By John Smart, Innovation Analyst at Yorkshire Housing

Speak to anyone in the social housing sector and they’ll tell you that hoarding disorder is a growing problem that impacts not only the hoarder themselves but their family, friends, neighbours, housing colleagues and housing providers.

According to the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) between 2 and 5% of the population is estimated to be affected by hoarding, which equates to around 1.2 million people in the UK. However, the true scale of the problem is unknown and Hoarding UK believes that only 5% of people who hoard come to the attention of professionals.

Sadly, this number looks set to increase further. The cost-of-living crisis following hot on the heels of the pandemic is having a brutal impact on mental wellbeing, which is expected to lead to new hoarding cases and the deterioration of the condition in people who previously had it under control.

So, in a world where we’re using technology to protect our customers’ physical health (for example to identify and diagnose issues with things like boilers and damp), why not use tech to help tackle complex mental health conditions like hoarding?

The bright idea

Most of our hoarding referrals come in through our safeguarding team, but cases are also reported to our antisocial behaviour and coaching teams, making it difficult to get a comprehensive picture of the extent of the problem we’re dealing with.

Reporting hoarding is also traditionally an expensive paper-based exercise. It’s a lengthy process that involves taking notes while visiting a customer’s home. Notes are then manually uploaded into a case management system or attached as a file to an existing case, all of which takes time and prevents customers from accessing support and help quickly.

Our innovation team holds regular ‘hackathons’ that bring together innovation analysts, developers and other IT specialists to problem-solve and create cutting-edge solutions. It was during one of these sessions that they came up with the idea of using Power Apps,  a system we already had in place at Yorkshire Housing, to digitalise the hoarding reporting process and streamline how our colleagues carry out inspections and report concerns.

The team decided to create two options for reporting hoarding, a ‘report a concern’ function and a ‘full assessment’ tool. The ‘report a concern’ function is a stripped-back version of the full assessment that focuses on five key areas around safety, specifically access to the customer’s home and access to facilities such as gas and electricity. This new process allows colleagues on time-sensitive visits, such as engineers and contractors, to report concerns about hoarding quickly and easily, something that wasn’t possible with the old system.

What a difference an app makes

The app, which is still being piloted, has significantly streamlined the reporting process. It’s speeding up access to support for our customers, reducing health and safety risks, and encouraging more colleagues to speak up and raise their concerns.

For both the ‘report a concern’ and ‘full assessment’ tools, the app uses a score-based system for each question to grade the risk. The app then automatically sends a report to our customer independence team where the reports are triaged. If concerns have been reported, we can quickly arrange a visit to the customer’s home to carry out a more in-depth assessment.

The app also allows colleagues to view previous inspection reports and use these to show how cases are being progressed. Spotting an escalating situation quickly means we can intervene and provide support much earlier than we could previously.

A work in progress

There’s always room for improvement and we’re reviewing the app periodically to look at how it’s performing, as well as asking colleagues to give us their ideas and suggestions for how it could evolve.

Once we’ve brought this feedback together, our customer independence team will decide if any of the suggestions will add value either to our customers or our colleagues.

We’ll also look to see if the solution has any scope to provide efficiencies or improved customer satisfaction in any other areas of the business.

We’re not saying technology can or should replace the human touch, but we’re committed to using it to give our people the tools they need to act quickly and resolve problems that could have a potential impact on our customers’ health and the quality of our homes.