The first steps to building solid data foundations for the property market
It is reported that we spend 90% of our lives indoors, so it is no wonder that buildings play such an important role in our lives. Whether it is where we work, live, or play, buildings are at the heart of what we do. At a societal level, the property sector is crucial. It is a significant contributor to GDP, a significant employer, and has a significant impact on the environment – according to the United Nations, real estate accounts for around 40% of the world’s energy use.
However, the last decade or so has seen the property sector, and the way we use buildings, evolve. No longer are we just focused on the building itself, we now focus much more on the impact on people, society, and the environment. And the effects of COVID have dramatically accelerated this change; buildings are evolving from concrete blocks to the digital platforms of the future.
The property sector is facing a time of unprecedented change, at a time where there are significant amounts of new data to inform the decisions that need to be made. This is positive news as the sector now has huge volumes of data at its fingertips that it has not had before, but it also brings its own challenges.
As we get more and more data, it is important that we get the basics right. And to do that, we need to establish solid data foundations. This is where a single, widely adopted identifier is needed upon which all other data sets can be linked, in turn allowing unprecedented transparency, insight, and efficiency. It also ensures that we talk about the same building, and a computer can identify this accurately without human input.
This needs to be widely available, independent, well-managed and up to date, otherwise they will be foundations, but ones made from sand.
The good news for Great Britain is that we already have this established. The Unique Property Reference Number (UPRN) allocates every address with a unique, managed number. This is managed by Geoplace, a joint venture between Ordnance Survey and the Local Government Association and links directly, or through relatively simple analysis to other identifiers, the UARN, the Valuation Office reference number, being a good example.
Benefits of the UPRN
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the property sector is all about property, but what exactly does this mean and how do we capture it? When talking about a property we may refer to the ownership, an estate, a single building, a single unit within the building and so on. Different data sets about the ‘property’ have different ways of identifying what they refer to and the property sector has never really needed to be disciplined in capturing address data in a consistent way. Human-to-human sharing of data allows people to overlay interpretation and context that is simply not possible in machine-to-machine data sharing. The way we used to refer to a property in the past is often no longer fit for purpose where we expect machines to bring together and analyse multiple data sets.
The relative lack of data traditionally used in the property sector means that the sector is not as well set up to benefit from all the data that is now available. Add into the mix that the sector is also highly fragmented, made up of multiple different companies, people, and stakeholders.
As the volume, variety, and velocity of data needed in the property sector grows, the benefit of having a consistent and managed identifier, like the UPRN, is huge; and the benefits are only going to grow in time. We will be able to share information much more efficiently without uncertainty or unrecognised mistakes. The market will be far more transparent, what data is shared and with whom always needs to be considered carefully, but the decision should be based on what should be shared, not the fact that it is difficult to match. Through the combination of new data sets, we will be able to gain new insights to enable improved building performance in terms of people, the environment, or financially. People will no longer be needed to check and process manual data, but instead to add their more human insights, meaning a better informed and quicker sector.
UPRN adoption has already begun
Just using the letting industry as an example, it is beneficial for prospective tenants, letting agents, and Local and Central Government to have a clear view of who the landlord of a property is, and that they are doing the right thing for their tenants. Protecting against the so-called ‘Rogue Landlords’. This might include looking at whether safety certificates have been carried out, landlord finances, local environmental data, previous history, other properties, and so on.
The benefit of having all this information, from numerous sources, easily and automatically collated, is huge. Of course, there are many considerations such as how the data is shared and who with, but the foundations of all of this is a common identifier: the UPRN.
Adoption is happening; in recent months, we have seen new data sets including the UPRN from the ONS or EPC certificates, and it is required in future government digital projects.
The UPRN is not a silver bullet, and for us to realise all the potential benefits that a ubiquitously used common identifier in property could deliver, we must explore what is made available, and how.
But even so, there is little doubt that the sector working towards adopting what is available today is a significant step towards building solid data foundations for the property market of tomorrow.
Written by Dan Hughes – Dan is Director at Alpha Property Insight, a company that helps organisations in real estate with data strategy and digital transformation. Dan is also Founder of the Real Estate Data (RED) Foundation, a not-for-profit industry initiative that connects data projects and people across the whole sector and aims to raise awareness of data ethics. The RED Foundation was a key driver of the open letter sent to the Housing Minister in January 2021.