This blog by Chimni founder Nigel Walley argues that the Irish and UK tech sector should pioneer a new kind of start-up company structure. Aimed at letting start-ups reach for scale quickly, a joint approach could be rolled out to willing participant markets across Europe.
If you start a tech company in the US, your immediate home market is 120 million households or 320 million people. These customers are all linked by a single language, a single currency and a single media landscape. With a single web site and a single registered company, a US tech start-up has access to a massive domestic ‘launch’ market. This is why, by the time we meet them, US tech start-ups are already huge beasts.
US companies also benefit from having an immediate ‘second market’ next door in Canada, with another 12 million households containing 45 million potential customers speaking the same language and sharing a similar and interconnected media culture. Their access into Canada is facilitated by a raft of inter-government initiatives designed to ease cross-border trade.
UK and European tech start ups often feel like minnows in this context. The dream of the European single market initiative was to create the circumstances that would give European companies access to a market of a similar scale. However, the failure to implement the various Services Directives in European trade agreements means that this is still a pipe dream. Services account for 71 per cent of EU GDP, but only 3.2 per cent of this is from intra-EU trade. For tech start-ups this is a significant problem but we think there is an opportunity for the UK and Irish tech community to cut through this.
The Problem and the Solution
Chimni's launch intention was always to focus on Anglo-Irish residential property sector. We launched initially in the UK but moved rapidly to set up a base in Dublin. To secure the Irish URL and to trade, we had to set up a separate Irish company, with a separate corporate listing and a separate Irish bank account. Our small tech-start up, that has barely started trading, has had to occur the time and fees cost to submit two separate sets of annual accounts to two separate tax authorities. We now have separate registered offices, and required local directors for each company. All this to add another 1.5 million potential households for a start up that is just experimenting with its first launch product.
For Irish property tech start-ups the problem is the same but with more to lose. With free access to the UK, the 25M British homes and 65M consumers can ad 'heft' to the 'weave' of Irish innovation. Meaning they can exploit British consumers as an extended home market, to gain traction before tacking Europe and the coveted US. We should be making this as easy as possible for Irish tech start ups.
The long term aim for Europe is for single companies, to work in single regulatory / financial context. With or without the UK in the EU, this currently feels like a pipe dream. But rather than waiting for the larger European issues to be solved, the Irish and UK government should sponsor a new kind of corporate entity, specifically aimed at the tech start-up market, that can immediately operate across borders in Europe. We are proposing this new entity could be an SME version of the UK's Tech Nation Visa scheme which targets individual talent. This would have a unique trading status to be agreed by inter-government agreement, that allows a single company to operate in multiple territories without needing to re-incorporate, or establish local offices for tax purposes. This structure would only be available at start-up and for companies who are the 's' in SME.
A new company could elect to adopt this format at incorporation, and do this through a new, separate shared web infrastructure, built once but shared by all participating countries. A company operating with this proposed status should be given the unique right to buy all relevant country URLs from a single supplier, without needing any further incorporations or trading presence in each participating country. They should be able to choose a ‘prime territory’ to list in, whose regulatory infrastructure will have pre-eminence on their operations. But their financial reporting and tax payments channeled through a new, separate web infrastructure, built once but shared by all countries. The tax rate applied could be an average all the tax rates applicable in the trading countries, with tax revenues apportioned on a pro-rata basis.
We propose that PAYE for all employees would also be paid into the same, floating structure with employees able to relocate in either territory quickly and easily without re-listing for tax purposes. Management of the concept could be on a devolved competence basis, similar to Interpol, with a central directorate staffed by dedicated employees, but with support from local country experts as required. Participant companies could also be eligible for a Tech Visa scheme to move staff between participating countries.
How To Implement
This is clearly a complex concept to negotiate on a 27 country basis. But tech companies are meant to be arrogantly disruptive. This normally means disrupting markets, but it could also be with regards to ignoring treaties. So we are proposing that we start with a two-country attempt with the UK and Ireland pioneering the relationship – under the auspices of the British and Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIC), to keep it out of the quagmire of the wider Brexit debate . The UK and Ireland are already close trading partners in a large number of areas, we share a language and an interconnected media market; and we already exchange people and skills between our major cities. Most importantly we have a set of unique inter-governmental relationships like the BIC within which to negotiate and then trial the concept. Currently Brexit seems to be pulling the UK and Ireland further apart. Disruptive tech companies could cut that.
Once we have it operating with two countries, we can roll it out on a country by country basis across Europe, inviting other states, EU or otherwise, to join the process. This could start with Estonia, a fellow European member of the Digital 5 group of countries committed to using digital technology to revolutionise government. Next, adjacent countries with similar history of cross-border co-operation, such as the Scandinavian countries, could be the next triallists invited to join. Countries with similar corporate trading cultures like Holland or Denmark could be the fast followers into the system. The tech industries should fight to keep this arrangement out of any of the other, existing trading blocs or arrangements.
