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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

How Shelter is using data to tackle homelessness

Shelter, the British charity that is campaigning to end homelessness and poor housing, has been on a journey towards creating a clearer picture of the UK’s housing needs with the help of data.

At the helm of this digital transformation programme is its chief information officer Stuart McSkimming, who tells NS Tech that to understand homelessness and what causes it, Shelter has been looking at a number of indicators, such as local factors causing homeless peaks, or peaks in levels of discrimination by landlords that vary across the UK.

“From a data point of view, this is all about building up the platform that enables us to bring together internal and external data sources. We’re really seeing that the route to solving the national housing emergency is around understanding our data, enabling us to base decisions on evidence and facts rather than making presumptions, and using that to help targets for both campaigning work and giving advice,” he says.

As part of this project, Shelter has been working with data management company Informatica.

“We were on the lookout for a company that had expertise in data management, integration of data and automation. As a charity, we don’t want to spend money on projects where we feel we’re having to do a lot ourselves and not as well – so we wanted to work with partners who have the expertise to help us out,” says McSkimming, adding that the vendor has taken a keen interest in what the charity is trying to achieve, which has been a bonus.

Informatica was selected ahead of a number of other companies, as well as a broad range of methods and solutions.

“We ended up going down this route because it was low risk and fairly stable,” McSkimming states.

He adds that the charity had been putting a lot of effort into systems that helped it to deliver advice to clients, but not as much effort into systems around the charity’s supporters. This meant that Shelter had an ageing infrastructure which was designed to deal with its supporters, but bringing in Informatica and reviewing its CRM and other products has enabled it to move away from some of these older products, to get a better sense of who its supporters are, and how the charity can engage with them.

Cloud technology has benefitted the organisation too over the last few years. When McSkimming joined the organisation, a lot of the systems were on-premise, and were expensive and difficult to maintain.

“Cloud has allowed us to push all of that work off to other organisations – we don’t have to become experts in those technologies so we can focus on our actual challenges,” he says.

Although it’s still early days with the current data initiative, McSkimming says that the charity has already been able to reduce a number of mundane tasks such as importing data, transforming data, moving data, formatting data and integrating systems.

“The first thing we focused on was automating all of that, so we can refocus those people on some of the things where they can add a lot more value, and we’re now looking forward to benefitting in other ways; we’re trying to get ourselves to a stage where we can have a comprehensive view of the people we’re talking to, so that we can start getting that nationwide view around housing and homelessness,” he states.

The data initiative has been coupled with a shift in McSkimming’s own remit and team. He had started off with a focused team, with a lot of engineers and people with knowledge of how to keep systems running, and now he’s working with a team that are focused more on business requirements.

“The changes to how we structure ourselves as an organisation and it’s interesting because it takes away from technology just being a service which the organisation can use to making something ‘digital’,” he says.