In Data We Trust: The Increasing Use of Mobile Apps During PIT Counts

November 6, 2019

As communities across the country are gearing up for the 2020 Point-in-Time counts, we are reminded of how important the use of data is to our work in ending homelessness. Solving problems require understanding their scope and complexity, and the PIT process offers a snapshot of information which helps inform demographic trends in homelessness across America.

Mobile geographic information system (GIS) applications are one way to assist people in collecting reliable information while also reducing human error. In fact, more and more Continuums of Care are using apps in their PIT count process: training thousands of PIT count volunteers to securely input vital confidential demographic and locational information about people experiencing homelessness in real time right from their smart phones into a central database.

The use of mobile apps has many benefits:

  • Faster data collection and analysis by eliminating the transfer of data from paper to a database.
  • Real-time quality control opportunities . The data immediately uploads from the volunteer’s smart phone to a central server, so, for example, if a volunteer consistently forgets to enter information into a specific field, the PIT count organizer can monitor this and contact them immediately to correct the problem.
  • Increased data security, since fewer people will see identifiable information by eliminating the paper-to-computer transfer. Plus, as one PIT count organizer noted, “All that paper floating around isn’t ideal.”
  • Functional at any location. Apps can also be used in “airplane mode” if the volunteer is in a dead zone. The data is stored and then uploaded when they return to an area with cell or Wi-Fi service.
  • Ease of use , especially as more people become accustomed to using mobile apps instead of clipboards in the dark with flashlights.
  • Higher accuracy rates , as apps make it easier to collect subpopulation information, and the geolocational capabilities allow for a more accurate count by zip code. Such information could highlight any racial inequities, for example, if the racial demographics of people experiencing homelessness do not reflect the overall racial demographics of residents in that same area.
  • Mapping locations where people are living in encampment settings that will assist street outreach providers to continue their work to reduce unsheltered homelessness after the PIT count is over.
  • A less expensive and portable system , as people already have the tool (their smart phone) in their pockets. Their familiarity with their own devices may also encourage more people to volunteer, expanding the overall area being counted.

CoCs can create their own in-house database, or use one of the various mobile applications that exist, including Esri ArcGIS , SimTech Solutions , Outreach Grid . You should consider ease of use, system maintenance requirements, and overall costs when considering which option to implement. Partnering with local governments by connecting with their GIS platform could also be a cost-effective option.

It is worth exploring whether your local city or county currently uses apps like these for other needs. There may be a potential to add a component for the PIT count, in order to increase inter-agency cooperation and collaboration both during the PIT count process, and the necessary street outreach work between the counts. Check out HUD’s GIS Toolkit for Communities , which provides a no-cost, downloadable software tool, as well as their Quick Start Guide, designed to provide an overview of options available.

In our work to ensure homelessness is a rare, brief and one-time experience, we need to identify and engage all people experiencing homelessness as quickly as possible. The more communities come together to gather this important information, the better we can communicate and implement viable and successful solutions. Reliable and trustworthy data helps us all understand the scope of the issue, monitor our success rates and keep us accountable. As mobile app software options become more readily available and used, we can be better, stronger, and faster in reducing and ending homelessness in communities across the nation.

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