British and Irish tech-ups should be in the vanguard of a new pan-European market of 800 million customers - across all countries of Europe beyond just the EU. The UK and Irish Governments can make this happen by pioneering the concept and set a new generation of huge tech start ups free to trade across Europe. Let Silicon Valley keep its Unicorns, the British & Irish should be building ‘Lions’.
Nigel Walley @ChimniWalley
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Chimni Found Nigel Walley was please to be appointed a temporary roving reporter for Showhouse Magazine as part of his trip to this year's Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas. The feature was published in the February edition of Showhouse:
Nigel Walley @ChimniWalley
A trip to the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas has become part of the yearly calendar for anyone working in new technology. But, while it is traditionally full of interesting home tech, it has yet to achieve that must-see status for homebuilders. This year may change that, as CES 2017 was full of new ‘smart home’ and ‘internet of things’ technologies that appear poised to make the leap into the mainstream and therefore into our homes.
CES is a vast, city-wide event with features on a wide variety of industries, from motoring, health, music and TV. However there is always a core focus on the way technology affects how we live and this year smart home tech was at the fore. When we walk round a show like CES, we should be careful not to think the impact of new technology on housebuilding is a new phenomenon. Tech innovation perpetually affects our industry’s product and there was a time when including a central heating system was seen as a property tech innovation. But this current wave of smart home tech does seem all consuming. CES 2017 had technology innovation that touched on the usual white goods, security, entertainment and monitoring but this year seems to have gone further into the fabric of our homes with cupboards, windows and walls not escaping.
The explosion of internet connected devices is not in itself new. The number of power sockets now being requested by homeowners in new units was a first hint that a new wave of tech innovation was hitting our market. But this was simply about helping homebuyers who wanted to buy clever kit after purchasing a property. CES 2017 gave the hint of the extent to which new tech will impact, and have to be built into, new homes before purchase.
White goods manufactures have grasped the idea of smart tech as a way of increasing the premium they can charge. Every device a homebuilder may install in a new build, from washing machines, fridges to hobs had an operating system and an app to manage them. GE demonstrated a suite of smart hobs and cookers that accessed and stored not just recipes but the settings needed to deliver them. Even cupboards couldn’t escape connectivity. LG demonstrated clothing storage that managed dry-cleaning rotas and offered different storage solutions for different fabrics. The only re-assuring thing we can take away from these demonstrations is that there is still no hint that consumers are expecting this level of connectivity in their appliances (in fact many may still view it with alarm). But this may change.
Better examples of innovation beginning to make sense were the security products, with innovative, software driven door-locks and monitoring systems everywhere. We have previously seen locks that can be controlled by apps but this year voice control and integration with bigger smart home systems arrived in a big way. Brinks showed off their ‘Array’ locks that can be voice-controlled via an Amazon Echo, and Yale were demonstrating locks that can integrate with Apple’s HomeKit smart home software.
Around these systems, voice activation was the big control story with Google’s Home and Amazon Echo dominating a crowded field. Most security products on show could integrate with one of these devices. The big operating systems companies, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon don’t officially demonstrate at CES, but their products and services were everywhere in the Smart Home areas. Amazon Echo’s ‘Alexa’ voice control had a presence on 700 different stands.
We also saw previously separate items like ‘smart’ lighting, heating, alarms and monitoring now integrated into bigger, cohesive home systems, with an emphasis on various competing ‘hub’ technologies. Hubs are clever wifi routers that can send messages between connected devices and the apps that control them. By connecting to a router, they also control the link between devices and the outside world. Amazon Echo and Google Home are both hubs and stand-alone solutions like British Gas’ Hive also comes with a hub. These hubs can support a network of clever devices around our homes.
Every consumer electronics manufacturer were showing their own propriety hub solution – often accompanies by a voice controlled like the Lenovo SmartAssistant and LG’s anthropomorphic Hub Robot, both of which compete with Amazon Echo and Google Home. However, the breakout contender was the Samsung Smartthings hub, which comes with its own brand of smart sockets, light bulbs and sensors. It also seemed to integrate with various other manufacturer brands and most smart tech products boasted a Smartthings integration. For the homebuilder the difficult question is when to include these technologies in new build homes. Will wall sockets continue to evolve to have hub integration included?
The message from CES this year is that there are still too many competing wifi and connectivity standards to be able to commit to any particular device or network standard yet. But this doesn’t mean homebuilders escape dealing with the implications of homeowners wanting to install this stuff. Homes will increasingly need tech cupboards with distributed power and shelving just to hold and manage the growing number of internet related boxes, routers and splitters we will need to manage this new world.
