Later On

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Walkies—and heart rate

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I’ve mentioned that I am again Nordic walking, and today I lengthened the route a bit: 45 minutes, 4874 steps, a cadence of 108.3, an improvement over the 105.8 I started with 5 days ago.

I also just got a fancy new scale. I had a Withings wi-fi scale that finally died (I’ve had it for a decade), and I got a Withings Body+ scale that has all sorts of readings, with a companion smartphone app that can take your pulse using the camera (with you fingertip pressed against the camera lense).

I turn out to have a slow pulse rate, assuming I’m doing it right. Immediately after awakening it was 47 bpm, and after moving around and making breakfast it was 58. I took it just now immediately after finishing the walk and it was 91 bpm.

After a 15-minute rest, it dropped to 80bpm.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 March 2019 at 12:08 pm

Good enough to eat? The toxic truth about modern food

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Bee Wilson writes in the Guardian:

Pick a bunch of green grapes, wash it, and put one in your mouth. Feel the grape with your tongue, observe how cold and refreshing it is: the crisp flesh, and the jellylike interior with its mild, sweet flavour.

Eating grapes can feel like an old pleasure, untouched by change. The ancient Greeks and Romans loved to eat them, as well as to drink them in the form of wine. The Odyssey describes “a ripe and luscious vine, hung thick with grapes”. As you pull the next delicious piece of fruit from its stalk, you could easily be plucking it from a Dutch still life of the 17th century, where grapes are tumbled on a metal platter with oysters and half-peeled lemons.

But look closer at this bunch of green grapes, cold from the fridge, and you see that they are not unchanged after all. Like so many other foods, grapes have become a piece of engineering designed to please modern eaters. First of all, there are almost certainly no seeds for you to chew or spit out (unless you are in certain places such as Spain where seeded grapes are still part of the culture). Strains of seedless varieties have been cultivated for centuries, but it is only in the past two decades that seedless has become the norm, to spare us the dreadful inconvenience of pips.

Here is another strange new thing about grapes: the ones in the supermarket such as Thompson Seedless and Crimson Flame are always sweet. Not bitter, not acidic, not foxy like a Concord grape, not excitingly aromatic like one of the Muscat varieties, but just plain sweet, like sugar. On biting into a grape, the ancients did not know if it would be ripe or sour. The same was true, in my experience, as late as the 1990s. It was like grape roulette: a truly sweet one was rare and therefore special. These days, the sweetness of grapes is a sure bet, because in common with other modern fruits such as red grapefruit and Pink Lady apples, our grapes have been carefully bred and ripened to appeal to consumers reared on sugary foods. Fruit bred for sweetness does not have to be less nutritious, but modern de-bittered fruits tend to contain fewer of the phytonutrients that give fruits and vegetables many of their protective health benefits. Such fruit still gives us energy, but not necessarily the health benefits we would expect.

The very fact that you are nibbling seedless grapes so casually is also new. I am old enough to remember a time when grapes – unless you were living in a grape-producing country – were a special and expensive treat. But now, millions of people on average incomes can afford to behave like the reclining Roman emperor of film cliche, popping grapes into our mouths one by one. Globally, we both produce and consume twice as many as we did in the year 2000. They are an edible sign of rising prosperity, because fruit is one of the first little extras that people spend money on when they start to have disposable income. Their year-round availability also speaks to huge changes in global agriculture. Fifty years ago, table grapes were a seasonal fruit, grown in just a few countries and only eaten at certain times of year. Today, they are cultivated globally and never out of season.

Almost everything about grapes has changed, and fast. And yet they are the least of our worries when it comes to food, just one tiny element in a much larger series of kaleidoscopic transformations in how and what we eat that have happened in recent years. These changes are written on the land, on our bodies and on our plates (insofar as we even eat off plates any more).

For most people across the world, life is getting better but diets are getting worse. This is the bittersweet dilemma of eating in our times. Unhealthy food, eaten in a hurry, seems to be the price we pay for living in liberated modern societies. Even grapes are symptoms of a food supply that is out of control. Millions of us enjoy a freer and more comfortable existence than that of our grandparents, a freedom underpinned by an amazing decline in global hunger. You can measure this life improvement in many ways, whether by the growth of literacy and smartphone ownership, or the rising number of countries where gay couples have the right to marry. Yet our free and comfortable lifestyles are undermined by the fact that our food is killing us, not through lack of it but through its abundance – a hollow kind of abundance.

With Brexit, food worries in the UK have become political, with panicked discussions of stockpiling and the spectre of US imports of chlorine-treated chicken on the horizon. Woody Johnson, the US ambassador to the UK, has dismissed these worries, suggesting that US food standards are nothing to be concerned about. But the bigger question is not whether American standards are lower than those in Britain, but why food standards across the world have been allowed to sink so dramatically.

