Seattle Uses Data to Foster Efficient, Effective System for Addressing Homelessness

The county tagged at 526 individuals in January, up from 420 at the same time last year. The difference, officials say, was likely not as much in the actual population as it was in the technique used to collect data.

by / June 9, 2017
A homeless woman in Seattle tries to cover up in the rain. Flickr/ Romi Chiorean

A nascent data-driven approach to homelessness is one taking hold in many cities. Seattle is currently in the information gathering stage with its own efforts to combat homelessness.

About a year and a half ago, the city decided to put measures in place that would let them get a better overall sense of how its many homelessness outreach programs were functioning, said Meg Olberding, a spokeswoman for the city’s Human Services Department.

To accomplish this, the city asked outreach providers to begin contributing data in five key metric areas: exits to permanent housing, average length of stay in shelter, returns to homelessness, entries from homelessness, and the utilization rate of shelters and services.

The idea is that by using a data dashboard to examine the data, Olberding said, they can foster “a more efficient and effective system in terms of addressing homelessness.”

Those who fund the outreach efforts — the county, the city and the United Way, primarily — can now examine the findings through a data dashboard and use it to track progress, thereby tying the metrics into providers’ contracts, although Olberding noted that nobody will be expected to hit 100 percent of the goals set in the early going. The overall goal is simply to set shared progress markers to ensure the city and groups it works with are moving forward, using unified reporting and data collection to do so.

This shift to this reporting system began about a year and a half ago. At that time, stakeholders sought to get a clearer idea of how effective Seattle’s efforts to reduce homelessness were, and in doing so they found that reporting methods and the associated tech were scattered and disparate.

“We’ve had a collection of well-run programs, but they didn’t really work together as a system,” said Olberding. “So what we’re trying to do is say no program really works in isolation. They rely on lots of other things working.”

Looking forward, Seattle officials expect to continue honing their practices regarding the use of this data. Other potential tech-based efforts to combat homelessness in the city include a scan card system that would allow providers to track whenever an individual is receiving services, creating even more nuanced data.

View other cities using technology to tackle homelessness

Zack Quaintance Staff Writer

Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.