Stepping Outside HMIS

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Sometimes the best ideas come to us when we are pressed, when our tools are unavailable, or when every usual path seems blocked. It is these kinds of moments that we have to rethink our goals, find new tools, and forge new ways.

This is where I find myself with the reporting tools I have been using and blogging about over the years. By clinging to the goal of keeping as much of our custom reporting inside of HMIS as possible, I have limited myself and the possibilities at hand. While it is comfortable keeping everything inside of HMIS, it is not always possible to do this and get the reporting you need. There are, of course, good and bad things that come along with housing your main reporting process outside of your HMIS software, whatever that may be. Here is a breakdown of the advantages and disadvantages:

Great things about reporting only from within your HMIS software:

  1. Everything done inside your HMIS software has system-wide security rules applied to it. The data you are using in reporting is only accessible to those who are allowed to see it. Once you pull system-wide client-level data out of your HMIS system (de-identified or not), you are bypassing that security. If you are administering a completely open system, this is a non-issue (as long as we're talking about aggregate or de-identified data), but it is rare that a system is totally and completely open. When you are creating your reporting inside your HMIS system, you do not have to consider all of these questions prior to publishing reports for users to run.
  2. You know exactly who can run your reports: those users with active logins in good standing. In this way, you can write to your audience in a way you could not if you were having to consider all the possible audiences of a more public report.
  3. Depending on your software, the reports in your HMIS are refreshed at least daily with no effort on your part.
  4. It would be easier for future data analysts in your position to figure out what your intent and processes are. (We can't live forever you know!) If you export data to create a Tableau report but you don't write down HOW you did it, or where the export came from, or what steps you took between the export and how it was used in the Tableau report, then all the work you did will have to be completely redone. If all of your major reporting is inside your HMIS, there is not a need to be as meticulous about it since there is not likely a string of steps unfamiliar to the new person.

Great things about using a different system for your reporting:

  1. Expands the range of reporting possibilities. I have used Qlik Cloud (internally), Tableau (publicly), PowerPivot (internally), Access, and obviously Excel to arrange and present data. These have generally been one-off reports published on a regular basis, like the Point in Time Count, and internally, our Data Quality metrics. This allows you to choose reporting software based on your needs, not whether it's conveniently attached to your HMIS software. Maps? Easy! Colorful insightful responsive reporting? Done!
  2. This one is the flip-side of #2 above about knowing exactly who can run your reports. While creating reports for a broader audience can force you to have to consider and be clear about who the audience of a particular report is, opening up the accessibility of your reporting makes the data available to users and non-users alike. The extra effort to accommodate non-users can really improve communication.
  3. Creating reporting outside of HMIS makes major upgrades or other system changes much smoother, especially if you are simply needing basic export data from HMIS. Basic exports from your HMIS software are much quicker to rebuild (or have rebuilt) in a different system than rebuilding complete, accurate, and presentable reports.
  4. Whatever new tool you decide on will likely have its own community that you can share ideas with.

So from these points, I have come around to the point of view that as long as you are willing to be thoughtful about the security of the reports you are serving, and you keep meticulous and up to date notes on your process (or use a version-control software like Git!), and as long as you are ok to manually refresh the data, then you are freeeeee!

I want to be clear that I TOTALLY realize that exporting data from HMIS and reporting on it in another tool is not a new idea at all. I've been doing it for a couple of years now, and other CoCs have been doing this for ages. But I'm blogging about my own situation and this is me trying to take that birdcage off my head! :)

Another point is, for me at least, the state of my exported data up until now has been already transformed in ART so that when I upload it to Tableau (or whatever else), very little in the way of calculations, buckets, or whatever else, needs to be done. Since ART is becoming unavailable to me, I will need a different system that I can use to transform the data.

My next blog post will be about my current plan about how to build a process that will address these matters. Using HMIS to export the data, I plan to use R as my main data wrangling tool so that the tidied data can then be used in more meaningful, accessible, and well-designed reports.

These times that feel stressful and full of doubt can bring you to interesting new ideas and possibilities, so may as well embrace it.

If there are any other R-users in homeless services, please leave a comment so we can trade ideas and code!!