What we eat now is a greater cause of disease and death in the world than either tobacco or alcohol. In 2015 around 7 million people died from tobacco smoke, and 2.75 million from causes related to alcohol, but 12m deaths could be attributed to “dietary risks” such as diets low in vegetables, nuts and seafood or diets high in processed meats and sugary drinks. This is paradoxical and sad, because good food – good in every sense, from flavour to nutrition – used to be the test by which we judged the quality of life. A good life without good food should be a logical impossibility.

Where humans used to live in fear of plague or tuberculosis, now the leading cause of mortality worldwide is diet. Most of our problems with eating come down to the fact that we have not yet adapted to the new realities of plenty, either biologically or psychologically. Many of the old ways of thinking about diet no longer apply, but it isn’t clear yet what it would mean to adapt our appetites and routines to the new rhythms of life. We take our cues about what to eat from the world around us, which becomes a problem when our food supply starts to send us crazy signals about what is normal. “Everything in moderation” doesn’t quite cut it in a world where the “everything” for sale in the average supermarket has become so sugary and so immoderate.

At no point in history have edible items been so easy to obtain, and in many ways this is a glorious thing. Humans have always gone out and gathered food, but never before has it been so simple for us to gather anything we want, whenever we want it, from sachets of black squid ink to strawberries in winter. We can get sushi in Buenos Aires, sandwiches in Tokyo and Italian food everywhere. Not so long ago, to eat genuine Neapolitan pizza, a swollen-edged disc of dough cooked in a blistering oven, you had to go to Naples. Now, you can find Neapolitan pizza – made using the right dough blasted in an authentic pizza oven – as far afield as Seoul and Dubai.

Talking about what has gone wrong with modern eating is delicate, because food is a touchy subject. No one likes to feel judged about their food choices, which is one of the reasons why so many healthy eating initiatives fail. The rise of obesity and diet-related disease around the world has happened hand in hand with the marketing of fast food and sugary sodas, of processed meats and branded snack foods. As things stand, our culture is far too critical of the individuals who eat junk foods and not critical enough of the corporations who profit from selling them. A survey of more than 300 international policymakers found that 90% of them still believed that personal motivation – AKA willpower – was a very strong cause of obesity. This is absurd.

It makes no sense to presume that there has been a sudden collapse in willpower across all ages and ethnic groups since the 1960s. What has changed most since the 60s is not our collective willpower but the marketing and availability of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods. Some of these changes are happening so rapidly it’s almost impossible to keep track. Sales of fast food grew by 30% worldwide from 2011 to 2016 and sales of packaged food grew by 25%. Somewhere in the world, a new branch of Domino’s Pizza opened every seven hours in 2016.

But this story isn’t just about one kind of food or one set of people. Across the board, across all social classes, most of us eat and drink more than our grandparents did, whether we are cooking a leisurely dinner at home from fresh ingredients or grabbing a takeaway from a fast food chain. Plates are bigger than they were 50 years ago, our idea of a portion is inflated and wine glasses are vast. It has become normal to punctuate the day with snacks and to quench our thirst with calorific liquids, from green juice and detox shots to craft sodas (which are just like any other soda, only more expensive). As the example of grapes shows, we don’t just eat more burgers and fries than our grandparents, we also eat more fruit and avocado toast and frozen yoghurt, more salad dressing and many, many more “guilt-free” kale crisps.

Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at Chapel Hill University, North Carolina, can identify the year when snacking took off in China. It was 2004. Before that, the Chinese consumed very little between meals except green tea and hot water. In 2004, Popkin suddenly noticed a marked transition from the old Chinese ways of two or three meals a day towards a new pattern of eating. In collaboration with a team of Chinese nutritionists, he has been following the Chinese diet in snapshots of data every two or three years, conducting regular surveys of around 10,000-12,000 people. Back in 1991, Popkin found that at certain fixed times of year, there were treats to supplement the daily diet. During the mid-autumn festival, for example, people would eat moon cakes made from lard-enriched pastry stuffed with sweetened bean paste. But such feasting foods were ritualised and rare, nothing like a casual cereal bar.

In 2004, out of nowhere, as incomes rose, Chinese habits of snacking spread dramatically. The number of Chinese adults between 19 and 44 describing themselves as eating snacks over a three-day period nearly doubled, while the number of children between two and six eating snacks rose almost as much. Based on the most recent data, more than two-thirds of Chinese children now report snacking during the day. This is an eating revolution.

The curious thing about snacking in China is that to start with it actually made people healthier, because they were snacking on fruit: fresh tangerines and kumquats, bayberries and lychees, pineapple and pomelo. These were the foods that people had always aspired to eat, but couldn’t afford in the past. Phase two of snacking in China has been very different. “The marketing comes in,” Popkin tells me, “and boom! boom! boom! the snacks are not healthy any more.” As of 2015, the commercial savoury snack food market in China was worth more than $7bn. When I travelled to Nanjing last year, I saw people consuming the same Starbucks Frappuccinos and blueberry muffins as in London.

