ArcGIS Hub simply made this year’s process more efficient for us as the agency implementing PIT and for volunteers taking part in the count.
Contra Costa Health Manages Volunteers for Annual Initiative to Curb Homelessness with ArcGIS Hub
Contra Costa Health (CCH) plans and coordinates the PIT count for Contra Costa County and wanted a more efficient way to engage with, recruit, and manage volunteers for this annual count of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness.
In collaboration with the county GIS team, an ArcGIS Hub site was developed.
The use of ArcGIS Hub in the 2023 PIT count yielded positive results for CCH and a successful deployment of solutions for the county GIS team, including streamlined management of volunteers, increased public engagement, and the use of innovative spatial technology.
An estimated 172,000 people are experiencing homelessness in California, the largest unhoused population of any state in the United States and 30 percent of the nation’s total. Although financial investments in housing, shelter, and services for those experiencing homelessness can help combat this serious issue, another way counties can apply for federal funding is by conducting a point-in-time (PIT) count.
A PIT count is a count of sheltered and unsheltered people, conducted in January. This critical count, which is mandated by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), helps state and federal agencies monitor changes and trends in this population, and it is used by HUD to allocate funding to help those experiencing homelessness.
Contra Costa County in Northern California is the ninth-largest county in the state with more than 1 million residents. The local government of Contra Costa County provides a range of services to residents, and Contra Costa Health (CCH) has programs aimed at helping those experiencing homelessness. CCH also conducts outreach, runs shelters and permanent housing programs, and plans and coordinates the annual PIT count for the region.
The annual Contra Costa County PIT count is conducted with the help of volunteers and county staff. For the 2023 count, CCH wanted a more efficient way to engage with and recruit volunteers as well as manage and coordinate them during the official count day. In collaboration with the country's GIS team (within the Department of Information Technology [DoIT]), a hub site was created using ArcGIS Hub, software designed for stakeholder collaboration and community engagement. The hub site helped the 2023 PIT count run smoothly with new capabilities for tracking volunteers and improving community communications.
CCH plans and executes the annual PIT count for the county, and over the last three years, it has partnered with the GIS team to modernize and streamline the process using spatial tools and solutions. The process includes completing an initial observational count to find either persons who appear to be experiencing homelessness or sleep settings such as tents, RVs, cars, or encampments for unsheltered individuals.
The GIS team suggested the use of ArcGIS Field Maps to CCH. ArcGIS Field Maps is an all-in-one field app for mobile data collection, map viewing, and real-time location sharing from mobile devices. The app would enable volunteers to record a pinned location, fill out a short observational form, and use the app's location sharing feature. Data on each sleep setting is collected using this solution to record the location and type of observed unsheltered homelessness in the area.
Volunteers for the county aim to cover 716 square miles in the county with 100 percent coverage. More than 160 volunteers are assembled into more than 75 teams and given a grid assignment, which is a defined boundary to conduct their observational count. To meet the 100 percent coverage goal, CCH wanted a new solution to provide data on whether teams had covered their assigned area to ensure the count was accurate.
“For multiple reasons, the tracking became important this year from a safety perspective and also the perspective of whether we are really meeting 100 percent coverage. And how are our methods working? In the past, we had no way to do that,” explains Bear Hartley, GIS manager at Contra Costa County.
Previously, the collection of data in the field was a paper-based workflow that included volunteers completing paper forms with their observation details and then CCH staff entering data into a spreadsheet. Volunteers would also use a paper map to navigate their assigned area. In recent years, CCH looked to the GIS team for digital solutions that would improve field data collection as well as help recruit volunteers, raise project awareness, and manage and coordinate volunteers during the PIT count day.
“Contra Costa County has integrated ArcGIS in its PIT count methodology for three years. This year, it was critical to build upon past experiences to create a seamless, efficient PIT count,” says Dana Ewing, former planner and evaluator with Contra Costa Health.
A Central Hub
In response to CCH’s request for more community engagement, Morgan March, a GIS analyst with the GIS team, turned to ArcGIS Hub. The county had previously purchased ArcGIS Hub Premium, which includes advanced collaboration and engagement capabilities, and March and Hartley knew Hub would be a great fit for this project. ArcGIS Hub is a configurable cloud-based stakeholder collaboration and engagement platform that makes it easier for organizations to work more effectively with their community.
