How could open data help Austin, Texas better serve people experiencing homelessness?

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The Austin Resources Center for the Homeless, in downtown Austin. Photo by Alex Dodds.

More than 2,100 people are estimated to be homeless in Austin, Texas this year—5 percent more than in 2017. The City of Austin has been working to deeply understand the experiences of people in homelessness, and build trusting relationship with a population that’s wary of government. Now, Sunlight’s Open Cities team and the City are working together to see if open data could be part of the solution.

In 2017, the City of Austin’s Innovation Office’s Innovation Team and the Communications and Technology Management Department’s Open Data team launched a project to help the city provide better homelessness services using data and technology. In the months since, the CIty of Austin’s combined “I-team” has done an incredible amount of field research with people experiencing homelessness to understand their experiences, challenges, and needs, and to begin figuring out ways that the city can be a better partner and supporter.

Austin’s substantial amount of work already is part of why we selected them as a pilot city for Tactical Data Engagement. Their clearly defined focus area and field research into use cases means they are already done with steps 1 and 2 of the Tactical Data Engagement approach.

To understand more about what the city has learned in their process thus far and how they’re thinking about open data as it relates to this work, we interviewed Kerry O’Connor, Austin’s Chief Innovation Officer. The below transcript has been lightly edited.

Alex Dodds: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me. Austin has been doing a lot to address homelessness. You all have also been doing a lot on open data. Where do you feel the story begins?
Kerry O’Connor: For me, the story begins with open data. There’s a lot of know-how and a lot of championship that goes into making sure people have the right tools for open data. The open data movement in the City of Austin is pretty strong because it’s grassroots. We have a whole cohort of enthusiasts throughout the city who believe in it. They don’t really have to talk about open data because it’s already a thing — we’ve got it.

Now, the conversation is about homelessness. In 2015, the City Manager wanted to take a look at what we could do related to homelessness. We were trying to unpack what was going on. We got together a team of police officers, medics, community court practitioners and Integral Care, our mental health facility, and this emerged as a community thing that we all wanted to do. All these stakeholders said we need a homelessness outreach street team, that we needed to go out and proactively engage people on the street because we didn’t want to be criminalizing homelessness, we wanted to find them tools to help.

We clearly walked into a situation where there are a lot of data challenges. While the homelessness outreach street team was going really, really well, we realized that we needed more data, we needed more information. What we wanted to do next was collect qualitative data — what it’s like to live the experience of homelessness. And so over the past ten months or so, we’ve really done a lot of intensive data collection, and I think that it paints a really interesting picture about how to look at the situation of homeless and create solutions.

AD: So what have you learned so far?
KO: Some of the things that have come out of the research we kind of already knew, but now we understand better. For example, the public frequently calls the police to intervene in situations, but the police don’t always have the right tools to help. And we’ve heard that in the stories of people experiencing homelessness too, and it’s helped us understand their point of view. We’ve heard: “I need to feel like I’m somebody, I need to deal with illness, I need a place to store my things, I need a place to go to the bathroom, I need to make ends meet, I need to get sneakers, I need to get a bus pass, I need to get my kids back.” The list goes on and on. If there are resources to provide housing, they go to the people who are most vulnerable. As it should be, right? But if you’re not as vulnerable, but you’re still just trying to navigate the thicket of all of these requirements to get other things you need, it’s really hard.

We look for patterns in qualitative data because people who are experiencing homelessness are not always represented in the formal system. We start by listening to their stories, and then that will lead us to other ways to understand data and see where their experiences appear.

AD: Your research sounds like it could be useful for anyone who needs to better understand what it’s like to be homeless.
KO: Definitely, and we’re hoping to be able to publish it for that reason. If somebody in the community or a researcher elsewhere says, “I hear that Austin did this research, maybe we can have access to it,” they don’t have to do six months worth of qualitative research, they can just start with what we’ve done and go further. Maybe they’ll look at it and they’ll say, “Oh, wow, those stories are useful. Maybe we’ll go out and we’ll do something different.”

AD: That’s really interesting to hear, especially since there are so many groups working on homelessness even just in Austin.
KO: One of the challenges we’ve learned from a data perspective is that it’s hard to find out who is doing what. There’s a coalition of about 40 different nonprofits — our local Continuum of Care — but you have all kinds of other informal services through churches, or indirect services maybe through the city. You have 211, which is run by United Way, and you have Aunt Bertha, which has been scraping information to try to create a better integrated catalog of services that people might need across the city.

All of those services are important and useful, but what we’ve found in our qualitative research is that navigating them can be overwhelming for anyone. Most of the people in the system—whether they are front-line workers, case managers, or the people experiencing homelessness—they rely on each other. They rely on personal knowledge. So, when we go to generate ideas, we want to know: How can we solve some of those knowledge-management challenges? I think that if we were all able to better access information and know-how, you would find that we have a lot more resources at our disposal than we think we do. But that information isn’t accessible to anyone, much less the case managers.

AD: I can absolutely understand that. Our perspective in all of this, as the Sunlight Foundation, is that government transparency is an important part of solving this problem. Can you talk a little bit about the connection that you see between the homelessness work and why government should be transparent, and how that can help in this situation?
KO: There are a number of different reasons why someone should adopt this value. The first is: we’re dealing with a very vulnerable and marginalized population. I’m always looking to find how we can serve people better, but I have to stop and remember that there are plenty of reasons why people wouldn’t trust government, even if we’re well-intentioned. When we’re dealing with vulnerable and marginalized populations, we have to be transparent about what we’re doing so that others can critique it if they think it’s wrong, or they can offer resources if they think we’re heading in the right direction.

When we’re dealing with vulnerable and marginalized populations, we have to be transparent about what we’re doing.

I think another reason that openness and transparency is important in this sector is because so many people are involved, and we need them all involved. You’ll hear some of the interviews and people say: “Food isn’t a problem. You can get food, you can get clothes. That’s not a problem here, at least not in Austin. The problem is to feel like somebody.” What if everyone who lives here could help treat our most vulnerable neighbors like they’re somebody? I welcome all of that because I know that that’s how you get to innovative solutions.

I’ll give you another maybe slightly less warm-and-fuzzy and much more technical reason why openness is important. One of the things that we received a grant for is the Bloomberg Mayors’ Challenge and we’re going to test out the use of blockchain for people experiencing homelessness. When you look at the number of documents that these folks have to collect, and the number of things that they have to prove, the number of hurdles they have to jump through, the number of barriers that they face in any given day, if we could do anything to make that more seamless, we should. So what can technology do to make this more seamless and integrated, but also to give them control back over their documents? Imagine if we had more integrated data, and the ability for people to hold on to their records, what else could we do for them?

AD: Do you have any other thoughts about this project or what you are hoping comes of it?
KO: Well I’m also hoping that we demonstrate the need for better data connectivity. People experiencing homelessness touch a lot of systems and we should harness those resources in order to serve them better. But that may mean having better tools to connect what’s available to what’s needed. A lot of that is knowledge and expertise. So I’m hoping that we’ll demonstrate the need to hold technology and data in this sector in higher regard as part of the investment that we need in order to end homelessness. We’ll see if we’re able to make that case.

This is the second in a series of posts looking at our two 2018 Tactical Data Engagement pilots in Austin, TX and Norfolk, VA. Follow the whole series or see our Tactical Data Engagement framework for cities.