How a California county is using data and AI to help citizens in need

By | 4 minute read | March 22, 2019

The most vulnerable silo in the world isn’t a forgotten storage drive or an isolated repository. It’s a person. When the flow of information is severed between people, body or byte, they wither away.

Who, then, is more siloed in communities than a person without a home? Homelessness is a crisis of isolation and a crisis of information access. Homeless people often have a multitude of needs that span across government services and programs. In addition to their housing challenges they struggle to access the most critical government programs and resources most able to help them.

Without intervention, they become closed off to the world, like a silo, unable to contribute to the wider-community.

Data and AI can help reconnect them, as one California county is proving.

Sonoma County discovers hope in data and AI

\Local government agencies in Sonoma County, California, were passionate in dealing with a range of common problems, including homelessness. But old, inefficient organizational structures prevented meaningful collaboration across departments, which made it impossible to synchronize efforts and direct a coordinated response to meet individual needs.

Jessica Hetherington, a social service worker for Sonoma County Health Services, reported a difficult impasse. “We were doing great work in our community, but we were doing it in siloed programs and couldn’t communicate one division to another,” she said.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors enlisted a holistic approach and a multi-disciplinary focus to course correct. The board found that what truly ailed community efforts was not a strategy problem, but a problem of data.

The county turned to IBM. By using IBM Cloud and partnering with IBM leaders, Sonoma County transformed with data and Watson AI. Officials gained a full view of their community through integrated data and used these insights to intelligently deliver services to the most vulnerable citizens in Sonoma County.

A portrait of data

Sonoma County developed an innovative approach called Access Coordinated Care to Empower Self-Sufficiency (ACCESS). The departments of Health Services, Child Services, Human Services, Housing Development, and Justice coordinated efforts. This integrated multi-disciplinary team would focus on the most vulnerable individuals who depend on government services the most and administer holistic services to help them get back on their feet.

The problem was the data. Sensitive client data existed separately across all these departments. It needed to be unified and made accessible to all team members.

It was difficult enough getting department directives moving along the same track for the ACCESS program. How then could access to different department repositories, methods for storing information, and data policies be integrated in way that would be useful and not counterproductive?

What Sonoma County needed was to break down silos isolating social services, judicial and behavioral health data. From this vantage point, Sonoma County’s integrated multi-disciplinary teams could glean insights developed from the full picture of citizens’ information. With this level of access and visibility, duplicated efforts could be eliminated, and client needs could be met in intricately layered ways to lead to better outcomes.

In total, officials would have to break down nine silos, transferring sensitive data across three dimensions of government services.

While early talks for Sonoma to use IBM technologies on IBM Cloud were kicking off, disaster struck.

Wildfires require immediate response

“We need a rapid response. We have to help [Sonoma citizens] now, everything has to work yesterday,” said Carolyn Staats, IT manager for ACCESS Sonoma County.

The Tubbs Wildfire ignited on 7 October, 2017, and burned for three weeks. Thousands of homes and structures were destroyed, 44 people died, and thousands more were displaced.

The fires increased pressure Sonoma County to deal with homelessness, as well as the county’s early efforts to integrate data across departments. A fast, comprehensive solution was needed immediately.

IBM, alongside the team leading ACCESS Sonoma County, set up a two-day Think Design workshop. Together, the team produced a rapid response pilot that used IBM Health and Human Services Connect 360, IBM InfoSphere Master Data Management and IBM Watson Care Manager on the IBM Cloud platform.

Pulling data from various departmental sources at time of creation, the solution offered insight into 90,000 client profiles accessible on any device. Analysis of the data led to greater levels of personalization, trend analysis and discovery to improve the lives of Sonoma County citizens in times of crisis, as well as after.

Aligned with IBM, phase one of the ACCESS project completed with over 74 clients served. Phase two, implemented February 2019, aims to assist more than 150 of the county’s top users of services with targeted, holistic support.

A critical partnership with IBM

IBM is committed to breaking through silos and granting access to key technologies to the departments, processes and people that need them most.

First announced at IBM Think, Watson AI is now available anywhere. Wherever your business or agency works — on premises, on a public cloud, private cloud, hybrid or even in a competitor’s cloud — Watson AI is there.

Find out more on how to organize your data and bring information together for people who need it.