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After Quick Build, State Homeless Data System Goes Live

The state's new Homeless Data Integration System, California's first unified warehouse for data on homelessness, went live Wednesday after a 15-week build. It's expected to do a better job of connecting state and local agencies and empowering their work to combat homelessness, as well as providing previously unavailable metrics to improve understanding of the ongoing problem and how services are making an impact.

After a quick, 15-week build, the state went live Wednesday with the Homeless Data Integration System (HDIS), standing up California’s first unified warehouse for data on homelessness

Developed by the California Homeless Coordinating and Financing Council (HCFC) in conjunction with the state’s 44 Continuums of Care (CoCs) — regional planning bodies that take on homelessness — the HDIS brings together sometimes far-flung data on homelessness into a single repository. The state said in a news release that it offers “a comprehensive picture of efforts to address homelessness statewide,” letting officials answer questions on service provision and access and the effectiveness of interventions. The HDIS should also identify patterns in homelessness, “service usage across geographic regions, and support efforts to identify and address” inequities being experienced by people who are homeless.

The system, the state said, has already delivered insight into previously unavailable metrics on people being served by homeless prevention services and those who have moved into permanent housing. More than a dozen state entities have been involved in the project since its procurement phase including the California Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency (BCSH), the California Department of Technology, the California Government Operations Agency and its Office of Digital Innovation; and “regional technical service leads” from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“You can’t fix what you can’t measure, and having a statewide data system will help us determine what’s working and what isn’t, important insight we can use to create accountability and strengthen our response going forward,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement.

“This is a monumental step. The partnership with local Continuums of Care to establish the HDIS warehouse gives the state and local governments greater visibility and a unified view of California’s homelessness response system,” BCSH Secretary Lourdes Castro Ramírez, who chairs the HCFC, said in a statement.

BCSH chose Michigan-based Plante Moran, one of the nation’s largest accounting, tax and consulting firms, in November to connect state government with the CoCs. The general goals were to give the state better visibility into their aggregated, generalized information; enhance the state’s ability to report on it annually to the federal government; and better inform it on homelessness.

Plante Moran leveraged aspects of solutions from at least four other companies for the HDIS, including Seattle-based Amazon Web Services (AWS). Redwood City-based Informatica provided master data management and integration, for better data context and completeness; San Mateo-based Snowflake provided the system’s data cloud/data warehouse; and Seattle-based Tableau helped state staff, data scientists and CoCs better understand and query the data collected without necessarily writing reports.

“I think that what we’re doing here is something that I don’t know any of the other states have attempted in pulling together what is basically 40-plus different systems and different versions of the data. Understanding this data and looking at it in different ways will hopefully enable the COCs and the states to target programs and use the data to enable decision-making,” Mark Richards, partner in business analytics at Plante Moran, told Techwire.

“Access to comprehensive data and solutions can play a critical role in preventing and combating homelessness. AWS’ cloud computing technology can help states make more effective data-driven decisions and more rapidly respond to emerging needs,” said a statement from Kim Majerus, U.S. education, state and local government leader for AWS. “We are proud to be collaborating with Plante Moran and other AWS customers to help California better understand and serve individuals and families experiencing a homeless crisis in the state.” Among the takeaways:

  • It’s not yet clear whether additional opportunities for IT vendors will be available to work on this system. Julie Lo, HCFC executive officer, told Techwire it’s likely that after the “very, very quick build,” officials may pause to determine what comes next. The new system, she said, has “a robust set of uses that we will continue to tap,” with analysis likely to be something “we’ll be pursuing pretty heavily.” On the software and build side, “to be determined, more coming,” Lo said. “On the research side, I believe that’s very promising.”
  • Officials hope the new system, created with a challenged-based procurement and proofs of concept, inspires and informs other state IT projects. “I think that we talked at the vendor procurement stage of how useful and relatively new and unique the way we chose the vendor was and why that really, I think, allowed us to build this as quickly as we did,” Ali Sutton, BCSH’s deputy secretary for homelessness, told Techwire. State Chief Data Officer Joy Bonaguro, Sutton said, has been communicating the value of that process and lessons learned with officials spearheading other IT state projects.
  • The system’s “proof of concept model,” part of a procurement that ran from April 3-Nov. 30 of last year, helped the department understand what the project would look like and how it would proceed before the vendor selection was announced Nov. 9.
    “Helping us think through some of how we would build things before we actually chose a vendor was incredibly valuable,” Sutton said.
  • Choosing to use existing resources — data that, while held by local CoCs, did not have to be created — to be pulled into the data warehouse was a significant timesaver. “I think we can’t overstate how much this helped us do this as quickly as we did,” Sutton said. “Let’s use what we have and just use it a little smarter than we’ve been able to in the past.”
  • Starting the conversation very early helped stimulate buy-in. For BCHS, the discussion with CoCs began about two years ago and helped, Sutton said, with “socializing the idea for a while about why it was so valuable.” That was crucial, she said, “because it’s their data to share with us.”
Theo Douglas is Assistant Managing Editor of Industry Insider — California.