Connecting state and local government leaders

This ‘City on a Cloud’ Finalist Merges Data and Analytics to Identify Its Chronically Homeless

Iowa City, Iowa

Iowa City, Iowa


Connecting state and local government leaders

Stay tuned for the winners of the Amazon Web Services competition, set to announce on Wednesday morning.

Four high utilizers of homeless services in Iowa City, Iowa, cost the local government $2.16 million as of 2014, and they were all still living under the same bridge.

Those were the findings of a study intended to identify high utilizers and their fiscal impact, ahead of developing a housing-first option for the chronically homeless.

Police officer David Schwindt, the downtown liaison officer in Iowa City’s Central Business District, was among the uniform patrol spending 40 to 60 hours manually entering information on the homeless he came across in an Excel spreadsheet. The list of homeless he compiled went through other city services: ambulances, hospitals and jails.

“We didn’t get anything, and they didn’t get anything out of that,” Schwindt told Route Fifty in an interview.

Schwindt’s background is in computer investigations, forensic analysis and software development. His team was invited by the Obama administration to the White House in June 2016 for the Data-Driven Justice Initiative’s convening.

When the Trump administration took over, DDJ was picked up by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and Iowa City is one of the jurisdictions farthest along using the initiative’s official, Amazon Web Services cloud-hosted platform, called Lattice.

Using Lattice, the AWS City on a Cloud finalist can import datasets from a growing number of agencies and merge them, a process that began in the first quarter of 2017. Law enforcement calls for service, jail booking and mugshots have all been included, and Iowa City is working with stakeholders at the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics to finalize the addition of emergency room data.

Substance abuse, mental health and judicial data could generate other actionable insights. De-identified, aggregated data helps identify trends and holes in city services.

First, Iowa City will establish a baseline of outcomes, Schwindt said, so as new systems are introduced, changes in outcomes can be tracked. The city wants to identify high utilizers and introduce them to services as soon as possible, rather than see them cycle through jails and emergency rooms.

Of the four high utilizers identified in the 2014 study, two suffered substance abuse-related deaths, and the others remain homeless. The cost of ambulance rides, emergency room and substance abuse treatment, police time, and mental health commitments continues to rack up.

Police officers can find themselves tied up six to eight hours in the emergency room process prior to committing a patient, and the same is true of the court system.

The more high utilizers Iowa City identifies with Lattice, the more likely the they are to convince policymakers of the need for additional services across Johnson County, which already provides crisis intervention training to all first responders to identify people in immediate need.

“Where do you divert them to, if you’re not taking them to jail?” Schwindt said.

Iowa City would like that place to be a “diversion campus” with rooms for occupants to sober up, but outcome improvement needs to be evident to make that vision a reality.

In the meantime, the city continues to work with AWS to satisfy agencies’ concerns about Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act compliance, privacy and access before onboarding them into the cloud.

Schwindt submitted Iowa City for AWS’s City on a Cloud Dream Big award for mid-sized jurisdictions, the winner receiving $25,000 in promotional credits to continue their project.

City on a Cloud allows AWS to promote its customers’ best practices domestically and internationally, which are then judged by a panel of experts in the field. Winners will be announced at 10 a.m. ET Wednesday.

Other notable City on a Cloud finalists include flood-prone Virginia Beach, Virginia, with its handling of stormwater runoff and the Tulsa Public Schools with its use of analytics to drive students toward careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Iowa City stands out as a finalist because of its focus on corrections and recidivism at a time when state and local officials are interested in reducing the size of their jail populations, said John Stephenson, AWS public policy senior manager on the East Coast.

Corrections is one of the top drivers of government budgets alongside education and health care.

“Iowa City shows corrections is still an issue,” Stephenson said. “They want to tackle it using the latest technologies and see what is possible.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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