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Using Data to Build Better Systems

By Keegan Shepherd, THN Statewide Initiatives VISTA

During my year as an AmeriCorps VISTA for Texas Homeless Network, I have worked on statewide initiatives that largely center on one question: How can we use data to better connect people experiencing homelessness in Texas to housing and services?

Our main answer to that question has been to create a statewide data-sharing network. This data-sharing network will ultimately link Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) data from all 11 homeless response systems in Texas. Through this network, we can cut through barriers that typically hamper our shared mission.

Currently, we are partnering with Amazon Web Services to develop a data-sharing network proof-of-concept with three homeless response systems: the Texas Balance of State CoC, Houston CoC, and San Antonio CoC. After we complete this prototype, we will be spending the following year scaling this project up to a complete statewide data-sharing network, one that will allow us to achieve several big goals:

  • Improve access to homeless services and broaden the scope of available services
  • Assist people experiencing homelessness as a result of natural disaster navigate services outside of their original community.
  • Understand whether available services meet the needs of key homeless populations
  • Create data-driven local and state policies that enable reducing homelessness while saving communities resources in the long-run
  • Partner with other sectors (such as medical and health systems) to identify individuals with complex needs, in order to connect them to permanent supportive housing and wraparound services

Based on my previous line of research, I know that “big data” can lead to big problems if efforts are not made to ensure personal information is handled responsibly.  This is particularly important when working with vulnerable populations such as people experiencing homelessness. Thus, over the past year, I’ve had one guiding phrase: Don’t be creepy.  Data isn’t just numbers and Excel entries–they’re people, and forgetting that leads to bad choices.

Keeping this in mind, we want to ensure that individuals’ personal information stays secure. This is why, over the past couple of months, we have developed data-sharing agreements that ensure we can build our network without compromising anyone’s safety.

Ultimately, this data-sharing network will help reduce the rate and severity of homelessness in Texas.  We hope it will not only set the foundation for other statewide projects but also help us broker lasting partnerships with other organizations committed to ending homelessness.

Support the Statewide Data Sharing Network through our GoFundMe page.

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