Reforming services for people experiencing homelessness

The City of Austin used Tactical Data Engagement methods to find how open data might supercharge existing efforts to reform services for people experiencing homeless.

The City of Austin used Tactical Data Engagement methods to find how open data might supercharge existing efforts to reform services for people experiencing homeless.


At the beginning of 2019, at least 2,255 people in Austin were living without homes. This number, as calculated by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) through an annual count, increased five percent in the last year. More people are now experiencing homelessness in Austin than at any point in the last eight years. For those experiencing homelessness, the terrain is difficult. In a fairly spread out City where services are concentrated downtown, people who need support face the burden of navigating a dispersed and often confusing social service ecosystem.

The City of Austin has put significant resources toward better supporting those experiencing homelessness, for example through the creation of the City’s Innovation Office i-Team funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, which focuses largely on social service redesign. Mayor Steve Adler and Councilmembers Kathie Tovo and Greg Casar spoke up following the release of the ECHO report to recognize the severity of the issue of homelessness in Austin and highlight efforts to improve service delivery. As of June 2019, Austin’s City Council was slated to rescind a harmful anti-loitering law that made physical presence in public spaces a liability for those experiencing homelessness. However, many community stakeholders, whether they’re operating within the social service ecosystem or looking to be stronger allies as community members, are unsure exactly how big the challenge of homelessness is, and where they might target efforts to innovate and problem-solve.

Homelessness is one of the most pressing and persistent problems in Austin. It stems from gaps that occur across multiple systems and we need to use every tool at our disposal to tackle it. — Sarah Rodriguez, Communications and Technology Management Department

The City of Austin reached out to the Sunlight Foundation to try to find how open data might help the City’s service reform efforts and newly empower and engage those experiencing homelessness in decision-making processes. 

Where did Austin’s open data program start? 

The City of Austin is a city long known for being ahead of the curve, so it’s not surprising that open data has been a focus since 2011, when the City passed its resolution establishing the open data program. Austin’s open data portal, maintained by Austin’s Community & Technology Management (CTM) Open Data Team, contains nearly 2,700 datasets and is continuously updated with new data.

It’s also not surprising that the City was among the first cities in the country with an Innovation Office exploring human-centered design techniques to redesign its social services. When Sunlight began work with the City, the i-Team and staff across departments were accustomed to thinking about “residents first,” and were comfortable with strategies like journey-mapping or typologies for potential data users. Recently, some I-team leaders have begun to move over to the Office of Design and Delivery, where they are currently working on tackling governance issues related to homelessness data. They are also using open data provided by 311 to inform pilot related to solving homelessness.

With such a long-standing commitment to open data and innovation, Austin was uniquely placed to explore exactly how open data might play a part in addressing a crucial issue like homelessness. Upon learning about Tactical Engagement (TDE) through What Works Cities, Austin saw an opportunity to unearth ways to empower those leading work to address homelessness with the open data they might need.

What did Austin achieve with Sunlight?

  • Sunlight and Austin’s i-Team used existing design research on homelessness services to create user personas and use cases that specifically reflect information or data needs 
  • Sunlight and Austin’s i-Team met with the Austin Homelessness Advisory Committee (AHAC) to discuss which open data or information could address challenges around homelessness 
  • Sunlight provided recommendations including a set of use cases and relevant user personas who could benefit from open data around homelessness
  • Austin’s i-Team and Open Data Team reviewed findings and decided to focus on engaging nonprofit service providers to reform contracting processes to produce more and better open contracting data on services for homelessness
  • Sunlight, the i-Team, the Open Data Team, and the Downtown Austin Community Court (DACC) conducted a hands-on workshop with contract administrators and case managers at local service providers to hear about the data they need from City contracts
  • Austin’s Open Data Team began talks to publish the first ever open data from the DACC with summary statistics about the prevalence of homelessness and available services
  • Austin will continue working toward Sunlight’s recommendations to be more transparent and accountable by sharing open data on homelessness and engaging community members, including those experiencing homelessness, in City decisions about services

How Austin looked for tactical opportunities within an existing focus area

Because the City had already done significant work through its i-Team and Open Data Team to explore the opportunities for open data to affect change around homelessness, experts at the City were able to point to a number of clear demand signals for open data and information around homelessness. For example, the i-Team had conducted interviews and built systems maps explaining how data is transmitted across City departments, and had spoken to many stakeholders who expressed challenges gaining access to share-able data or information pertaining to homelessness as an issue or on homelesness services, specifically. Additionally, the City of Austin had recently begun work on an Open Government Partnership (OGP) Action Plan that specifically included requirements to coordinate with community members around open data pertaining to issues of homelessness and service contracts.

Lesson: There’s no need to over-complicate a search for demand signals for open data. Simply examine what issues are important to community members and whether community stakeholders are explicitly asking for more transparent data or information.

How Austin built on existing design research to create data-specific user personas and use cases

Because Austin has already devoted significant resources towards understanding the issue of homelessness and building partnerships and advisory committees with relevant expertise, Sunlight staff folded into existing activities to review and better understand the design research that had already been done. First, Sunlight reviewed a set of existing user personas that the City had developed to understand users of homelessness services (not necessarily data users). These provided needed local context around how people have engaged with the City in the past and helped form the basis of user personas we would later develop specifically related to open data use.

For a hands-on workshop with members of AHAC, all of whom have some lived experience with homelessness, Sunlight worked with the City’s i-Team to develop research questions that might unearth what specific data and information individuals experiencing homelessness are looking for. Additionally, Sunlight and representatives from the i-Team and the Open Data Team held informational interviews with key players in the social services ecosystem to better understand what efforts have failed or been successful to innovate around data and technology for homelessness in the past.

