Development of English Housing Survey Digital Pen System

Case study: Further applications for the digital pen system.

Client: Communities and Local Government (CLG)

Challenge: The EHCS paper form based methodology had been used for over 20 years. During this period some other surveys had moved over to electronic data capture with varying degrees of success. The ODPM (now CLG) commissioned BRE to review a range of alternative methodologies to determine whether it should continue with using paper forms for the EHCS or move over to something more technologically advanced. In particular, there was seen to be a need for a system that would deliver clean data more quickly and cost effectively for the annual round of reporting for the Continuous Survey.

BRE contribution:

  • The following options were reviewed and a cost-benefit analysis was undertaken on the basis that there would be some 200 surveyors completing 40 surveys of around 25 pages each per annum: Paper forms, hand held computers, palm pilots, tablet PCs, laptops and digital pens.
  • The digital pen technology was seen as an ideal combination of the current survey form with an electronic data submission and validation function. The technology was inexpensive.  The cost-benefit analysis suggested that this might be the most suitable alternative to traditional paper forms.
  • The digital pen technology was then developed through a period of staged testing and piloting so that the concept might be fully proven for use in the EHCS now (EHS). This included; Autumn 05 – proof of concept, Spring 06 – extended pilot using 9 surveyors completing a few pages of the form, April 07 – live pilot where 25 surveyors filled out complete physical surveys using the digital pen and validation systems, April 08 – full integration of the Digital pen system into the EHS methodology.
  • Unforeseen difficulties occurred at each stage throughout the piloting process, including; software compatibility issues, form and web design, installation software, user friendliness of the system, data transfer issues, hardware robustness and ‘OCR’ Optical character recognition faults.
  • These difficulties were overcome with the help of the BRE IT Department and invaluable input from the ‘guinea pig’ pilot surveyors.  A good working relationship built on trust, honesty and open communication was essential in overcoming these hurdles.


  • The client was delighted with the new system.
  • The Digital Pen system delivers better quality data more quickly and cost effectively.
  • The paper form provides a backup should the system fall down.
  • The surveyors have greater ownership of their surveys, increased staff retention.
  • Significant annual savings resulted with the change to automated data entry.
  • BRE has access to the data much earlier.

Our experience coupled with the success of the Digital Pen system has allowed increased opportunity to develop other software and tools relating to electronic data capture as well as web based learning tools through the EHS website.