Walking round CES the spread of screens into every device and surface was also noticeable. Most fridges being demonstrated included some form of screen, normally showing an elongated, vertical version of the Windows OS. Some manufacturers, like Panasonic, – went as far as turning glass fronted fridges into interactive touch screens that helped you interrogate their contents.
But screens had spread even further. Panasonic demonstrated glass room dividers and cupboard doors that doubled as PC and TV screens. Seemingly any surface in our homes will, at some point, be able to double as an interactive screens. For all the screen solutions on offer, none of the manufacturers could square the circle that digital technology has a much shorter lifespan than fridges or cupboards. Will people be willing to replace a clothes cupboard or a fridge because iPlayer no longer works on its screen?
Homeowners are currently facings a number of different pressures. Alongside the drive for ‘eco’ and low-carbon performance, there are the costs and speed pressures leading to modular and off-site construction. The proptech revolution as witnessed at CES looks initially as though it is pulling in the opposite direction. Most products on display only offered increased product complexity and cost for homebuilders, with the mitigating factor being the lack of clear consumer demand.
However, homebuilders can’t bank on this lasting. Amazon Echo sold 5M devices in the US before its UK launch last year and it was the fasting selling piece of consumer electronics in the UK and US over Xmas. The Smart Home is mainstream whether we build it or not.
This article was written by Chimni for the February edition of Showhouse Magazine. For more information about the magazine please see their website here: www.showhouse.co.uk or email email@example.com
If you spend your day looking at property, Smart Home or 'Internet of Things' technology (what we’ll just call ’proptech’ for this blog), you will have found it hard to avoid the acronym BIM on social media and in the trade press. You may have wondered what it covered, but understood BIM to be an issue for the construction industry and not relevant for the data or property tech community. This post makes the case that the proptech world needs to know and care about BIM and that now is the time to start.
What is this 'BIM' of which you speak….?
At simplest, BIM or ‘Building Information Modelling’ is a 21st century reinvention of the process to create and manage the information produced by construction & manufacturing professionals for decades. Its ‘re-invention’ was necessary because of the overwhelming and varied demands for the industry to evolve, driven by the wider digital and data revolution.
BIM is an attempt to reimagine not just the file and data formats used in construction, but to create a new digital working environment that can support the kind of business and behaviour revolution that is expected to hit construction. The best way to understand this, and to see the proptech opportunity, is to look at BIM’s impact within the four typical phases of the design and construction process. These are normally defined as the concept design phase, the detail design phase, the manufacture & construction phase and finally the operation & maintenance phase when buildings get handed over for occupation and use.
Each of these phases is undergoing its own BIM revolution, learning to use the core BIM models, as well as developing plug-ins & apps suited to the specialised needs of each phase. Each phase holds issues and opportunities that the proptech world need to understand if it is to join in the revolution and make sure its products and services are compatible.
Phase 1 - Concept Design.
Architects have always tried not to design buildings in 2D but to think creatively in 3D. Unfortunately 3D functionality came late to CAD and its use in design and construction has always been patchy. BIM was built with 3D as native and it offers a much wider range of 3D functionality as core. The use of 3D modelling in BIM to realise ideas and concepts is now become a fundamental part of the design process.
Equally, to create 3D visuals for clients was hard and expensive in CAD. But in BIM it’s a capability that is assumed from the start. A new generation of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) plug-ins & apps that can extract data from BIM models are great examples of the extensions designed to keep core BIM files small and efficient. The simple accessability of BIM 3D means that clients, and even planners, can be engaged in the early creative processes like never before.
For property tech people, particularly those looking at AR and VR, this is a gift, as architects are now producing the raw models that could feed into these new formats as standard. It makes the use of VR much easier if someone else has done half the work before you get involved. However the two industries need to standardise approaches to ensure that this data flow is possible. VR models should follow a property’s journey from concept through to ownership and on-sale. It would be madness to have two 3D cultures working in parallel without engaging. Proptech VR without BIM is unthinkable.
Phase 2 - Detailed Design
Once construction professionals get to the detail design stage, the shift from CAD to BIM becomes even more interesting for proptech innovators. Previously in CAD an architect would specify building components (whether construction materials or more complicated components like central heating systems) by putting an outline of the product on their drawings and describing it in written notes alongside.
In a previous generation, the big CAD innovation in this area was for manufacturers to produce pre-drawn icons of their products in a CAD-friendly format, for architects to copy into straight into their CAD drawings. This was a laborious process, full of inaccuracy and mistakes which, in design & construction, translates into delays and cost overruns.
