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Annual survey of Seattle-area homelessness could get a tech upgrade

AllHome is considering an app to make its annual point-in-time count easier

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Every year, volunteers with AllHome, a coalition of local organizations and governments coordinating to tackle the region’s homelessness issues, search the city for those living unsheltered. It’s a point-in-time count, designed to capture a snapshot of the region’s homelessness on one particular night—and in the process, gather valuable data for understanding and fighting homelessness.

Last year, the count found that more than 12,000 people were experiencing homelessness in King County—more than half of them unsheltered, which includes those living in vehicles.

The effort, even in recent years, has been extremely low-tech. Volunteers track their work on paper surveys and their routes on paper maps. But AllHome recently started working with consulting company Slalom to potentially bring the count into the digital age by developing an app for count volunteers—digitizing both the surveys and the maps.

Kira Zylstra, acting director of AllHome, told Curbed Seattle that the process is still in the early stages, but it could be a big opportunity to improve the volunteer experience, from signup to the count itself to getting them to sign on the next year.

“The effort to end homelessness is truly a community effort,” said Zylstra. “The point-in-time count has to be a community-driven effort or it won’t be successful.”

Slalom started the project as part of one of its hackathons. The company is working on the project pro-bono.

“We’re still working to define what all those features would be,” Laura Cindric, a consultant with Slalom, told Curbed Seattle, “because we want to make sure it’s the right solution for AllHome.”

“I think there’s been a big emphasis about pivoting from paper sheets and tally sheets to an online platform and this mobile platform and that is huge,” said Zylstra. “But the things I get the most excited about it are actually just the other side factors to this … It’s actually more about real opportunities to improve our customer experience and community experience and their involvement in the count through training and communication and really making more ease in the process.”

“The primary focus might have been about shifting from paper to mobile, [but] there are so many things that happen automatically around that,” she continued. “How do you get your volunteers? How do you train them? How do you communicate with them? How do they utilize this platform?”

One feature being considered: bringing the maps into the app so the process could more closely mimic modern wayfinding, now that people are used to ready access to GPS with relative positioning.

“In real life we all have moved pretty far away from paper maps in any part of our world,” said Zylstra. “So I think it makes a lot of sense to pivot that direction.”

“It takes a lot of manpower to run these counts,” said Cindric. “It’s a great way for people in the community to get connected to those experiencing homelessness … so we really wanted to make sure the volunteer experience matches ... really making sure the volunteers get the right information at the right time and knowing where to be.”

While making things easier for volunteers could help make for a smooth, accurate data collection process, there’s also the big picture of coordination on AllHome’s end.

“A thousand volunteers is a lot of people to coordinate, so how do we make that a more manageable process?” said Cindric. “And in the back end side, now that the count is complete what happens to the data?”

Cindric said an app could mean improved data compilation, making it easier to package data for analysis or for sending to the federal government. But a huge concern for AllHome is data security—for a couple of reasons, but first and foremost to protect the identities of King County’s unsheltered.

“Individuals don’t necessarily want to be identified, or be identified in a way that could force them into a location that’s unsafe,” explained Zylstra.

Releasing data before analysis, said Zylstra, is another concern, since the point-in-time count is just one snapshot of one, single night. For example, someone could see the numbers and assume one census tract has a higher homeless population than another, when that’s really just where people happened to be staying that night. “There’s a lot more nuance to what can happen on one given night,” said Zylstra.

“Were definitely committed to making sure people don’t have access to data that should be private, so we’re making sure that’s all taken care of on the back end,” verified Cindric.

“An absolute deal-breaker would be that we’re not comfortable in the privacy and the protections we create about how the data is used and shared,” said Zylstra. “That is of utmost important of the count.”

Those privacy features are going to be a key factor as AllHome presents the idea to the board and steering committee, which includes service providers, people with lived experience.

“We would want that steering committee to take that same lens to it to see what kinds of opportunities and what kinds of challenges there might be ... and make sure there are really positive impacts and improvements to the count,” said Zylstra.

While no decisions have been made to move forward with an app yet, Zylstra seemed hopeful.

“I think first and foremost we are so excited about the enthusiasm,” said Zylstra. “Everyone has something to contribute, and I think this is a great example of that.”

If the app is successful, it could potentially be expanded to other point-in-time counts.

“There’s the potential for this app to be used by a bunch of other cities and counties throughout the United States,” said Cindric, “so that would be kind of the vision: How do we take this with one city and apply it across the country?”

But for now, it’s about meeting the needs of King County, and to “make sure it’s done really respectfully,” added Zylstra: “These are people’s lives, and it’s important to know as much as we can and do it in a way that’s safe and respectful.”

This article has been updated to fix a copy error.