data to combat homelessness

Iowa City turns to data for holistic health care, justice solutions

Officials in Iowa's Johnson County first realized the potential for data analytics in 2014 when they were trying to address Iowa City's homeless.  After 40 to 60 hours of work, they realized four people living under a bridge were especially high users of government services, costing  the city $2.16 million over time.

That use of data caught the attention of President Barack Obama’s White House staff, which  in June 2016 included Johnson County in the initial group of municipalities participating in the Data Driven Justice Initiative. DDJ brought together 67 city, county and state governments who agreed to use data from criminal justice and health systems to reduce the number of people who are repeat users of health care and criminal justice systems.

DDJ is supported through a free, open-source product called OpenLattice that is available to participating governments through Amazon Web Services. The application allows governments to share, find and link datasets to find commonalities to solve problems. All of the data is stored in compliance with HIPAA and Criminal Justice Information System requirements to protect sensitive information.

Iowa City recently received $25,000 in promotional credits from AWS as a winner of  the 2017 City in a Cloud Innovation Challenge for bringing predictive analytics to its post-booking jail diversion program.

By identifying frequent users of law enforcement, health care and jail services, Iowa City can provide proactive mental health and substance abuse treatment to reduce recidivism and minimize those users interaction with these services. That data will also help the city better understand infrastructure costs, where it can increase efficiencies, and how it can use the data to show improved outcomes.

Additionally, the city plans to use the money for other projects to help agencies become more productive, such as cloud-based video storage.

“Currently we have to burn videos to DVDs and deliver them to attorneys [to provide access for body camera videos],” Iowa City Police Officer David Schwindt said. “We would like to be able to electronically assign access to our videos through a system that would allow attorneys to stream the videos online.”

The cloud would also help break down the “siloed systems” in which police, hospitals and substance abuse officials typically work when treating their clients, Schwindt said.

“As a police officer, we deal with people all of the time for substance abuse issues --that may be intoxication or drug possession issues -- and we take them to jail but it doesn’t solve the problem,” Schwindt said.  “We really need to be able to merge all of this data together to analyze and focus treatments on what they really need rather than have people cycling in and out of hospitals and jails without getting any resolution.”

The city is using OpenLattice to address its growing opioid problem, but officials have found HIPAA compliance deters hospitals in the region from participating.

“Right now, we are trying to get different entities onboard, but the hospitals are worried that providing their data to an external partner like our project would make them lose control over their information that is HIPAA compliant,” Schwindt said.  “We are currently building a toolset to allow other agencies to merge that hospital data with their data and do analysis.”

All of the information for the data analysis is currently run through the AWS public cloud with filters that limit access to sensitive information.  For example, a university professor who wants to use the data for analysis might be able to see only the sex and reason for treatment for hospital patients in a dataset, and not their date of birth or address.

As Iowa City officials prepare to open a center for the homeless and a crisis intervention campus for drug users, Schwindt said he thinks the data will position the city to determine how these new services are helping the public as a whole.

“We will have a baseline of data, and as we start new services then we can track outcomes to see if they change as a result,” Schwindt said.

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for GCN, covering cloud, cybersecurity and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Before joining GCN, Friedman was a reporter for Gambling Compliance, where she covered state issues related to casinos, lotteries and fantasy sports. She has also written for Communications Daily and Washington Internet Daily on state telecom and cloud computing. Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

Click here for previous articles by Friedman.

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