BIM has super-charged this idea for the digital age by enabling product manufacturers to produce intelligent 3D drawings and data packs, known as BIM ‘objects’ for their products. Although simple outlines and pre-drawn icons are still used in BIM, the new objects enable a BIM-using professional to drag huge amounts of intelligence into their working BIM models or create links to cloud-hosted data sets. BIM objects can hold, or link to, supporting information such as operating manuals, performance benchmarks, maintenance schedules, repair instructions and replacement information. This kind of information would have previously been sent out as PDFs after construction.
Now its being included in BIM models and a market for BIM Objects has grown up (around companies like BIM Store). This means that product and component manufacturers are having to undergo their own digital data revolution. They are now creating file and data formats that anyone developing ‘smart tech’ or ‘internet of things’ devices needs to be aware of and engage with. At simplest, any new ‘smart’ or ‘IoT’ device needs an accompanying BIM object file if it wants to be included in designs for new buildings. The really ‘smart’ manufacturers of new tech would be working with the BIM community to establish how to do this effectively, and how to ensure their products are included in BIM models from the start.
On top of this, the new capability is also enabling the building design process to include performance design for the first time. Architects can analyse running costs in data models at concept stage and this is where the link with proptech and IoT becomes key. Many new proptech innovators are working on property management apps that include performance and cost management analysis for finished buildings (the chimni app is one). In a utopian world, the performance data sets they produce would be co-ordinated with BIM performance modelling formats. Once again, it would be madness for two separate analysis & performance cultures to develop without co-ordination. The BIM, proptech and IoT industries need to co-ordinate the development of ‘performance-design’ science with ‘post-construction and usage analysis.
Phase 3 - Manufacturing & Construction
From a property tech point of view, the construction phase is potentially the least interesting area. But its important for the proptech world to understand this revolution from the contractors point of view. Previously, a contractor would be given print-outs of drawings, and revisions would be worked through on paper. Now, the contractor is invited to share the online model as a participant in a process and issues are worked out in 3D.
Once again, a generation of construction focussed plug-ins and apps are appearing to work with BIM models and data. A contractor can deliver direct feedback on the professional teams intentions, data models can be updated in response through the process and the potential to remove delays and avoid costly mistakes is huge.
For the construction sector the prize is dramatic productivity improvements. Proptech and IoT innovators need to consider the needs and interests of the contractor when thinking about the lifecycle of their products, if they want them included, installed and configured correctly as part of the construction process.
Phase 4 - Operation & Maintenance
The operation and maintenance (O&M) phase of a building’s life is potentially the most significant for proptech and IoT innovators as most tech innovation in our world (if we briefly ignore online estate agents) is focussed on changing how we run buildings.
Previously, in social or managed housing, where a building was going to be run by a facilities manager (FM), a CAD file would have been treated as an archive resource. The operator would be given print-outs of the construction documents and PDFs of all the maintenance manuals. After that, they were on their own. The new BIM world treats the BIM model as a potential ‘operating system’ for the building. Now, the BIM model gets handed over to the FM to use and a new generation of FM software & plug-ins is emerging to help them use it. The proptech world needs to integrate with this world.
Homebuilding was always a problematic area in this fourth phase. One of the major reasons was that there were few professionally recognised ‘operators’ outside of the social housing sector to hand information to, once construction was finished. Buyers of new homes had no way of using CAD data and most of the 26M existing homes in the UK have no CAD file available, even if they could use it.
However, buyers of new homes are increasingly taking ownership of properties built using BIM models full of useful, digital information. Over time the new BIM formats will allow construction & maintenance info to be delivered into consumer friendly apps (this idea is core to future developments stages of Chimni). We just have to work out how to unlock it for them.
Beyond new homes, the retro-fit and refurbishment of existing homes will also benefit because of the BIM Object data now being created by manufacturers of systems like central heating. This data is currently targeted at contractors, but it has huge potential if made available to consumers. We need manufacturers of proptech and IoT devices to participate in the process of creating data formats configured to support consumer apps and services for retro-fit equipment. This is not futurology - anyone with a British Gas ‘Hive’, or Google ‘Nest’ attached to their central heating has already made a leap in this direction. It is now time to bring our different industries together.
The design and construction world is managing the adoption of new BIM systems and practices very carefully. Supported by the Government, they are making the transition to the first working level of BIM – what the industry is calling BIM Level 2 (where Level 1 is the old CAD standards). However, the industry is already looking forward to the next innovation stage - BIM Level 3 – where web friendly data and apps are integral to the development of BIM based services. Rather hopefully called iBIM, this is where the two worlds of design & construction and proptech will collide. We might as well start planning for it.
Its likely that the initial areas where BIM and proptech can collaborate will be in areas around data for performance and maintenance. It is likely that there are areas of potential collaboration that are hard to define at this stage. However, to manage for this in the long term, both industries will need to develop a shared vision for how people will expect to manage their homes in the future and the data they will require to do that.
