In the UK, there are persistent and overlapping inequalities in health, housing and digital inclusion. The Smartline Project has revealed valuable insights into the role that digital technologies could play to support health and wellbeing through improved housing and social connections.
How do home environments and community connections affect people’s health? Can technology help? How can we address health and housinginequalities, and make sure that everyone is able to benefit from digital technology? These were the questions posed by Smartline, a
multi-faceted research project.
More than 300 social housing residents agreed to have sensors installed in their homes and answer questions about their health, housing and community. Their
participation was critical to the success of the project.
Why it matters
There is lots of evidence that housing affects people’s health. We spend the vast majority of our time indoors. Researchers are starting to understand that indoor air
pollution is just as important a health issue as outdoor air pollution. This is increasingly important as homes become more energy efficient and therefore less well
ventilated – in our effort to tackle climate change we risk undermining health. Sensors installed in Coastline homes collect data on air temperature, relative humidity and air quality (measured by particulate matter, tiny particles in the air, and also total volatile organic compounds, potentially harmful gases in the air).The project also gathered information
about electricity use, and in some homes gas and water use.
- Using data from the sensors, the Smartline research team have:
Shown that digital technology can provide a window into conditions inside the home. The sensors provide reliable data on a range of indicators over a long period of time. This helps organisations such as Housing Associations to understand issues affecting the building fabric and target support for residents.
- Developed a new model to identify the growth of mould in the home. Mould spores in the air harm people’s health, and this model will help householders and housing associations to predict and prevent it.
- Discovered that common household cleaning products can increase the risk of asthma. Smartline is advocating better labelling of these products, advising people to ventilate their homes while using them.
- Highlighted the overlapping issues of fuel poverty, mobility and mental health. The team is recommending a more flexible approach to definitions of fuel poverty that take
into account people’s health, as some people are more susceptible to cold and many fuel-poor households also have very limited mobility. Research exploring the impact of childhood poverty on wellbeing in adulthood is ongoing.
Many of the Smartline partners will be working together again, alongside a local GP, Age UK and the Health and Environment Public Engagement (HEPE) Group to explore the role sensor technology can play in helping people with health conditions to stay independent at home. This work is
being funded by Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council(EPSRC) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).
Using sensors to understand the effectiveness of measures in the home:
The University of Exeter and Coastline Housing are working together to
research the effectiveness of radon mitigation measures. Radon is a natural source of radiation which can lead to cancer if present in high levels, and
is a particular issue in Cornwall because of its unique geology.
Helping the fight against climate change:
Sensors could also help the fight against climate change, by providing data on the effectiveness of energy efficiency measures and tailoring
solutions to individual households.
Continuing to build our understanding of indoor air quality:
Cornwall Council is currently testing remote sensor technology to understand their level of accuracy and see if outdoor air pollution affects indoor air quality. Data analysis conducted by University of Exeter researchers will help Cornwall Council’s Air Quality Team further understand this relationship.
The Council’s air quality team are also assessing the impact of air purifiers on indoor air quality .‘It will feed into our work on climate
“Technology reshapes thinking about homes,
customers’ choices, our approach to interventions
and can also provide assurance where the indoor
environment is being kept at suitable levels. It
reinforces the need to intervene as quickly as
possible when things are going wrong and helps
target resources when they are most needed.
With the breadth and volume of new technology
emerging and available it is becoming an essential
rather than a nice to have. I would go as far as
saying that if you are a landlord and have no
technology in your homes, you probably know
less than half of the real situation of your customers
– and this is not a good position to be in.”
Head of Innovation, Maintenance and Group
Procurement, Coastline Housing
‘It’s given us insight into the
connection between different issues’
“Smartline has highlighted our community
issues and also how these overlap with those
nationally. Having the Smartline data provides
us with valuable information that we can use to
explore what the Council can do to continue
to promote health and wellbeing in Cornwall.
Housing is a key part of that.”
Housing Strategy, Partnerships & Engagement
Officer, Cornwall Council
“Smartline has given us insights and wisdom, as well
as confidence, to do things that we wouldn’t
have done – or would not have done the same
way – if we hadn’t been involved. Some of the
conversations we are having now around the
voluntary sector’s engagement in the health and
care system, and some of the lessons we’ve
learned along the way, particularly about
place-based working and working in partnership,
can be traced back to Smartline.”
Support and Development, Volunteer Cornwall
“The project has furthered a range of public
health areas including better understanding
of fuel poverty, air pollution and how local
communities use technology in the home.
Smartline has provided rich data and information
across Cornwall, which has been used to inform
our approaches to improve the health and
wellbeing of local people, as well as support
our training programme. It has been a privilege
to work with the Smartline team and to jointly
progress the health and housing agenda both
locally and nationally.”
Dr Richard Sharpe,
Consultant in Public Health, Cornwall Counci