Unipol Student Homes Accommodation Bureau
Unipol is a unique organisation – a charity, established in 1975 in Leeds, to help students find the best housing they can, to drive up standards and to be a beacon of good practice for other housing suppliers. Unipol now provides services throughout the country but their base and own housing are still centred on Leeds and they have a special relationship with the colleges and universities and the students’ unions here. Unipol is dedicated to promoting high quality student accommodation that is affordable.
Ron Strong has worked with Unipol since 1989 directly and indirectly and core to that relationship has been the consistent reinventing of the Accommodation Bureau in its various guises.
The Bureau was breaking into the computer age with the use of a database on a single PC, printing adverts that could be placed on boards far more quickly than the previous handwritten cards. A system had been developed by external contractors who had left the work partially completed. Newly employed, Ron Strong Networked a number of computers and made the half-completed software functional and over the next few years made adverts easier to read.
Unipol started making links with the University of Leeds and during that year experimented with hybrid systems of printed lists updated regularly. Unipol agreed upon a database and web server combination and graphical designers, Sense Internet (in its time a very influential agency – then a few students), were commissioned to build a site around the search engine functionality that had been developed by Ron Strong.
The Unipol Website was launched and was highly popular, the first in the country to offer interactive property searching, users were able to customise their search and to see a picture of their properties as well as use a discussion board. At the same time the physical bureau was redesigned with search stations and funky colours.
The Website continued to be developed with more pictures and an early form of social networking through the discussion board and house hunting events went from strength to strength. Notably in that year the press called the site “A great accommodation service for Leeds and the local area. Every university should have a site like this.” (The Guardian – 5/10/1999). John Peel even described his daughter Flossie’s house-hunting experiences with Unipol in his Radio Times column that year
The site was redesigned with a portal feel – together with an experimental mobile site that was then shelved for ten years.
Unipol understood the need to relaunch the site and when being pitched a site called ‘greatshower.com’ by a company called netlet turned the tables on them and sold them a licence to the Unipol site along with the services of Ron for a period of time to project manage the site with designers Pavilion – the search site was rebranded as netlet, able to be syndicated to affiliate sites and the site was immediately used in March 2003 by Unipol also now in Bradford and Wakefield. The site soon expanded to London (LSE) and Brighton. Unfortunately the business model for netlet and the pace of the University sector meant that netlet never really took off as a concept and the IP was taken back in house in 2010.
Unipol, now in new offices with touch screens and more terminals were still using the netlet site redesigned its own site using a content management system adding RSS news syndication and a fresh design. The redesign brought searches back to the front page
The netlet frontend needed redesigning and follwed the unipol redesign with a better, more modern design; easier to navigate; more photos including wide photos and plans; better mapping facilities, showing landmarks and with the ability to give directions; and met disabled standards. Unipol started to embrace social networking
An API was developed to alllow Universities to embed info in their own sites – this was first used by Nottingham Trent university and later by developers of a large touchscreen facility at Leeds University Union.
Ron Left Unipol although he continues his relationship as a consultant. In the first task of the new partnershhip Ron developed a new mobile website
Full documentation project of the search site ready for the new API/Site in 2012 (led internaly by Unipol