Nigel Walley @ChimniWalley
We hear so many horror stories of fraud, malware and deceit on the internet that it can sometimes be easy to lose sight of the overwhelming global good the internet has delivered. Sometimes this is a huge good, but most often it is the cumulative impact of lots of little ‘moments of goodness’. This Xmas Chimni wants to share a small unimportant story that makes this case.
At the beginning of 2016 , when our first prototype was finished we went through the increasingly difficult process of deciding what to call the new company. As most dot.com start-ups will tell you, in an increasingly globalised world there just aren’t many that words left that you can buy the rights for in all the relevant ways.
Eventually, after much brainstorming and false starts we came up with a word – Chimni – that suits the company and, most importantly, works well in every graphical way we could imagine (its a home management app in case you wondered). We were able to secure the ‘.com’ web address, all the country specific addresses for it, as well as all the relevant international trademarks. The only thing missing was the Twitter name.
We knew that this wasn’t crucial as its possible to do all sorts of things with similar words and phrases on Twitter. But for completeness we wanted to add it to the set. The only problem was that it was taken. Someone based in Bangalore, India had registered it a few years ago. However, while their account was live, it had not been used to tweet for two years. They clearly had no interest in Twitter (at least for this account) so we wondered if we could buy it off them. They only challenge was identifying, then contacting them.
At that point, the @chimni account followed a small number of other Twitter accounts, all local people in Bangalore. In return it only had a small number of followers. All we knew from the personal description on the Twitter header, was that the owner was female, it gave her first name, and said that she worked in ‘comic books’ in Bangalore, India. We tried direct tweeting to the account and, when that failed, we tried sending a tweet to all the Twitter accounts that she had followed asking for a steer to her identity.
We had no replies, so we set out to find her through other means. We assumed (rightly in the end) that someone who had a Twitter account, worked in publishing and spoke English in India, may have left a trail of other breadcrumbs for us to find around the web.
The first thing I learned from my early Google searches, was that the word we had chosen – Chimni – actually means ‘sparrow’ in the Marathi language spoken in Western India. We were quite charmed by that (particularly given we were chasing down a Twitter ID and as you know, the Twitter icon is a sparrow-like bird). The downside was that it also turned out to be a reasonably common surname in India. Given this, we therefore guessed (wrongly as it turned out) that ‘Chimni’ must be her surname. So we began a long (and ultimately fruitless) search for people in Bangalore with that combination of names and the right job description.
When, after many hours of Google searching, it became obvious this was a false trail, we went back to what we had started with – a ‘first name’ and a link to ‘comic books’ in Bangalore. Back at the Google searches we quickly got a hit. We found somebody with the right first name, who was a senior exec at a publisher in Bangalore. The publishing company she worked for publishes, among many other things, a range of bande dessinee comic books - like an Indian version Tintin or Asterix, but which feature characters from Hindu mythology.
Taking the company name as a steer, we guessed at the lady’s email address and, after a few failures, eventually hit one that didn’t’ bounce back. Very quickly after, we were rewarded with a return email from the lady herself. She confirmed that yes she was the right person, and that she would be willing to sell the Twitter account. We quickly agreed a fee and here is where the story got complicated.
The lady in question banks with a local Indian bank that didn’t have a corresponding international banking partner in the UK. This meant that to pay her the agreed fee, we had to route the payment through one of the international banks working in India (HSBC, Standard Chartered and Citi etc). To do this, we needed to ask her for an array of personal information to verify the validity of the payment to the authorities on both sides of the transaction. She therefore had to trust a complete stranger, who had contacted her unannounced over the web, with her banking details and other personal info.
Secondly, we had to trust that this lady, a complete stranger to us, would honour her commitment to hand over the log-in details for the Twitter account once the payment was confirmed in her account. But that is what duly happened. After 3 weeks of bureaucratic nightmares transferring the funds (never believe that nonsense that ‘HSBC is the world’s local bank’), the money dropped into her account. She emailed to tell me that she had the money and we held our breath. Almost immediately after she emailed to give us the password and user name of the Twitter account in question. She had sent a final Tweet explaining the situation to the small number of her friends who followed her before sending us the log-in details. We logged on and took over the account. A difficult transaction made possible by trusting a stranger on the internet.
As a final aside, she emailed us to say that she was having her apartment re-decorated this summer, and the fee for the Twitter handle would help pay for that. She said that if we were ever in Bangalore, she would buy us lunch and we agreed that if she was ever in London she should visit the Chimni team and we would do the same. She said that she would probably visit her son here next year as he is studying here.