Hartley says the ability to track volunteers with Hub drew the GIS team members' interest. They also enjoyed the public-friendly interface that resembled a standard web page, making it easier for volunteers to use. With varying technology skills in the group, Hartley says they wanted the new site to be intuitive for volunteers, supporters, and stakeholders to go and get information
“Volunteers had expressed in past years that they wanted more involvement in the process. A hub site was the perfect way to give the volunteers more [participation] in the experience,” says Hartley. “So not only were we going to get public engagement, but we were also going to get tracking. All the boxes were being ticked, and we just knew it was going to be a great thing.”
Hartley and the GIS team began the implementation process by meeting with CCH to make sure the new hub site included the content it wanted and ensured the site met CCH's needs. Hartley and the team said creating the site was very easy using ArcGIS Hub and described the solution as incredibly intuitive. Paperwork related to volunteering, including training documents, was added to the hub site for easier access.
Three in-person training sessions were held for volunteers, and GIS staff were present to help volunteers install the Field Maps application and ensure it was working correctly on their mobile devices.
The hub site includes four key areas: Learn, Register, Train, and Count. The Learn area had information for site visitors to learn more about the PIT count and homelessness in the region. The Count section had details for the day of the count, including where to report to and contact information for county staff. The Register area provided more details on the PIT count and allowed prospective volunteers to register electronically. The Train area provided training materials.
“[Electronic registration] really streamlined things. In the past, when folks had registered, they had all these multiple Excel spreadsheets that four different people were putting entries into, and it was making it very difficult for them to cleanly track their list of volunteers,” says Hartley.
For the official count day, volunteers only had to access the Field Map application to begin their fieldwork. A simple on-and-off toggle switch enabled tracking of the volunteers’ location, and a color-coded system of each person’s assignment helped ensure everyone was in the correct area.
A Successful Count
The Contra Costa County 2023 PIT count took place on January 25 during a four-hour window in the early morning. Eighty teams composed of two to three volunteers were spread across Contra Costa County. They used their ArcGIS Field Maps mobile app to fill out a short survey for each location visited. After the count, the GIS team conducted careful cleaning and analysis of the observational and new tracking data to provide to CCH for HUD reporting and internal decision-making for health, housing, and homelessness programs.
The use of ArcGIS Hub in the 2023 PIT count yielded positive results for CCH and the successful deployment of solutions for the GIS team, including streamlined volunteer management, increased public engagement, and the use of innovative spatial technology.
Ewing says that volunteers appreciated a one-stop shop for the information they needed to register, attend training, and finish the count.
Ewing says, “Adding the hub [site] this year allowed for much better facilitation and implementation of volunteer recruitment, scheduling training, and stakeholder communications.”
The use of Hub helped improve collaboration with volunteers. For example, CCH was able to see if email and volunteer packets were sent. March adds that followers, volunteers, and stakeholders were easily able to access up-to-date news and announcements. Volunteers could also select their own assignments using a map.
“Hub allowed the county’s DoIT team and CCH to brainstorm new ways of sharing information, tracking progress, recruiting volunteers, and letting volunteers sign up for the canvassing assignments,” says Ewing. “It allowed greater collaboration between CCH and the county GIS team at DOIT."
The tracking capability within ArcGIS Hub enables volunteers to see their assignments on the day of the count. At kickoff sites this year, volunteers would see dots pop up on a large map of the county representing them as they signed in to the Field Maps mobile app. March explains that any concerns linked to tracking were alleviated because volunteers could easily see what has and hasn’t been completed in their assigned area on the map, and county staff could see their last known location as an extra safety precaution.
Also, location sharing was immediately turned off after volunteers returned to their kickoff site after the count. Hartley says the new location sharing data on coverage will be helpful for next year’s count to help CCH determine if any coverage areas are too large for a team to cover.
The feedback from stakeholders has been positive, with both Hartley and March saying how impressed CCH was with the new hub site and the increased public engagement with the PIT count project. March believes CCH and county GIS will use this year’s count as a standard moving forward, using ArcGIS Hub as a starting place for everything from preplanning to training. Other surrounding counties have even expressed interest in the new GIS solutions Contra Costa County used.
Looking forward, the Contra Costa County GIS team is enthusiastic about creating hub sites for other departments and showing the county the possibilities of GIS.
“There's three of us on the team, and we came at this in a very collaborative way. I think the overall goal of [our approach] was to create the best platform that we could for CCH and showcase what we can do for this project,” says March.