to handle any security threats, the Shelter has a holistic approach to security.
“There are a variety of things we’re doing, such as improving some of our mobile device management, adjusting our firewall technologies, working with our managed network supplier, changing our guidance and altering our standards of how we work internally in terms of handling data,” says McSkimming.
“There are technology elements in what we are doing, but a lot of it is about changing the way we actually work, improving practices around how we handle information and information security.”
The charity’s future ambitions around data also include being able to share some of its information on tackling homelessness more widely.
“The problems we’re trying to solve are not unique to Shelter. We don’t want to hoard those problems, we feel there are lots of other people who could be helped,” says McSkimming.
Shelter is looking at partnering with academic institutions to help the charity open up some of its data sets so more insight can be gained across different areas of housing, with information such as environmental datasets brought in.
“This will help us to look at these problems in more depth, but also get other people involved in looking at the housing crisis and how we can actually make a change,” he says.
As well as campaigning and advice, the fundraising aspect is critical for Shelter and is also one that will benefit from the work in data analytics that McSkimming’s team will be doing in the next year.
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“Following on from the advice and how we help people, the next area which we really want to look at is the people who support us and how we can actually engage with them in a better way,” he says.
“That’s something we’re doing at a massive level with hundreds of thousands of people. We really need to make sure that we’ve got great systems that enable us to have those conversations at quite a large scale.”
By summer next year, the CIO expects to have “a very clear strategy” on how the organisation handles information, as well as a global data model upon which it can build.
“Rather than saying something like ‘I would expect to have engaged a certain number of people digitally’, I would expect to get the building blocks in place to take us on a journey on how we handle data,” says McSkimming.
“I think the big step forward this year will be changing the approach that we have to data and really bringing together our data sets, looking at data in a much more holistic way,” he adds.
“So far, we’ve looked at data like this: ‘Here’s the people we’ve helped and here’s the people who support us’. And we’ve really not looked at how we can bring those together, but that’s the area that we’ll really get an understanding of within the next 12 months. What is the data we have and how we can use it a lot better?”