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Maps – insight and impact – how GIS can help social landlords find their way

Steve Curry explains.

Not wishing to put too many readers off this early but, I love maps.

Maps tell me what to expect when I go on a walk, how to avoid a rocky crag by following the grassy slope round to the left. Maps have been a key advance in our civilisation, from cave paintings showing where food could be gathered to interactive, 3-dimensional systems to plot the optimum positions for wind turbines.

These examples have a clear need for a pictorial display of spatial information, but what about other information and how it is presented? No-one gets quite as excited as Peter Snow about the BBC’s ‘Swingometer’ on election night but, amongst other pictorial tools, it helps us all to understand what is going on and what it could mean for the new House of Commons; he maps this for us using red, blue and yellow MPs.

Maps - insight and impact - how GIS can help social landlords find their way

In a former job, I used Experian’s Mosaic system which takes masses of consumer information to generate 61 different customer ‘types’ that everyone from Tesco to the Tory party can use to target places that might match their particular offer. From ‘Asian Enterprise’ to ‘Caring Professionals’ to ‘Industrial Grit’ – they know who you are and they know where you live! Which is, for these examples, Harrow, Brighton, and the Welsh mining valleys respectively? This Neighbourhood Classification System puts most registered social landlord customer information systems to shame and it gives real meaning to data in terms of both neighbourhoods and people who live in them.

OK, what’s this got to do with housing, and what is GIS? Geographical information systems capture, store, analyse, manage, and present data linked to locations. We can argue all day about whether registered social landlords are about people or place – however the older community associations as well as the new LSVTs are geographically focussed and are also, rightly, being expected to play an increasing role in the regeneration of communities – not only because this has moved up the policy agenda recently, but because our levels of asset holding and income and our social mission compels us to.

Sir John Egan’s Report of 2004 established the concept of ‘sustainable communities’ and we have prominent Welsh Assembly Government programmes such as Communities First and Strategic Regeneration Areas focussing investment on disadvantaged areas so that their citizens aren’t left behind. The Hills Report (2007) showed that social housing provides for an increasingly poor demographic and that landlords must do more to help improve the lives of their tenants and improve the places they live.

We have maps in our office, but they only show our houses and land within communities. What I’d like is an interactive map that tells me not only how (un)sustainable our neighbourhoods are (where we need to invest), but also what impact our work is having on them.

This is where it gets difficult – what do we need to know? Egan told us that sustainable communities have eight characteristics, they are: well served, well designed (coughs), well run, fair, environmentally-sensitive, thriving, safe and well connected. Sounds good, but how do we find how ours match-up?

A recent change in the way local data is captured and analysed by government has made this more possible and the Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation is a massive step forward. The Local Government Data Unit has given us an interactive map that shows the level of disadvantage across eight ‘sustainable community’ indicators in comparison to all communities in Wales, and importantly, we now have lower super output areas (LSOA) instead of Wards, which were too big and subject to boundary changes. So now, we’re approximating neighbourhood level information and we can see the changes over time in employment, health, crime, skills, housing, environment, income and access to services. Just like an x-ray picture it gives us an insight, showing what is underneath the skin, or rather, what is largely hidden behind the front door.

This does not give us a complete picture though. We also need to know, for instance:

  • if our communities are financially excluded, having no access to bank accounts, fuel poor, preyed on by door-step lenders and in multiple debt
  • how engaged people are – with us, with learning, through community events, in volunteering, with decision-making
  • what other barriers are holding them back – lack of confidence, mental ill-health, lack of basic skills, fear of crime, overcrowding?
  • ?

We need to take the hands of our partners – the local authority, the health service, the voluntary and community sector, DWP and WAG et al to start sharing more information and to start mapping it onto our communities.

Interesting things are happening elsewhere. In Greenwich, the NHS, the council, the police and University of London are doing a long-term study on the relationship between physical and social aspects of residential environments and mental well-being. A 2003 survey revealed things such as damp, noise, fear of crime, access to open space, overcrowding and transport – in all, 13 factors defined the level of psychological health of residents. Two neighbourhoods will be tracked to show how investment in home and neighbourhood improvement affects well-being.

It is well within our grasp to be able to make rational, well targeted and well-planned interventions and to accurately study their effects. But we need to gear-up our ‘intelligence’ to achieve this goal.

GIS systems are not cheap and the collection and analysis of complex data is also not an inexpensive exercise. We shouldn’t forego this opportunity for lack of individual registered social landlord resources and expertise. We should get together and collectively buy access to a remote service (like Data Unit Wales) and invite our partners to feed the data they collect, and the data we need, into the system – maybe this could be a ‘Making The Connections’ European Funding bid from registered social landlords (CHC)?

I’m now picturing the BBC’s Peter Snow saying ‘look at all these unsustainable communities becoming sustainable, look at all those new businesses, all those new skills, all those new credit union members and all those community events going on, they’re turning the map from red to green.’ – I not only like maps, I have dreams about them!

Steve Curry is Community Regeneration Manager at Valleys to Coast, [email protected].

Developing neighbourhood level information

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has funded a three year project to develop its Housing and Neighbourhood Monitor (which provides a useful analysis of key national trends in housing and neighbourhoods and an assessment of government policy performance) to create a coherent monitoring framework across the UK as a whole and within its constituent countries. The autumn issue of WHQ will include an article based on the early stages of the project.

The Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods (WISERD), is jointly funded by the Welsh Assembly Government and the UK Economic and Social Research Council to draw together and build upon the existing expertise in quantitative and qualitative research methods and methodologies at Cardiff, Swansea, Aberystwyth, Bangor and Glamorgan Universities. It is co-ordinated by Cardiff University and has four inter-related and integrated programmes of activity:

  • the identification, archiving, integration and management of existing Welsh data sets; including the identification of areas of data deficit, and the examination of issues, challenges and opportunities involved in methodological innovation and the development of ‘mixed methods’
  • the phased study of localities across Wales, which will serve as sites of detailed (qualitative and quantitative) data collection and methodological development
  • policy analysis and evaluation which will involve two distinct strands of work, i) developing and implementing mixed research methods for the rigorous evaluation of complex policy interventions; and ii) comparative policy analysis
  • research capacity building, training and networking leading to the development of inter-institutional research teams with a strong emphasis on addressing identified deficits in research skills in Wales

Further information is available online at www.cardiff.ac.uk/wiserd

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