MSIM students help Seattle better serve homeless people

By Jim Davis Thursday, May 30, 2019

Seattle has one of the largest homeless populations in the nation. More than 12,000 people were counted as homeless in the city and King County in an annual survey last year, with more than half living unsheltered.

Seattle-King County ranked only behind the city and county of Los Angeles and New York City last year in the number of homeless people in the U.S.

Getting these people help — be it a shower and a warm bed or a return to permanent housing — has become one of Seattle’s top priorities. To aid in the effort, the city has turned to the University of Washington’s Information School.

Three graduate students in the Master of Science in Information Management program are working to develop a better way to track the city’s efforts to aid the homeless. The students, (pictured, from left) Amir Ali, Tiffany Ku and Kevin McCraney, are joining forces with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s Innovation Advisory Council for their Capstone project. For Capstone, students apply the skills they have learned at the iSchool to solve a real-world information problem.

“We knew we wanted to work on a project that could actually make a direct, tangible difference within our community,” McCraney said.

The Seattle Human Services Department tracks contracts, costs and outcomes of homelessness programs. The data currently is kept in several silos within the homelessness division, including multiple Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, and the department relies on the institutional knowledge of some key people. The students are working to build an automated process that compiles this information without analysts needing to manually transfer data between sources.

“The city funds and works with community organizations through different agencies to provide services for homeless people,” Ku said. “What they're trying to track is how well these programs are doing.”

The database and an accompanying dashboard will allow city employees and decision-makers to gain insight into these programs, Ali said.

“We'll connect (the software program) Tableau to that final model to be able create reports and visualizations,” he said.

“The long-term goal is to tell a complete and more accurate story of how well the city is serving this population."

Ali Peters, the city’s planning and performance director for homelessness, said the students have done a great job understanding the complexities surrounding the homelessness data. She expects they will develop a tool that the staff will be able to use immediately.

“It will be a working product,” Peters said. “I think it will need to be refined a little bit. But the bulk of the work is going to be done.”

The trio of students worked together in their first quarter of graduate school on a project in a Research Methods class. They found that their individual skills complemented each other. McCraney is specializing in data science and user experience, Ku is specializing in information architecture and user experience, and Ali is specializing in data science and business intelligence.

With the Capstone event approaching, Ku mined her contacts with the City of Seattle. Ku received her undergraduate degree from the UW in 2014 and had worked for the city for two years before returning to graduate school. She talked with Peters about potential projects in the fall.

To Peters, it was perfect timing. She had been working with the Innovation Advisory Council on an idea to better track homelessness data, and she knew the iSchool team would provide the expertise she needed.   

Mayor Durkan established the Innovation Advisory Council last year to tap into the expertise of the city’s most innovative companies and organizations to develop data-driven technological approaches to addressing city priorities such as homelessness, the high cost of living in Seattle and delivery of basic city services. iSchool Dean Anind Dey represents the UW on the advisory council, which includes executives from Amazon, Microsoft, Tableau and other leading firms.

Peters was familiar with the iSchool, because she had worked with a Capstone team two years ago analyzing program impacts when disaggregating racial demographics, identifying minority subgroups within larger populations. Peters felt that project was a success and noted all three of those iSchool students found jobs with the city.

“My goal when I work with the iSchool and Capstone is to not just have added capacity and knowledge but to ensure that (the students are) getting what they need as far as making connections and seeing which direction they want to go in the public sector,” Peters said.

Ku, Ali and McCraney started their project this fall by doing research and interviewing city employees to better understand their needs for the data.

“We learned generally that there are some business problems that need addressing,” McCraney said. “Like more optimized systems for exchanging information and some technical problems. They don't have the infrastructure they need to collect data and audit it the way that they need to.”

It’s a lot of work with a variety of moving pieces. The students are working with Innovation Advisory Council partners Tableau Software and Amazon Web Services, which are serving as advisors to help build their model.

“We’re focusing in on it piece by piece,” Ali said. “There are contracts. There are performance spreadsheets. We are taking them on one at a time.”

When it’s finished, the group hopes this will be the first step in addressing big-picture issues surrounding collection of data on homelessness for the city.

“The long-term goal is to tell a complete and more accurate story of how well the city is serving this population,” Ku said. “On top of that, maybe it can help the city make more informed decisions.”