Summer 2014
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The Public Manager

Homelessness Analytics Demonstrate Open Government Project

TB
Friday, June 13, 2014

The partnership between the Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs embraces the principles of open government, a top priority of the Obama administration.

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Technology
One of President Barack Obama's first actions upon taking office was to make a commitment to increase the openness of the federal government. On his first day in office in January 2009, President Obama issued a memo on open government that emphasized the administration's view that the government should embrace three principles:

  1. transparency—the public should have access to information about what their government is doing
  2. participation—the government should actively engage members of the public and government and solicit their ideas
  3. collaboration—partnerships within the federal government, across levels of government and between government and private entities should be encouraged.

The administration expressed its belief that the implementation of these principles would help foster a stronger democracy and promote both the efficiency and effectiveness of government operations.
The president's initial call for a more open federal government ultimately led to the creation of a formal open government initiative, which, among other things, required all federal agencies to develop and implement plans for putting the principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration into action.

One of the flagship initiatives outlined in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) open government plan was the Homelessness Analytics Initiative (HAI). The HAI ultimately led to the creation of a website that provides community leaders, service providers, and individual citizens easy access to critical information on trends in homelessness among both the general population and veterans. Such information includes factors related to homelessness, and support services for individuals experiencing homelessness, using and sharing data pulled from dozens of sources.

In line with the open government initiative's emphasis on collaboration, the HAI was developed through a joint effort that involved HUD, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the VA's National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans. It helped to put the open government initiative's principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration into action.

HAI Data and Features

One of the innovative features of the HAI is that it pulls in data from dozens of sources that provide information on the size of the homeless population and sub-populations, as well socio-economic indicators related to homelessness. Some of the key data sources that are integrated in the HAI are the HUD point-in-time counts of homelessness, the HUD Fair Market Rent dataset, the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, the Centers for Disease Control's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, and VA specialized homeless program data.

As a true embodiment of the principle of transparency, the HAI is completely free and available to the public via the Internet. Its website uses a map-based interface to help users quickly identify and obtain the data that is of greatest interest to them.

For example, users can input the name of a community, or even a specific address, to get immediate access to key data on homelessness in their locality of interest. The map-based interface also provides users with an easy way to visualize how homelessness and related factors vary across communities and states.

Another innovative feature of the HAI provides information about the rates of homelessness in communities, in addition to the simple raw counts of the number of persons experiencing homelessness on a given night. The HAI uses population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau to construct rates of homelessness, thereby allowing for comparisons of the relative scope of homelessness across communities that account for differences in population sizes.

In addition to its mapping capabilities, the HAI also enables users to generate charts that can be used for a range of purposes, including comparing trends in homelessness over time and across communities, and assessing gaps in the availability of resources needed to prevent and end homelessness. For example, users can generate a side-by-side comparison of four cities' trends in the number of veterans experiencing homelessness over time.

The application's modeling tool allows users to examine how changes in a number of community-level economic, housing market, safety net, and other factors might be related to homelessness. For example, a user can examine the relationship between median rent levels and rates of homelessness to see how increases or decreases in rent levels might affect homelessness in a given community.

A final innovative feature of the HAI is that it is allows users to create customizable tables that include any of the data indicators that are available in the application and download these tables in the form of spreadsheets. This is a crucial feature because it means that the potential uses of the HAI are not limited solely to what can be achieved by using the various tools that are available on the website itself. Indeed, the ability to download data in an easy to use format makes the HAI a truly open resource and allows for virtually limitless possibilities for users to conduct their own independent analyses of the data.

Potential Uses of the HAI to Prevent and End Homelessness

The development of the HAI was guided by a desire to provide easy access to actionable information that could be used by a range of stakeholders to help advance efforts to prevent and end homelessness. To that end, the HAI can be used to answer a range of questions and can be put to an equally broad range of potential uses.

For example, the HAI can provide quick answers to fairly straightforward questions about the number of persons who are experiencing homelessness in a community of interest or how the problem has changed over time in that same community. While these are fairly simple questions, having access to this type of basic information is an important first step for determining the level of resources that are likely to be needed to address homelessness in their a given community and for tracking progress toward reducing homelessness over time.

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The HAI also can be used to conduct relatively more complex planning exercises and analyses using HAI data on both the number of persons experiencing homelessness and on the capacity of various homeless assistance programs. This information can help identify gaps between the demand and supply of resources in a community.

Such an analysis could be expanded to help identify specific communities where the gap between the need for services and the availability of such services is especially large. This could be an especially useful exercise at the state level, where comparisons of the service gaps in all communities in a given state could help guide broader decisions about resource allocation.

Two additions to the HAI that are in progress will provide new tools for efforts to prevent and end homelessness among veterans. First, the HAI will be adding performance metrics for VA specialized homeless programs in the near future. These metrics will be help identify programs that have less than optimal performance in helping veterans quickly secure permanent housing. In turn, managers can help provide additional technical support and training to these programs to improve those areas.

Second, users soon will be able to use the HAI to visualize neighborhood-level maps of the prior address distribution of veterans who use VA homeless programs. This will enable program managers to identify specific neighborhoods that generate high rates of entry into VA specialized homeless programs. In turn, specific neighborhoods in which veterans appear to face the highest risk of becoming homeless could be specifically targeted for increased outreach and prevention efforts.

This type of information would be of potentially great utility for the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) Program, which funds community-based agencies to provide homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing services to veterans who are at-risk of or currently are homelessness.

The examples above provide just a few of many possible ways in which the HAI could be put to practical use for informing efforts to prevent and end homelessness. The breadth of information and range of tools available in the HAI will certainly mean that users will find creative uses of the application to suit their own needs. Additionally, in keeping with the open government initiative's principle of participation, the partners involved in creating and maintaining the HAI are developing ways to solicit regular feedback from HAI users about how it is being used and how it should be enhanced to be of greater value.

The push toward a more open government is motivated in large part by the belief that everyday citizens can help government develop more effective solutions to problems if they have access to the right type of information and are actively engaged in the governing and policymaking process. Placing increased emphasis on the principles of open government may be of greatest value in helping to solve complex and difficult societal problems like homelessness.

While the Homelessness Analytics Initiative will not be enough on its own to end homelessness in the United States, it represents an important step in helping citizens engage in a meaningful way in the process of identifying and implementing solutions to this pressing problem, and using technology to make that possible.

TB
About the Author

Thomas Byrne is a research assistant professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice, and an investigator at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans.

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