Investment Matters: The Lasting Impacts of the Gates Foundation’s Data Driven Culture Initiative

By: Christina McHugh, Regional Housing and Homelessness Evaluation Manager

Investments in data infrastructure, particularly in lean times, are not often prioritized. Yet, during the Great Recession, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation invested substantially in King County’s homelessness data analytics capacity, investments which have been sustained by the King County Council and Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS). As a result of this investment, our DCHS Housing and Homelessness Performance Measurement & Evaluation (PME) team now answers questions that previously took days in minutes and regularly updates public dashboards. With this heightened efficiency, our team can think bigger and more proactively—producing nationally recognized research and evaluations, demonstrating the impact of King County’s bold and innovative work, and partnering every day with our leadership and program staff to integrate data informed decision-making into all we do.

More than a decade ago, the Gates Foundation’s Family Homelessness Initiative (FHI) embarked on a journey to develop new approaches to reducing the experience of family homelessness in King, Snohomish, and Pierce Counties. Tucked into the FHI was an investment in data infrastructure led by Building Changes, the Data Driven Culture Initiative (DDCI) to improve and connect data on homelessness between the three counties. What began as a technical project to create a dashboard, shifted how King County uses data for performance measurement and evaluation. On February 11th, King County celebrates the legacy of this work by presenting at the “A Decade of Innovation: The Puget Sound Family Homelessness Initiative” virtual convening.

I see the legacy of this investment every day in my team—a group of dedicated, tech-savvy researchers who bring passion to their work to improve homeless services and end homelessness in our community. The Gates Foundation invested in Tableau and SQL training for our staff, created streamlined data management processes, and provided technical assistance to help us become self-sufficient in maintaining the new data resources developed through the DDCI. Our team strives to build upon this success every day with new dashboards, reports, and studies—buoyed by the vision and commitment of King County leadership to enhance our collective data analytics capacity.

A sample image of a PME dashboard on homelessness response

The PME team’s enhanced homelessness data infrastructure and technical capacity proved pivotal to our support of DCHS and Seattle & King County Public Health’s COVID-19 response. Early in the pandemic, we provided real time data to identify the needs of the most vulnerable individuals in the homeless response system. Each week, we match COVID testing data to our Homeless Management Information System database to quickly prevent further outbreaks. We partnered with the University of Washington to measure the impact of using hotels to de-intensify shelters and meet social distancing requirements while also improving health and well-being.

With each new DCHS programs or initiative, it’s now not a question of if but when we will launch a new dashboard, track new performance metrics, or rigorously study the impact on those we serve. Our Performance Measurement & Evaluation unit continually levels up its capacity in terms of technology, skills, and the products and services it provides the County and the community. The Gates Foundation’s investment in our community has left an indelible impact and we look forward to sharing our journey at the FHI convening.