BUILT ENVIRONMENT JOURNAL

Dealing with data to improve reliability

There is an increasing expectation on surveyors to collect and manage data in integrated ways to support their work. Those that can do so effectively stand to benefit considerably

Author: Michael Lawson and Graeme Winser

26 August 2021

Golden strips to represent data

Although the increasing availability of data should significantly improve surveyors' reports and their recommendations on property condition and risk management, a comprehensive digital approach is hampered by continued use of legacy systems, the differing requirements of large corporate and private domestic clients and gaps in data.

These failings will only compound over time, preventing greater integration with emerging and established tools such as BIM and carbon measurement, as used to meet government requirements or fulfil UK lenders' policies.

Digital momentum

While computers have been a routine part of working life for 30 or more years, there has in the past decade been an explosion of online resources, and organisations have been moving land and property data on to the cloud. The momentum for going online is relentless, and the automation of data aggregation and machine learning is key for the future of the property professional.

Equally, the widespread use of smartphones and other handheld devices has taken the office into the field, allowing surveyors to aggregate data about the properties they are assessing.

Large corporate clients have been using both raw and aggregated data to help inform risk decisions for some time. Initially, insurance companies began to adopt geolocation, mapping layers, geospatial visualisation with property address matching and gazetteers to inform underwriting decisions. For instance, these applications have been used to identify and record physical perils such as flooding and geological risks for more than five years.

Claims managers were quick to adopt this desk-to-field software when a policyholder notified them of loss, and loss adjusters soon did likewise: connecting the known attributes of a property, the history of claims and data on physical perils allowed for a far more nuanced assessment on site at first notification of loss.

In the banking sector, there was less of an imperative to adopt an end-to-end digital workflow, and lenders focused primarily on automating new loan applications and decisions in principle and on full mortgages according to consumers' credit status. Credit risk rather than property risk was the key motive for modernisation.

If property data and valuation information was used, it was primarily to avoid physical inspection, with survey reporting and automated valuation models aggregating other sources of data to provide confidence in valuation.

As a result, the land, property, and environmental data libraries that are available will have gaps where they are based on these original sources. To bridge these gaps, such resources are increasingly coupled with address referencing and map visualisation tools. This enables large corporate clients to triage a property application to the right surveyor and instruct them to follow the correct reporting process.

The surveyor as data analyst

Financial institutions will continue to adopt aggregated data libraries into their front-end processing of mortgage applications to smooth workflow, avoid gaps in data and decrease the risk of queries after valuations or surveys.

Surveying professionals will also use data resources in a similar way to reflect the process that insurers and loss adjusters have followed in selling property cover and handling claims. So far as RICS members are concerned, it will take time for lenders to replace their legacy systems and for common procedures and systems to appear; however, a revolution is inevitable over the next five years.

Finally, the legal profession will increasingly align with lenders and surveyors in using data libraries as a common source of information, and their methods will be picked up by surveyors and conveyancers when dealing with private clients.

In doing so, surveyors will need to understand the risks and opportunities of modern data use. Many previous attempts by surveying firms to introduce new software systems and processes have lacked workforce engagement and thus failed to manage these risks adequately. Adoption has then been patchy at best.

Equally, effective information management and audit tools are needed if data is to meet quality thresholds and add value in aggregation, while respecting the data protection priorities of all parties.

Benefits of desktop triage

For the surveyor, emerging systems can significantly reduce exposure to potential negligence claims by aligning survey data with pre-populated triage of information and its subsequent use by legal title specialists.

Standardising the front-end processing, the brief, the specification, and data requirements will:

  • align data objectives with those of clients
  • demonstrate to staff and insurers that a firm knows what it is doing – and proving the same to claimants and court in the event of legal proceedings
  • create a basis for storage, retrieval, reuse and recombination of data
  • improve efficiency and hence profitability
  • increase staff retention, as they will find the systems they are using more reliable
  • enhance the client experience
  • ensure field teams are provided with the right brief
  • protect data integrity.

Case data can also be transferred from desktop triage to physical survey with far greater confidence, and the raw data that is collected then realigned and aggregated with the file to enrich the experience for all users.

Equally, there is strong case for a joined-up approach to high-level software architecture and operation, which inevitably improves survey efficiency and reduces data licensing fees.

This would also enable comprehensive management of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) liabilities and related security issues for systems that are integrated across client, agent, surveying and perhaps even consumer interfaces. These issues have come into sharp focus during the pandemic, when many basic security protocols around data transfer and validation could not be managed effectively with the mass movement to home working.

'Emerging systems can significantly reduce exposure to potential negligence claims by aligning survey data with pre-populated triage of information and its subsequent use by legal title specialists'
Data drive

Surveyors who do not understand that acquisition, management and application of data is a risk to their continued trading will find themselves increasingly isolated.

The modern residential surveying firm will have to design new report and data collection frameworks to manage statutory reporting in a range of increasingly important areas, such as retrofitting and modernising UK housing to reduce carbon emissions, while consumers will be ever more intolerant of poor service.

But adopting these new systems and approaches will help professionals reap the rewards of modernisation.

Michael Lawson is chief executive at Property Risk Inspection Ltd
Contact Michael: Email

Graeme Winser MRICS is director of strategy at Property Risk Inspection Ltd
Contact Graeme: Email

Related competencies include: Inspection, Risk management

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