Analysis: Ireland's housing data ecosystem is plagued by fragmentation, inconsistencies, low quality and a lack of transparency

The housing data ecosystem in Ireland faces several challenges as the country struggles to address the ongoing housing crisis. With a growing population and limited supply of affordable housing, there is an urgent need for accurate and up-to-date data to inform policy decisions, support effective planning and development and guide the substantial investments coming into the country.

However, a number of issues, including data fragmentation, lack of standardisation and data quality, has undermined efforts to collect and analyse the information needed to address this complex issue. As a result, the housing data ecosystem in Ireland needs significant improvements to enable better decision-making and ultimately improve secure and affordable access in a timely and transparent manner. But for this to happen, the housing data ecosystem requires a fundamental reconsideration of how housing data is created, managed, disseminated and used.

Data Politics

Statistical information plays an essential role in any public and social policy. But anyone doing housing research in Ireland has noticed how challenging it is to find accurate housing information. My public policy students often comment on the lack of data and the need to combine multiple data sets where numbers don't always align or make sense, to understand a particular aspect of the housing problem. All too often, figures published by official government bodies offer data that does not add up.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, opposition accuses government of now acknowledging housing as a crisis

A good example of that is the housing construction numbers. The calculation of annual housing output is often embroiled in controversy, with the publicised number showing a tendency to over-estimation of housing output every year. This is due to three main reasons: a) outdated methodologies for accounting for housing completions using ESB connections as a proxy, b) constantly changing statistical measures such as homeless data and leasing data, and c) the electoral importance of showing that something is being done to increase supply.

The uncertainty about the extent to which housing targets are being met is astonishing, given their importance to the future of housing policy implementations. But the debates we see in the newspaper headlines about this stem from a lack of clarity about how housing production is measured, how timely this data is made available, and whether or not the government official had access to the data before making important decisions.

Housing data quality standards

In Ireland, housing data is produced and managed by a number of different organisations and agencies, such the Central Statistics Office (CSO), Residential Tenancies Board (RTB), Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, in addition to other bodies like The Housing Agency and ESRI, for example. Private companies, such as property websites like DAFT also produce and publish housing data, including property listings, rental prices, and sales data.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Saturday with Colm Ó Mongáin, homeless figures almost at 12,000 mark

The existence of diverse and heterogeneous data sources is not necessarily a bad thing. Arguably, housing data produced by multiple sources can provide a more comprehensive picture of the housing situation. However, there are challenges associated with using data from multiple sources. Data that is dispersed across several sources make it challenging to accurately convey an accurate interpretation or story. This also includes inconsistency in the data due to different classifications and data collection methods; poor data quality associated with reliability of the data sources; different policies and procedures for sharing or publishing housing data; duplication, wrong and missing data.

All those elements can lead to confusion and mistakes in the data. Standardised processes for the collection, production and sharing of housing data, along with clear communication of expectations to both the public, government agencies, researchers and stakeholders are essential for evidence-based policy.

There are controversial government decisions about how people experiencing homelessness are counted in Ireland. As in many other areas, it is the government of the day that decides who counts as a user of specific policies. Homelessness data focus on specific groups (e.g. rough sleepers, people in emergency accommodation, etc). In 2018, 600 households were removed from the homeless figures when they were placed in 'own front door' accommodation. This type arrangement is defined as a type of emergency accommodation for households experiencing homelessness and not long-term accommodation, but the figures were altered nevertheless.

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Missing data in particular causes a particular kind of challenge. It is very difficult, for example, to find accurate data on corporate landlords. Researchers and investigative journalists often have to dig out information from very large and difficult to access financial reports directed at investors and other documents that are usually not made available to the public.

The lack of transparent housing data from private companies is especially troubling because data that is missing often pertains to the interests and requirements of particular individuals or interest groups. Private rental conglomerates own an important amount of housing data existing today, and it is largely inaccessible and tightly controlled. This, of course, was designed to be this way.

In any government, decisions are often based on data, which tends to strengthen the underlying goals of those in positions of authority. We know that accurate, comprehensive, transparent and timely is extremely useful for evidence-based policy. It could, for example, be used to interfere with homelessness before it happens. But ultimately, governments can still may still decide to ignore the data and make decisions based on political promises and not-so-transparent agendas. Such was the case of the eviction ban. Early evidence shows that the eviction ban reduced the number of families becoming homeless. But the government's decision was to lift this ban to, among other reasons, avoid 'breach of trust’ with landlords. It is still unclear if the government had access to the actual number of eviction notices issued or not.

Building synergy across the housing data ecosystem

Good housing data can be a tool for empowerment and useful to address the housing crisis. If a more cohesive and transparent housing data ecosystem is created, it can leads to holistic understandings and new valuable insights which can significantly improve housing policy efforts. This can immediately inform whether a policy strategy is working, and how your strategy is performing against certain criteria so policy can pivoted where needed. It can inspire all stakeholders involved data to create and share data ethically and responsibly for fairer and inclusive housing policies.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