PISCES fishes for software bugs
Copyright: David Lawson - first published Property Week February 2007
I have at least four homes. I can’t be sure because they are identical and I tend to lose count, particularly as they are in the same street. To the local council I live at Upper Flat; to my friends at Top Flat; gas and electricity is billed to Second/Third Floor; while the Post Office designates me only as Flat B. Strangely, it denies there is an A, despite years of effort by the guy downstairs to validate his existence.
The same applied to a small office I recently rented, where the army of bureaucrats could not even agree on a street name. Bills went astray or were calculated for the wrong premises. Multiply that confusion across several million properties and plans to revolutionise dealing through two big changes this year look shaky. Home information packs [HIPs] arrive in a few weeks, boasting that deals will be accelerated by computer processing of legal documents, local searches and energy reports. Electronic conveyancing is another bid to increase speed which will rely on automatic transfer of information.
The trouble is, computers are stupid. They work with the information you give them, and if that is wrong – or confusing – they screw up. And it takes far less than multiple addresses to cause problems. Every program demands words or figures are entered in a particular way in the right place. For instance, a valuer may key 10th August 07 into a report then pass it to a lawyer whose leasing program expects to see 10/08/2007. The whole process goes awry or loses momentum while manually corrected.
This already provides huge challenges to ambition plans for all housing and commercial deals to flow seamlessly between clients, valuers, lawyers, property managers, tenants and even government departments. The problems were anticipated almost a decade ago when a pioneering group began developing a system called PISCES to ensure that such differences were ironed out. Progress has been slow, however, with many property professionals still providing information that needs rekeying at every stage - plus the occasional squabble among software suppliers.
HIPs and electronic conveyancing have brought an extra urgency, with conveyancers racing to ensure software can meet new demands. Many surveyors have been less enthusiastic because of an innate conservatism and could be left at a huge disadvantage. ‘People have to get used to the fact that they can no longer just do things their own way,’ says Stephen Honey, a consultant for PISCES. ‘They must conform to standards, particularly those being set by government bodies as part of a tide of new regulations.’
Some recognize their responsibilities, playing a big role within the PISCES management organisation. They are also helping developing standards to ease transfer of information for a new commercial leases code and the Investment Property Databank cost code, which will automatically gather detailed information for performance reporting to identifying savings. I may even end up with a single home, as a working group ranging from Ordnance Survey and the RICS to British Land and Landmark Information is aiming to finally pin down an electronic standard for addresses.
One of the biggest challenges for property software will emerge in a few weeks as a new RICS code for service charges comes into force. This will demand far higher standards than the obscure and inaccurate methods often used to handle almost £4.5bn billed to office occupiers every year. The code emerged in response to a Loughborough University study in 2005 revealing chaotic inefficiency which left occupiers in the dark about costs. It even accused managers of overcharging by almost £1bn a year.
In future, accounts and budgets will need to be accurate, on time and provide full details, says Estate Computer Systems, which has spent years honing its QUBE software for such a challenge. While the code is voluntary, courts are likely to use it against managers in claims for professional negligence, says ECS.
Prospects for those relying on a mish-mash of old techniques do not look good. The system, which integrates with new demands under the 2002 Commonhold and Leasehold Act, will demand more accurate, open and timely information on charges. Yet an update study by Loughborough a few months ago found flaws remain, with only 15% of budgets within 2% of costs and only 4% of accounts delivered on time.
More than 230 cost headings are still being used compared with just over 20 suggested by the code, so occupiers cannot easily compare across portfolios. Lack of standards also makes it difficult to set up a central database as a performance index for all property. Report author John Calvert is concerned that the RICS has underestimated just how deep and widespread the problem is for the industry. ECS points out that the changes ‘contain nothing which is not common sense or good practice’. But it does warn about being left behind unless management software can cope.