Complexities In Data Collection – Small Choices With Big Effects

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The National Alliance to End Homelessness (The Alliance) is thinking about the data it collects about homelessness in the United States. The Alliance’s data feeds into annual reports to the US government on its progress in ending homelessness. Thinking about changes to the data will affect two reports: the Point in Time Count (PIT) and the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR).

The reports are built on data that is collected and reported by local agencies. The agencies are also co-ordinating and delivering homeless services. At the national level, the reports feed into decisions about funding for homelessness services. And on the international stage, the reports demonstrate how the United States government is working to achieve the right to adequate housing for its residents. So, when the Alliance thinks about the data it collects, it has a lot of groups to consider.

Joy Moses from the Alliance recently convened a webinar about data collection. She reported about the process the Alliance is using to consider changes to data collection and discussed areas where change are being contemplated. Her guests, Dennis Culhane and Shercole King, joined Moses to comment on the Alliance’s plans1. Then all three responded to questions from the hundreds of people who signed on to the session.

There are a lot of changes under consideration. Here, we’ll look at two: data governance and data collection processes.

Data governance deals with things like who owns the data, who has access to the data, how it is stored and how it is shared. For example, data governance decisions affect:

    • client access to their records.
    • how the data can be used when talking with people who run systems that feed into homelessness. Examples include the prison system, hospital discharge processes and child welfare services.

With respect to data collection processes, changes can potentially have an effect locally and nationally:

    • From King’s experience at the local level, staff could be getting a whole lot more out of the data they collect. To make better use of the data locally, resources are needed to provide training and support. King also sees a benefit in connecting the homelessness database with other software to help housing workers and clients keep track of appointments.
    • Culhane spoke to gaps in knowledge about homelessness at the national level when using the data that is published now. The AHAR currently reports about age, sex and race. It doesn’t combine these elements to suggest program designs to meet the needs of specific groups. Combining the data could indicate groups are experiencing outsized levels of homelessness and are not eligible for services based on program design2. Having that data would also help to advocate for funding to be directed to meet those needs.

The webinar is obviously intended for a US audience. However, data collection and reporting are issues for anyone interested in figuring out whether the housing and homelessness situation is getting better or worse. The webinar airs many issues that need consideration. The Alliance’s work gives a head start to people who aren’t as far along in this process.

Data collection is particularly important for countries that have embraced the right to adequate housing3. Monitoring and tracking progress is a foundational element if you want to know what’s working and what’s not. The webinar is a great example of the choices that are involved when planning or modifying data collection processes.

The webinar is posted on the youtube channel of the Alliance To End Homelessness: Calculating Change: The Continuing Conversation on Homelessness Data Reform

The Alliance has also published a report of the same title, which is posted here.


  1. Culhane is based at the University of Pennsylvania. King is part of the team at VIA LINK, a front line service provider in Louisiana.
  2. For example, Courtney Cronley has studied Black women’s access to supportive housing. Cronley’s research, which looked at records in a specific geographic area, suggests that the access process systematically excludes Black women. Modifying the data in the AHAR would enable analysis like this at the national level. Read more at Line Up Here – Giving Preference To Access Supportive Housing
  3. For more on this subject, keep an eye out for this upcoming post: Foundations For The Right To Adequate Housing – Monitoring and Reporting