How the city of Boulder is providing its partners – and the public at large – with system-wide databy Nolin Greene, Data Analytics Manager, City of Boulder
In October of 2017, governments and non-profit partners in Boulder County began implementing a more coordinated, integrated approach toward addressing homelessness. Instead of operating in their own silo, providers offering shelter to individuals experiencing homelessness are now part of a larger, coordinated initiative called Homeless Solutions for Boulder County (HSBC). As the system was stood up and began serving clients, the providers, local governments, and community at large needed a way to better understand what was happening on the ground. The Single Adult Homelessness Dashboard – created and updated each month by the City of Boulder – shows summary information at each part of the new system (service entry, service delivery and service exit). While the dashboard only shows high-level aggregate information, it has been a helpful tool for communicating to the public, understanding systemwide trends and needs, and assisting in ongoing planning and evaluation efforts.
HSBC implements a "Coordinated Entry" system whereby all clients seeking shelter undergo a common screen to determine their needs, their history with homelessness and their connections to the community. Much like an emergency room triage system, this coordinated entry process refers clients to appropriate services based upon their needs. Higher-needs clients are referred to one location that offers housing-focused shelter and case management supports while lower-need clients, or individuals new to the community, are referred to another location which aims to get clients back on their feet within a couple of weeks. On nights where the weather is especially harsh, an overflow shelter is stood up which requires no prior screening or assessment.
Before the new system was established, simple questions such as “how many clients were at our shelters last night?” and “how many clients exited to permanent solutions?” were hard to tabulate across the community. Now, each month those numbers are tallied up and published by the city for the public to see. Built using Tableau, the dashboard compiles a variety of data sources collected by Boulder County and local non-profits. Each month, as new data is generated and sent to the City, staff within the Housing and Human Services Department aggregate and update the dashboard. While this is currently a manual process, future versions of the dashboard will connect directly to one centralized, integrated data warehouse.
One of the greatest benefits of the dashboard has been to normalize understanding of what is happening within the new homelessness system. Audiences from homelessness advocates to local newspapers to city councilmembers can all refer to the same body of knowledge when discussing or describing the new system. Speaking at a recent city council meeting, councilmember Bob Yates remarked:
“I go to the dashboard all the time. I love the dashboard, and I find it a very useful tool when we receive communications from members of our public who may be not fully informed about what it is that we’re doing. I send them a link to the dashboard. I can’t tell you any number of times they’ve said ‘oh, okay, I get it, I understand’. It doesn’t satisfy everybody, but I think it is helpful to educate our community about what it is we are doing. It tells a wonderful story.”
And while this dashboard is a powerful resource, it is one of a handful of analytic resources the city leverages for both its homelessness initiatives and its broader work. In addition to the public-facing dashboard, the city also maintains and publishes through its open data catalog a nightly shelter census by program. Over the last six months, the dashboard has over two thousand public views and the open data set has been downloaded dozens of times. Both resources are part of larger city-wide initiatives to promote transparency and good government. In addition to the external-facing resources, the Housing and Human Services Department maintains several internal-facing dashboards that provide detailed reports on the performance of individual providers tracking metrics such as length of stay, returns to homelessness, and housing exits by voucher type. These reports are used to collaborate with individual providers and to provide more detailed information to different external partners.
While the public-facing dashboard has brought with it a variety of benefits, it is not without its challenges. For example, many clients exit homelessness programming without communicating their intended destination, making accurate and representative tracking of exits difficult. And while the dashboard features descriptive text to augment the visualizations on the page, the data can still be open to misinterpretation. Knowing the limitations of the dashboard is the first step toward continuously trying to improve it, and toward reminding ourselves that it is just one in a set of tools to communicate to the public. Boulder’s single adult homelessness dashboard isn’t a panacea – it won’t tell a personal anecdote, provide expert opinion or give detailed information on provider performance. But it does help the city and the community understand how the new homelessness system is being implemented, where there have been reasons to celebrate and where more work remains to be done.