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A user-friendly web application now delivers better federal data on homelessness to researchers, policy makers and social service providers.

Headed by School of Social Policy & Practice professor Dennis Culhane, Homelessness Analytics is a map-based web app that shares federal data with communities to help them make planning and resource distribution decisions. It is an effort collaborated on by several federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“A lot of data are being pushed from local to federal, but very little from federal pushed to local,” Culhane said, “so we designed this application that features a map-based interface that would enable people to look at their communities, compare themselves to other communities … also specifically veteran versus non-veteran, family versus singles, [as well as] models that predicts changes in homelessness over time.”

Having been involved in Penn’s Cartographic Modeling Lab, Culhane — who is also the research director for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ National Center for Homelessness Among Veterans — and his team decided to combine their commitment to homelessness research and backgrounds in geographic visualization to create Homelessness Analytics.

“There’s a growing interest in using data to understand the problem and more importantly to develop solutions for homelessness,” said Tom Byrne, an assistant professor at SP2 who has been coordinating the project. “My perspective was that if we make these data available to a broader group of researchers, policy makers and service providers, it would potentially be of use to them in their day to day work.”

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Technical specifics and software development of the web application was created by Azavea, a Philadelphia-based B-Corp — a for-profit company that operates in a nonprofit style and whose mission is to create social impact.

“For us, this project has enormous potential for positive social impact, and it was technically challenging,” said Robert Cheetham, CEO of Azavea and 1997 School of Design graduate. “It needs to be a national scale system … to not just display information but also generate forecasts on how different types of policies might impact different levels of homelessness in the future.”

Culhane said they are working on more features to help communities target their prevention programs, including performance matrices for communities and veteran data on a neighborhood level, as opposed to the current county or city level.

“There are so much data being collected and stored but not put to effective use,” Culhane said. “A great thing about technology today is that we can distribute data very quickly and efficiently to a lot of people. We have to believe that having more data available is going to drive better decision making, more creative thinking, and [enable] more input into the solution.”

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