In 2002, Congress directed HUD to work with local communities to establish a system for collecting and reporting homeless data that would better illustrate the scope of homelessness and help to evaluate the effectiveness of HUD McKinney Act programs. Based on this requirement, HUD created a specification for Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS) and, as of 2004, required all continuum of care (CoC) communities that received McKinney Act funding to collect the required data and utilize an HMIS to communicate it to state and national officials.
Following a series of discussions, several state of New Jersey entities-the Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency (HMFA), the Department of Human Services (DHS), and the Department of Community Affairs (DCA)-decided to create an HMIS collaborative that would offer each of their departments, along with the state's 21 counties-or CoC communities-access to a shared reporting system. The system was to be developed and administered by the HMFA, through its Supportive Housing and Special Needs Division, which is based in Trenton and headed by Division Director Pamela McCrory.
Development of the HMIS collaborative program posed several challenges, she recalls: meeting HUD and HMIS requirements, bringing together diverse community agencies within each CoC community around a shared system, and providing the state of New Jersey with HMIS data sufficient to bolster its efforts to renew and increase its share of federal housing funds. “We created an advisory group with representatives from many different communities to identify the requirements needed to support a joint RFP, which was drafted by an IT consultant.” Among the key requirements for the NJHMIS software package were the ability to collect and store HUD-HMIS mandated data elements, generate HUD-HMIS mandated reports, and accommodate future growth.
Another key requirement was that the NJHMIS be web-based. This application service provider (ASP) approach to software acquisition would eliminate the burden of network management, the costs of software maintenance/upgrades, and limit the need for hardware, network, or other capital investments. Then, armed with the RFP, McCrory and the other departments entrusted the statewide HMIS implementation to a new HMIS project manager, Abram Hillson, who joined the project in May 2004.
Throughout a busy summer, Hillson led the product selection process, which was staffed primarily by a team of individuals representing NJHMIS collaborative partners. Because of hardware and bandwidth variables throughout the state, the selection team realized that they would probably make some tradeoffs, especially regarding the user interface. “There were a lot of graphical interfaces offered by the vendors that were beautiful,” says Hillson. “But we had to ask ourselves: ‘With a statewide implementation, do we really want to put out a package like this over the web?some of our community agencies-especially those in more rural areas-may still be using older hardware and dialup lines?’” He adds, “If we had specified an HMIS package that required all the latest bells and whistles to operate properly, the first thing we would have had to do would be to buy a lot of new hardware. And we weren't doing that.”
Knowing that a package that offered a “100 percent solution” could not operate on the mix of available hardware, Hillson and his team of HMIS partners decided that “any package that met 85 percent or better of our needs would probably be in the finals.” As they considered the many offerings submitted in response to the RFP, they evaluated vendors in terms of support, customization capabilities, responsiveness, and performance on similar projects.
After narrowing the finalists to three, the team then upped the ante. “We asked each of the three finalists for an on-site presentation and a ‘hands-on’ user training/demonstration session, conducted with actual end users,” he says. The group, consisting of individuals from the agency partners who planned to use the software, logged in on a range of hardware and network connections, accessing the HMIS packages through a secure (https:) web interface. “We really beat up on the systems-entering, compiling, and transmitting data. We tried to simulate the whole process and we looked at everything: How user friendly was the package? What was the system response time over the web' What were the pop-up screens like? Were the screen questions being asked in the proper sequence?”
Benefits of NJHMIS collaborative model
Application services provider (ASP) model:
Delivers software via secure web interface (https:)
Makes data accessible in virtually any location, on a range of web-capable computers or devices
Cuts capital costs for software and database (upgrades/maintenance), servers, and network hardware
Reduces software-, network-, and hardware-related staffing needs
Easy, secure data access:
All data stored centrally, with high security and redundancy
Confidentiality of personal protected information (PPI) supported via multiple levels of user access
Collects, stores, and delivers data for multiple programs (HMIS, HPRP, PATH) using a common record, configurable forms, and a variety of program-specific report formats
Supports upload and download of data using common, tab-delimited SQL files; routine uploads of HMIS data are made regularly by 225 of 230 NJHMIS collaborative partners