And that is it! A simple, unimportant story about a transaction between two strangers who, with a certain amount of caution, were able to trust each other and complete a transaction on the web. More importantly we think it was a story about reaching out in friendship over the web between India and the UK. Next year we hopt to add details of a lunch in London or Bangalore to this story!
Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year or as they say in Marathi śubh nātāḷ navīn varṣacyā hārdik śubhecchā!
The Chimni Team
ps Our contact in Bangalore gave us a nugget of information that energised our international plans - forecast show that 70% of the buildings that will exist in India in 2030 have yet to be built yet! We hope to be there with them.
This blog makes the case that focussing simply on the benefits that Blockchain can deliver for property sales misses a bigger service opportunity for homeowners. A truly digitised housing services market will need a property ‘Bitcoin’ equivalent on top of Blockchain to unleash the next generation of PropTech and Smart Home services.
By Lizzie Newman - The way we manage our homes is increasingly being digitised. A recent consumer survey conducted for Chimni showed that homeowners now have between 10 and 25 online accounts that relate in some way to home management. For homeowners at the lower end of this range, these may just include links to utilities, telecoms and insurance providers. More digitally adept homeowners may have accounts on their local authority and resident associations sites, DIY and price comparison sites. At the top end or this range are the fully digital homeowners who have adopted ‘smart’ and IoT devices that are managed online and through apps.
For the most part, these accounts are primarily linked to homeowners as a person, with only a tenuous link to the property address data held as part of a customer profile. However, increasingly online service accounts are specific to our properties and the technology in them, with the home address and property profile central to the account. Right now anyone can open an account with an online provider and offer a home address with only limited validation of their right to do so. This has not been a problem up till now, but with data ownership increasingly an issue, its about to become one.
There are of course some checks possible. A credit card profile would previously have helped confirm the link between a person and an address. But this link has been weakened or removed as people increasingly have credit cards linked to work addresses, or have multiple different homes to manage. Online utility accounts are able to point directly to a meter or named device in the home and prevent someone setting up an account without that link being present. But that only covers a small number of providers.
Tthere are a growing number of online products and services, like Chimni, which are intended to be part of your home’s online profile but where there is no physical device in the home to attach an account profile to. It is a crucial part of the Chimni proposition to make sure that there is only ever one account set up for each home in the UK. But we currently have no online mechanism for linking a person’s digital profile to an online property profile other than confirming a name with Land Registry or a commercial provider like Experian.
These systems make it possible to check online that ‘John Smith’ lives or owns a particular address. But how does an online provider make sure that it is the right John Smith? There are currently 350 John Smiths in London alone and 50,000 in the US. As part of an online service set-up process, providers need to be able to link to a system that confirms that not only does ‘John Smith’ have the right to set up an online account for a particular property, but that the ‘John Smith’ that they are dealing with, is the same John Smith as listed in the asset register at Land Registry. This is where blockchain and bitcoin technology may come into play.
What is The Blockchain Concept.
There has been a flurry of recent PR around ‘Bitcoins’ which are a form of digital or online currency that have the long term potential to replace national currencies. Bitcoins are a digital token – representing a cash value - that can be used for online transactions. However, unlike most digital things, Bitcoins are like real cash in that the digital file can’t be copied or replicated. You can pass one over to a new owner as payment in a transaction but not keep a copy. Underlying the Bitcoin concept is an online register of all coins and transactions, built using a new technology called blockchain.
The Bitcoin blockchain is a public record or ledger of all Bitcoin transactions that have ever been executed. The software is configured so you can add a transaction onto the end of the chain, but not wipe previous data, meaning the chain of information grows over time. The blocks are added to the blockchain in a linear, chronological order creating a public ledger of all transactions that have ever taken place. A copy of the Bitcoin blockchain is kept on multiple servers around the world (in the same way that the web addressing directory is held on thousands of routers around the global web). This is called the distributed ledger principle.
When a bitcoin transaction takes place and a bitcoin is given in payment for something, each server with a copy of the blockchain is quickly updated. No one copy of the ledger is deemed a master copy. A blockchain distributed ledger is therefore constantly growing as 'completed' blocks are added to it with a new set of transactions.
How Does This Apply to Housing
The blockchain is seen as the main technological innovation of Bitcoin. It records all activity and stands as proof of all the transactions on the network. There is no need for trusted intermediaries, like a Land Registry, in this world so this underlying blockchain technology could revolutionise property registration and ownership.
The idea of a blockchain-based distributed ledger for housing records is not new. It is being investigated by various countries in the world, such as Greece and Panama, who previously have not had an equivalent to the UK’s Land Register. It may allow these countries to leapfrog into a position of leadership in how they manage their property registers and enable online property transactions in the 21st century.
