How does tech support better data collection?

How does tech support better data collection?

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July 1, 2024



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General Technology

By Julia Edinger, Government Technology | 01/29/24

Local governments across the U.S. are turning to GIS technology to improve the accuracy and efficiency of conducting point-in-time (PIT) counts of people experiencing homelessness.

In recent years, a range of technology has been implemented to enhance these types of population counts — from apps and data dashboards to drone technology. And with a record number of people experiencing homelessness nationwide, this work is arguably more critical than ever.

In California, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) first integrated technology into its PIT process in the form of an app two years ago to replace the existing pen-and-paper process, according to Ahmad Chapman, LAHSA’s director of communications. Last year, LAHSA adopted Esri technology to create a new app that was more positively received than the first. During the count last week, LAHSA used last year’s app again, but with new tech capabilities implemented.

The county is the largest in the country by land mass, and with one of the largest populations of people experiencing homelessness. Last year, the estimated number was over 75,000. And with 149 deployment sites and over 3,200 census tracts in the region, the PIT process is not a simple one. As the lead agency in the Los Angeles Continuum of Care, LAHSA oversees a major portion of this count.

As Chapman explained, paper lacks the resilience of a digital process, as it can get wet or otherwise lead to errors. With a smartphone app, not only is the data more accurate, but it saves time for those who input the data. Now, as volunteers go around the city to measure the people that appear to be experiencing homelessness, the information gets to unfold in real time for those in the office. If errors are detected, they can be quickly corrected for a more accurate count.

“It’s extremely important to have an accurate homeless count,” Chapman stated. “It is one of the many measures that we use to decide where to deploy resources.”

This year, for greater accountability in the process, LAHSA implemented a new feature: geofences. The feature is being piloted this year to further improve accuracy and was actually requested by volunteers. Chapman explained that this is helpful because a census tract's border is quite specific, in some cases potentially even including one side of a street and not another. This feature will alert volunteers that veer from their designated count areas to make sure counts are accurate, and ultimately, that resource deployment is data-informed.

Notably, the app works offline and LAHSA coordinates hot spots to deployment sites to address connectivity issues.

Este Geraghty, former deputy director of the Center for Health Statistics and Informatics at the California Department of Public Health and current chief medical officer at Esri, said location technology's potential to impact health and human services was a big part of her decision to move to the private sector and focus on this technology’s role in public health.

“I just could see early on how location technology, when you use that as your framework or your perspective, can help you make better decisions,” Geraghty said.

She explained that the Survey123 solution from Esri can be customized for different government users to suit their needs. In LA, for example, the app enables tracking of volunteers to ensure no areas are missed. Also new this year is a training hub to streamline access to volunteer information.

Geraghty noted that governments benefit from this technology in the way of enhanced strategic planning and determining where to put health-care resources to serve the demographics in that community.

For other counties, the customizations of this type of technology may vary.

Danielle Yates, who serves as bureau chief of housing and community connections at Carroll County, Md.’s Department of Citizen Services (DCS), explained the county has used this technology to enhance its approach to harm reduction.

The county is using an Esri app again this year following successes it saw last year, according to Tom Dowd, GIS division manager within the county’s Department of Technology Services (DTS).

Specifically, when creating its survey — in addition to questions that were included to meet federal requirements — the county made the decision to include information about substance use in order to provide resource-filled bags with items like Narcan using location technology.

And while the LA PIT count is unique in its large geographical size, Carroll County’s count is unique in the county’s rural characteristics, Yates said. What this means is that the folks in the county experiencing homelessness or living in encampments are often in less urban areas, like the woods in a county park. The tech also simplifies resource deployment to people who are living in encampments that are difficult to find or reach by providing a more specific location.

Location technology has enabled significant time savings for the county. As Yates explained, previously the county used paper reviews, where everything had to be entered a second time in the Homeless Management Information System. That extra layer of process would sometimes take weeks.

“It just makes it so much easier, also, for the people that are collecting the information,” said Celene Steckel, director of the Carroll County DCS. And for Carroll County, those volunteers collecting the information include representatives of the Board of Carroll County Commissioners, Steckel added.

In the future, the technology will evolve with the county’s needs. DTS Enterprise GIS Analyst Farrah Solomon noted that an upgrade is in progress to open the survey to the public and lock access with a pin; this way, it can be shared publicly and securely, enabling greater participation in the process. This feature is slated to be launched for next year's count.

Melissa is a communications professional with 30 years of experience in digital and print content production, editing, research, community engagement, and development. She specializes in telling stories that allow people not only to understand a topic but also to embrace a mission.

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