The personas developed in this process can be found in Sunlight’s open data user personas library, and include personas created by the I-Team based on extensive on-the-ground user research. The use cases for open data around homelessness that we developed are: 

  • City staff analysts providing mental health, public safety, health, or other social services need access to centralized, non-sensitive data to better coordinate strategic efforts
  • Referrers need access to centralized data specifically on service availability to accurately refer individuals to help on-the-spot
  • Service providers, contract administrators, and City staff need a shared understanding of active City contracts and contract performance to improve shared contract outcomes 
  • Advocates and people experiencing homelessness need information on relevant policy so that they can coordinate advocacy or participate in public meetings

Lesson: Definitely do not start from scratch when it comes to finding opportunities to innovate with data and technology. Good use cases are fairly easy to create if you have already done significant research to gather stakeholder needs.

Build on existing reform, understand the effectiveness of past efforts, and coordinate with subject matter experts to make sure that open data solutions align with local context. 

How Austin convened a targeted working group to co-design potential solutions to lack of contract data on social services

Of the use cases identified, Austin chose to focus on tackling the governance issues blocking contract data on social services from being easily produced and published for public use. Many subject matter experts working on issues related to homelessness didn’t have a central source of information to understand which contracts were being given to which service providers, and therefore weren’t able to gauge the effectiveness of the City’s public spending to address the issue. The City and Sunlight hosted a co-design workshop for local service providers to inform how the City might begin to collect, evaluate, and publish meaningful data on service contracts.

Before this work began, staff within the i-Team had taken first attempts to create a comprehensive map of City contracts supporting homelessness services, but it was intended for internal use, and wouldn’t necessarily answer the public’s questions about where City dollars were being spent. Since many service providers in the Austin region receive a combination of federal, state, county, and city dollars, they have to report a varying set of outcomes to varying overarching governance bodies. This means that, with the data currently publicly available, it is nearly impossible to get a comprehensive and holistic view of the availability, quality, and performance of City-funded social services for homelessness.

Importantly, open government champions like Robert Kingham, now Operations Manager for DACC, and Sarah Rodriguez, now with CTM’s Office of Design & Delivery, expressed a deep desire to ensure that the City’s evaluation of contract performance meaningfully reflect clients’ feedback on the quality of services. By ensuring that those experiencing homelessness have a say in evaluating services, the City hopes that services can more closely match the real needs and lived experiences of individuals.

Homelessness is a broader and more involved challenge than most cities seek to tackle with open data, and thus requires a longer-term and more governance-oriented approach to reform. DACC and the i-Team hosted a co-design workshop with City staff, case managers, contract administrators, and homelessness service designers at the City’s Innovation Office lab to discuss what contracts should look like and what kind of data the City should aim to collect. Happiness Kisoso, Project Manager for the Open Data Team, gave an open data 101 explainer for participants and introduced the possibility of publishing non-sensitive data on homelessness openly. Participants noted specific challenges around data privacy because of the sensitive nature of providing services in this field, and also worked to identify what data might be share-able after a certain amount of summary-level aggregation. After this workshop, DACC had a better understanding of data that could be collected through contracts and subsequently published to help provide a more robust community understanding of homelessness and the services in place to address it.

Lesson: There are no shortcuts when it comes to solving broad social issues. Gather people with frontline experience and make it clear that engaging means a commitment to long-term reform, not just a one-off brainstorm. Let co-design and collaboration be a first step in an ongoing culture of listening and learning through engagement powered by open data.

We’ve kicked off an important new line of work to make sure that those experiencing homelessness get a say in how contracts and services are provided to the community. — Robert Kingham, Downtown Austin Community Court

How Austin is implementing reforms to engage and empower more stakeholders with better data and information

Austin’s first co-design workshop with service providers at the City set DACC up to regularly engage people experiencing homelessness and local service providers to comment on City decisions and reforms. For example, whereas AHAC members previously were participating in user testing potential design changes to social services, DACC now engages them to participate in agenda-setting discussions around DACC operations and governance to deliver services as well as the broader community homelessness system. As people who have experienced homelessness, this gives AHAC members an unprecedented opportunity to represent their community in City decision-making. As part of its ongoing efforts to fulfill its Open Government Partnership Action Plan commitment, DACC plans to work with the i-Team to continue leveraging this powerful working group to inform upcoming decisions to collect and potentially release new open contracts data.

As a result of this project, DACC has also set out to publish new summary-level data on homelessness that might help the community have a better view of the prevalence of homelessness and the reach of DACC’s services. DACC is working with the City’s Open Data Team to identify a pipeline of non-sensitive data that can be shared openly through the City’s open data portal. Because providing a comprehensive view of social services across the City was such a broad, but explicitly identified issue, this effort will be an important first step toward bringing more transparency to the landscape of homelessness and social services in Austin.

Lesson: Sometimes meaningful governance reform and civic participation need to be a priority if a long-term goal is to gather and produce more impactful open data.

Providing broad, summary data at the beginning of that journey can feel aimless for some cities, but depending on the issue, it may be the case that members of the public and advocates just need descriptive statistics to better understand a broad issue so that they can craft advocacy or then ask for more specific information.  

How did the community benefit?

Homelessness will continue to be an issue in Austin until significant funding and resources are put toward permanently housing those living on the street and addressing the precursors to homelessness. However, people who are experiencing or have experienced homelessness fully deserve to participate in democratic decision-making around the policies that govern them, and the public services that offer support. Too often, those with lived experience of homelessness are excluded from important conversations about how and where services are delivered, or by whom.

Austin is taking an important first step in opening up decision-making processes about the governance and delivery of social service. Because they are undertaking these reforms with a focus on generating and publishing more meaningful open data and information, the City’s new processes will include a commitment to producing stronger civic dialogue around the issue of homelessness.