However, to focus solely on the Land Registry and property transaction implications of blockchain misses a major point. Chimni believes that for online housing services to truly become established, we need both the blockchain AND a bitcoin equivalent function. In housing an equivalent bitcoin file format – lets call it a ‘Brick-Coin’ - could represent an online deed of ownership and could store not just a record of sales transactions for that property, but also information on who owns rights to access the data and services set up for a particular property.
In this concept, only one Brick-Coin would ever be issued for a particular property, and its ownership recorded on the blockchain ledger. This makes possession of the Brick-Coin a unique identifier and confirmation of property ownership. For service providers this could be revolutionary as they wouldn’t have to poll an online ledger to prove that someone owned a property. Any current holder of a Brick-Coin could set up an online account relevant to a particular property by making it available, via private key, during online account set up. If you possess the correct Brick-Coin you can set up an account for a particular property.
Nobody would be able to sign up for an online service for their home without ownership of the Brick-Coin or one of its subservient keys. Most importantly, there could be different versions of keys attached to any Brick-Coin covering freehold, leasehold and rental situations. The nature of the services that a person could set up could relate to these levels ie you could set up an account with a utility if you hold the leasehold or rental level key for a particular Brick-Coin, but you couldn’t put a house up for sale on RightMove unless you have the freehold class Brick-Coin key.
Also, there could be keys for multi-occupation households. Parents could hold a duplicate key each, but give keys with limited access to children to access certain services. The brick-coin would hold the relevant access and permission data for each of these keys.
As we use the growing number of internet connected devices and services in our homes, service companies are building data profiles that will become part of our homes digital ‘footprint’ in years to come. However, a homeowner’s access to this data is currently limited, particularly if they have only recently taken possession.
Most account data with utilities and other ‘traditional’ service providers is linked to a person not a property. This also holds true for new services like smart thermostats and networked central heating. When that person moves home the data record is lost to the next homeowner. If you have just bought a property you have no right to view the historic utility cost or performance data for that property.
Chimni want to establish a principle that home data generated in this new ‘smart’ and ‘connected’ world should be vested against a property profile, not a personal one. Most importantly the data should be viewed as an asset of that property, not of the service provider. We want a situation where account data and historic performance records can pass to any new owner on sale.
Our Brick-Coin principle will enable this. If data records are held against a property profile, then any person holding the Brick-Coin for that property should be able to access record data. Even if your property has changed hands three or four years in a previous decade, a homeowner should be able to access all data pertaining to the performance of that property (irrespective of who set up the account, or who the service provider was). Showing you are now the holder of that property’s Brick-Coin should unlock all historic data held against that property.
Now that the future public ownership of the UK’s Land Registry has been secured, they should set out plans for a decade of innovation around distributed ledger and property ownership records.
Our proposal is that this should push much further than just blockchain and distributed ledger. We are not proposing to remove the current Land Registry system to facilitate smoother, digitally-enabled, property transactions, and to foster a more vibrant online service culture around our homes from which Chimni, and any other online service provider with data at its core, would most certainly benefit.
 A private key is a secret code which allows the user to prove his ownership of his Bitcoins. Every Bitcoin address has a matching private key, which is saved in the wallet file of the person who owns the balance. The private key is mathematically related to the Bitcoin address, and is designed so that the Bitcoin address can be calculated from the private key, but importantly, the same cannot be done in reverse
By Chimni Project Lead - Nigel Walley
I recently signed up to a new online ‘community’ web site - a UK version of a recent US start-up. Going through the data entry process I put my postcode into the address page. It quickly found a match and then, in the process of identifying the community to allocate me, it proudly declared ‘you live in West Askew’!
To support this assertion, it produced a Google map showing an area, defined by a coloured overlay, that included my street, and with the name ‘West Askew’ emblazoned over it. The only problem is that I have lived in this part of London all my life and I have literally never heard the phrase ‘West Askew’ before? There is no such place.
There is an Askew Road a little way off to the east of our road but the idea of a ‘place’ called West Askew is risible. Not even the estate agent community have come up with that one, so why should the tech/data community suddenly decide to impose it on me? I suspect that, apart of the lack of basic human understanding that can characterise so many tech start-ups, this site was struggling with something affecting lots of us working with local community web sites - a lack of support for ‘local’ or ‘communities’ from the address/database supplier. I assume that this site saw no defined local 'place' relevant to my home address and so felt empowered to make one up.
I actually live in a part of West London called Stamford Brook. We locals know that Stamford Brook is a ‘place’ because we have all the attributes to be one. We have an Underground station - Stamford Brook – and we have a park - Stamford Brook Common – which our local council describes as ‘defining the character of the area’. We have a road and an avenue named after Stamford Brook; we have a Stamford Brook Residents Association and we are a conservation area – the Stamford Brook Conservation Area. However, according to the Post Office, we don’t exist. This is because Stamford Brook is not a geographic area that maps neatly onto one of thier postcodes.
