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Software for the Social Good: The Struggle to Make Informed Decisions

In part of our Digital Communities Special Report, we look at how technology can help local governments tackle social issues, but bringing together data from multiple sources and using it wisely remains a significant challenge.

by / December 1, 2017

Editor's note: The Digital Communities Special Report, which appears twice a year in Government Technology magazine, offers in-depth coverage for local government leaders and technology professionals. View links to the entire report here.

Anchorage and other cities have struggled to get an accurate, data-driven estimate of their homeless population. Alaska’s largest city has had to recruit nearly 200 volunteers to do its point-in-time surveys. What is startling, though no longer surprising, is just how many Americans are homeless. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development came up with an estimate of 549,000 homeless in the country, with 68 percent staying in shelters, transitional housing programs or safe havens, while the remainder — 32 percent — were living in camps or on the streets.

But the homeless problem is just one of many social issues that plague counties and cities. Local governments are struggling with problems that range from housing and poverty to food access and a rampant opioid addiction epidemic. Take poverty. In 2016, the official poverty rate was 12.7 percent, according to the U.S. Census. While the figure marked the second consecutive year that the poverty rate had dropped, it still represented 40.6 million Americans, the largest figure in more than 50 years of record-keeping.

While it’s possible that an individual or family may suffer just one of these problems, it’s probable that they are impacted by several at once. That means several different agencies may be trying to help someone separately, without the other agencies fully aware of what the other is doing. It also means that non-social service agencies, such as the police or parks department, may be involved as well, as is the case in Anchorage.

Left unaddressed or treated with short-term solutions, social problems can drain any city or county government budget, not to mention the fact that they tear at the human dynamism of any community.

Using Data to Solve Social Problems: 3 Steps

Stephen Goldsmith, former mayor of Indianapolis and New York City deputy mayor under Michael Bloomberg, now serves as director of the Innovations in Government Program and Data-Smart City Solutions at the Harvard Kennedy School. He outlined three steps on the path to effective use of data to drive better policy around social issues like homelessness, child welfare and substance abuse.

Step 1: Make the data accessible.

Step 2: Present the data to decision-makers in a usable way.

Step 3: Use the information to choose the best kind of intervention

“We’re making progress in the first two steps, but have hardly made progress with step three,” Goldsmith said. “There’s a long way to go.”

Technology has been used to improve how local government deals with social problems for years. But what’s been missing has been the ability to take data from multiple sources and align it to make informed decisions, said Stephen Goldsmith, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and director of the Innovations in American Government Program, as well as a columnist in this magazine. He also directs Data-Smart City Solutions, a project that highlights new technologies and analytics in local government.

Goldsmith, who was mayor of Indianapolis and deputy mayor of New York City under Michael Bloomberg, knows a thing or two about using data to drive solutions in cities. When it comes to using data to solve social problems, Goldsmith explained that the first step is to make the data accessible, whether it’s for homelessness, child welfare or substance abuse. “Step two is to present the information in a usable way to the person who has to make a decision. Step three is to use the information to help the caseworker predict which type of intervention will be successful,” he explained. “We’re making progress in the first two steps, but have hardly made progress with step three. There’s a long way to go.”

As Goldsmith pointed out, technology and policy are combining to make data more accessible and useful to those who have to make decisions. One of these innovative trends involves a new twist on a mature technology. Digital mapping has been around for decades and most large cities and counties have a department devoted to geographic information systems, with a GIS officer overseeing it. For years, GIS at the local level had mostly to do with parcel maps and urban planning. But its purpose has spread, and thanks to smartphones and Google Maps, cities and counties are finding more innovative ways to use geospatial data.

Several years ago, GIS software firm Esri began to see its customers place a bigger emphasis on trying to tackle social issues, such as homelessness, food access and affordable housing. It was new ground for the firm. But as Chris Thomas, director of Esri’s government marketing operations, explained, the company had already begun to work with cities and counties on multi-faceted issues, like disaster planning and resiliency. For Thomas, using maps and geospatial data to help solve social issues was a natural progression.

“To treat homelessness, you have the involvement of law enforcement, human services and health. Then you get planning involved and it becomes a much bigger thing. Eventually homelessness impacts infrastructure; now that involves public works,” he said.

Like a disaster or an emergency, solving a social problem such as poverty or homelessness follows the same process, according to Thomas. “You need base information, then you need to know which sets of data are changing. Then you analyze where to put resources. It’s all about allocating resources in a timely fashion.”

Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology.

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