By Emma Mahy, CEO of IoT Solutions Group

No one can fail to have been moved by the tragic case of two-year old Awaab Ishak, who died as a result of exposure to extensive mould in his family’s social housing flat in Rochdale, three years after his family first reported the issue to their landlord.

As the Coroner Joanne Kearsley noted in her summing up, the question of ‘how, in the UK in 2020, a two-year-old child dies from exposure to mould in his home?’ is one that social housing providers and landlords across the country will be considering carefully. While its right to point the finger at errant landlords, many social housing providers are facing significant financial pressures. What steps can they realistically take to monitor and identify premises in need of maintenance work more effectively and help support vulnerable residents?

New technology is often talked about as the solution to a range of problems but, pilot projects carried out across several local authorities over recent months prove it can indeed be effective in helping to identify housing issues at an early stage. It has been shown to not only improve services for residents by triggering interventions that protect the vulnerable and save lives, but also saving housing providers money.

For example, affordable sensors placed in residents’ properties to track temperature and moisture in the air have been used to highlight those at risk of fuel poverty and alert housing providers to properties at risk of mould and damp. Monitored remotely, data can highlight issues of concern at an early stage, triggering in-person visits and contact while reducing the need for expensive, whole-stock housing visits.

Saving vulnerable residents in need

In 2021, Sutton Council piloted the use of a Data-Orientated Responsive Intervention System (DORIS) to discreetly monitor activity patterns of vulnerable residents. Simply placed on a kitchen shelf, DORIS care sensors were installed in 150 properties. No visual or audio recording took place, and no personal data was collected, ensuring total privacy for the resident in their home. However, activity data was automatically relayed to families and carers, allowing them to respond urgently to behaviour changes rather than waiting for the next scheduled visit or relying on residents to make contact.

Alerts were triggered, without any user interaction, if changes in movement patterns suggested a tenant was ill or had fallen. There were two such instances within the first week of the trial, identifying residents whose activity levels had dropped. These triggered visits by independent living officers who could assess the situation and alert medical services. Medical staff who subsequently attended stated that, without the alerts, the resident would most likely have passed away later that day. To date, at least four lives are believed to have been saved by the system.

One of the biggest challenges facing teams seeking to adopt technology-based solutions is that they can seem remote and detached. However, scenarios such as those experienced at Sutton Council and the tragic case of Awaab Ishak really bring home the real-life, human impact of such technological innovation.

Enabling virtual wards

A similar pilot has been carried out in the Black Country, in partnership with NHS Arden & Gem CSU, connectivity specialists WM5G, Wolverhampton City Council, Wolverhampton Homes, the Black Country ICB digital team and governance lead, and The Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust care coordination team.

Sensors were placed in tower block apartments to monitor patients within their home 24/7. This was part of a trial to test how monitoring devices can trigger support before a health condition deteriorates to the point of requiring hospitalisation. The trial also aimed to identify which sensors would be best suited to the job, as well as the optimal low-powered networks required to convey real-time data to partner organisations.

In this case, sensors monitored changes in atmospheric conditions in the room – such as changes generated by boiling a kettle, using a toaster or oven – to build an accurate picture of the resident’s daily life and create individual activity patterns, or a ‘digital twin’. That data was then used to alert healthcare providers in real time if there were changes in behaviour, lack of activity or other unusual readings within the property that could be a cause for concern.

As a local provider of community and primary care services, The Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust’s adult community care coordination team receive data and alerts from individual flats via a central dashboard. The team can then contact the resident and/or their emergency contact to check for any change in health status that may require additional support. When residents cannot be contacted directly, the housing liaison team for Wolverhampton Homes can proactively contact residents through door entry systems instead.

This learning from this ongoing trial is now available to other organisations seeking to develop their own personalised digital healthcare programmes. Data recorded during the 2022 heatwaves is already being used to inform council policy for social housing tenants in Wolverhampton homes.

Learning the lessons

While these trials explored two specific use cases, it is clear to see how easily technology can be used to support a wide variety of use cases. From identifying structural housing issues to vulnerable residents in need. For example, hot weather temperature alerts could just as easily be used to show those properties experiencing prolonged low temperatures, triggering targeted practical support for residents facing fuel poverty this winter. Similarly, moisture and temperature readings can easily be used to identify or verify those properties at risk of mould-related problems, prioritising maintenance works and supporting residents with practical advice to manage the issue.

The NHS Better Care Fund – previously known as Winter Pressures Funding – is already being used by some councils to identify those most at risk of fuel poverty and ill health, supporting technology-led approaches that help keep residents healthy at home and out of our hospitals. Crucially, this will also help reduce pressure on our health and social care services alike, to the benefit not only of those residents directly impacted but also the wider community.

With funding squeezes, stretched public services and a cost-of-living crisis creating a perfect storm for social housing providers and their residents, the need to investigate technology-led solutions has never been stronger. Local authorities and social housing providers owe it to themselves and residents to explore every solution at their disposal to respond to the crisis. Technology will never have all the answers but, for every tenant’s sake, it is clear it can be part of the solution.