There are areas of London that do map neatly onto postcodes. For instance ‘Bethnal Green’ which is the covered by the E2 postcode district. But Stamford Brook sits at the intersection of three postcode areas, W4, W6 and W12, and is covered by two separate London Boroughs. This means that, when auto-filling addresses online with systems based on the Post Office Address File database (PAF), we are either left with empty fields, or the fields auto-fill to include an adjacent town (Chiswick, Shepherds Bush or Hammersmith) which, as local users, we then have to delete.
A key component of the Chimni system is delivering web templates for community groups and residents associations (you can see the Stamford Brook version here). Many people taking part in product research for the web template project told us that they find the 'address fill-out' process so annoying, they prefer to just type in their addresses manually when entering in websites with an auto-look up. The Chimni systems are therefore being built so that they default to a manual-entry screen and merely offer an auto-look up as a secondary validation, not the other way round.
However, we are struggling with the lack of recognition of locally defined areas in the automated systems. The broader problem for web services being designed around our homes is that, if an area doesn’t have recognition from the Post Office (or anyone who currently runs an address system based on the PAF database) then it doesn’t exist on the web or in any web services that use those databases. Stamford Brook doesn’t appear on Google maps and, for data purposes, do not exist online. This means my home, in its current digital guise, is not where I (the homeowner) believes it to be, where my neighbours believe it to be, or where any of us would like it to be described as being in our use of local web services. This is the kind of nonsense that Chimni was established to resolve.
In the early Chimni research we found dissatisfaction with the basic, off-the-shelf sign-up and membership systems that local groups had been trying to use – and the problems were mainly around the addressing. Residents associations think about their local area in ways that are not recognised by the Post Office or by software companies. They like to cut roads by odd vs even number, group them in strange ways and allocate resources to them based on local distinctions. Most of all, as with Stamford Brook, they want their software to recognise the area they think they represent.
As the data suppliers often say “PAF is not always correct in the eyes of the householder”. This phenomenon is recognised the Post Office but arrogantly dismissed by the addressing community as a ‘vanity address’ culture. The idea that if a homeowner is unhappy with the way the PAF presents their home, it must be vanity (the example often cited being people in Windsor who don’t want a Slough postal address).
The PAF and its related data sets are full of anti-consumer nonsense that make no sense to the average homeowner or, like UPRNs and UPDRNs are invisible to them and therefore unusable by them. Chimni is aiming to democratise these data sets and return control of them to their rightful owner (the UPRN number for my house should be mine). Even the obvious stuff is made obscure. In the PAF, there is no address field for ‘City’ even though many people living in Sheffield, Edinburgh or Cardiff and the other great cities of the UK might expect to see one in their address. (In PAF language a ‘city’ is captured by the cover-all field of ‘Post Town’). There are also two entities that describe the local town you live in – the amazingly named ‘dependent entity’ and the even better ‘double dependent entity’. But these entities are wholly based on postal routes, not the cultures or communities that are becoming important on the web. This is a triumph of the faceless technical bureaucrat over common sense and the home owner. Its a world view defined by the needs of a post office sorting machine, not the needs of locals trying to build web services.
This postal worldview is now being imposed without question on the world of web 3.0, Smart Homes and online ‘home’ services and it is not fit for purpose. Companies like Chimni have to work around the PAF when developing systems, rather than building on it. For developers building websites and services targeted at local groups and communities, this is a problem. We could call it the ‘West Askew problem’. Quite frankly, as our homes become the focal point of the next wave of wave innovation, my home (and Stamford Brook) deserve better.
The second problem for web 3.0 companies looking to work with home addresses is that current address look up systems are designed on a one size fits all basis. In online systems, every homeowner is presented with the same address fields to complete, irrespective of whether they live in a terraced house in a village, or a 25th floor flat in a city tower block. The Chimni system is working on presenting distinct field structures to owners of different home types. Our system asks them to fill in address fields that make sense to them based on their home type. Our first question is about that home type – so we can make allowances for address structure, not the other way round. But this focus on home type, and its link to address structure, has to become more widespread. The ONS breaks this information out in its home surveys, but it is currently unconnected to the address database community.
Clearly for the emerging property tech start-up community to take on the might of the Post Office and Ordnance survey would be reckless. But we are not being properly served by those people currently in control of the datasets being created around our homes and our communities.
The core principle of the Chimni culture is to take control of my home’s digital life’. To achieve this we have to recognise that the world has changed, and the Post Office is just one stakeholder in an increasingly complex mapping/location/addressing requirement building up on the web in support of our homes. The underlying data sets that we need to use, have to reflect the way that consumers and homeowners define their homes and their communities, not the other way round.