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The iPad app making life easier for people in public housing

For many people in public housing, even the most basic daily tasks can be a bureaucratic nightmare. But one app is changing that.

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Family and Community Services officer Roger Mclean talks through the Ivy app with Kate McDonnell.

Ian Knighton/CNET

For millions around the world, public housing offers the promise of a much-needed roof overhead.

But the reality of public housing can be grim, and problems that start small can often become bureaucratic nightmares.

That might be a case of waiting weeks to get a broken door fixed or having to file repeated complaints about rowdy neighbours. But issues can be left to fester if councils ignore public housing tenants. And in some cases, as the world saw with the massive fire at London's Grenfell Tower housing complex in 2017, that can have tragic consequences.

While governments can be notoriously slow to adapt, one community housing provider is using tech to catch potential problems before they become big issues, making life easier for some of the most vulnerable people in society.  

That solution is the Ivy app.

Created by the NSW Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) in Australia, this iOS app was developed to cut out the endless paperwork case workers and community housing residents need to complete to get basic things done.

It lets case workers fill property condition reports and take photos directly on an iPad, while also accessing family records, past incidents or safety issues and recent rent and water bills. Residents can complete forms and make payments on the spot, without having to visit a FACS office or wait an age on the phone to get connected to a call centre.

And it's all done through an iPad, which holds records of all the properties and families a case worker deals with, letting them map out appointments and access any information with a tap of the screen.  

The Ivy app lets public housing residents pay bills, update records and get immediate referrals for help around their home. 

Ian Knighton/CNET

A simple tech update might seem like a no-brainer. But for Kate McDonnell, who lives in public housing with her five children in inner-city Sydney, the Ivy app has been a huge help. 

"Before, paperwork got lost … things were falling by the wayside," she says. Case workers were "overloaded" with admin, and when she did actually get home visits, it was often a new case worker each time.

Now, when she has issues, she doesn't need to wrangle her two young children to get to a FACS centre while the other kids are in school -- everything is done through the iPad. And when her case worker visits her house, "I know who they are."

With every FACS officer responsible for between 350 and 450 properties, the department was previously only visiting 30 percent of its public housing tenants in a given year. After the app was launched across the state in April 2018, the department conducted one third of its yearly visits -- more than 20,000 interactions -- in just 60 days.

Former FACS client services officer Roger Mclean helped develop the app and knows the problem faced by front-line public housing workers too well. For each public housing visit he used to conduct, he says he would spend upwards of three hours printing out forms, rifling through case files and doing dry paperwork. For a person who got into the job to help people, the bulk of his time was spent on data entry.

"It was horrible and very time consuming," he says. "Now, we're not rushing."

With only an iPad in tow, case workers can now spend time actually speaking to tenants in their homes, where issues are easier to identify and difficult conversations can be conducted in privacy. For elderly residents and people living with a disability the focus on in-home interactions is game-changing.  

"Before, we spent 100 percent of our time on 10 percent of our clients," says Lance Carden, director of customer service and business improvement at FACS.

But for Carden, the biggest change has been a shift from putting out fires to actually engaging with people in the community who need it most.

"We miss out on early intervention if we're not visiting everybody. And we're missing that social and human element."

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