China is not alone. Almost every country in the world has experienced radical changes to its patterns of eating over the past five, 10 and 50 years. For a long time, nutritionists have held up the “Mediterranean diet” as a healthy model for people in all countries to follow. But recent reports from the World Health Organisation suggest that even in Spain, Italy and Crete, most children no longer eat anything like a “Mediterranean diet” rich in olive oil and fish and tomatoes. These Mediterranean children, who are, as of 2017, among the most overweight in Europe, now drink sugary colas and eat packaged snack foods and have lost the taste for fish and olive oil. In every continent, there has been a common set of changes from savoury foods to sweet ones, from meals to snacks, dinners cooked at home to meals eaten out, or takeaways. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 March 2019 at 1:44 pm

In Schools All Over the Country, America’s Kids Are Exposed to Water Tainted by Toxic Lead

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Jessica Glenza and Oliver Milman report in Mother Jones:

When Shakima Thomas came home one day last October, she found a piece of paper wedged in her door telling her the water in her home could be contaminated with lead.

Thomas, a social worker in Newark, New Jersey, knew what it meant—that the tap water she and her four-year-old son Bryce had been drinking could have profound effects on their health.

“My kid loves water—he loves it—so it was difficult telling him not to drink the water,” Thomas said. “He’s four years old and doesn’t understand.”

A century-long war to remove lead from Americans’ daily lives has been successful on some fronts, but a lack of regulation, political will and funding has meant the contamination of drinking water remains a public health crisis.

There “is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe,” the World Health Organization has warned. The heavy metal, used widely in the past manufacture of water pipes, can cause serious health problems in adults including high blood pressure and kidney damage as it accumulates in the body at high levels of exposure.

But children are particularly vulnerable to its toxic effects, which can affect the development of the brain and nervous system. Even low levels can impair a child’s IQ, academic achievement and ability to pay attention. US studies have shown lead-exposed children are more likely to be aggressive, leading to bullying, truancy and even jail.

“Unfortunately, it’s a problem that was swept under the rug for many years, even though many experts were well aware there was excess of lead in their tap water,” said Erik Olson, a senior director of advocacy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, about lead in schools in particular.

“Lead is a neurotoxin, it drops IQ scores, it’s linked to aberrant behavior and violence,” said Howard Kessler, a retired doctor based in Tallahassee, Florida, who is part of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

“The concern is that while we are not taking much action, children are being damaged on a generational level. We are supposed to provide them with a safe environment, not poison them,” he said.

Elevated levels of lead have been found in schools across the US in the wake of the toxic water scandal that has roiled Flint, Michigan, since 2014. In Newark, officials had first found lead in school water fountains and taps nearly two years before Thomas was warned of its possible presence in her drinking water at home.

More than half of public schools in Atlanta were found to have high levels of lead, in some cases 15 times above the federal limit for water systems. Schools in BaltimorePortland and Chicago were all found to have significant amounts of lead in drinking water.

The most startling problems arose in Detroit, where the school district shut off water in all 106 school buildings last year. A total of 57 Detroit schools tested positive for lead, copper or both. Students were told to switch to bottled water. The city is now looking to spend $2m on new filters and water fountains.

Communities outside major urban areas have not escaped exposure to lead. Two dozen schools and daycare centers in Maine were found to have high levels, while authorities in Vermont have vowed to test more of its schools after a report found 16 of them had lead contamination.

Often, when schools detect lead in fountains or taps, they are simply temporarily shut down, and children provided with bottled water, or fitted with filters—short-term solutions which experts say have serious flaws.

For Newark’s residents, the water crisis means a burden they can scarcely bear. While some neighborhoods have experienced a renaissance in property values, more than one in four residents live in poverty, double the national average.

It took Thomas, who relies on public transportation, almost two weeks to get a water filter from the city after a computer erroneously showed she had already received one. While filters provide only temporary relief from lead-contaminated water, they are often necessary as cities and residents work together to remove dangerous lead plumbing connecting homes to water mains.

“It’s really unfair and I think it’s sad,” said Thomas. “Kids have to go to school with the water being toxic, and they have to come home and the water is toxic. I just think it’s poor leadership.”

In June, the Natural Resources Defense Council launched a lawsuit against the city, joined by a group of Newark public school teachers, seeking to force its hand in confronting the problem. Mayor Ras Baraka has called on President Trump not to build a wall—but to use that money to fix water infrastructure in places like Newark.

Yvette Jordan is a public school history teacher and one of a handful of plaintiffs in that lawsuit against the city of Newark.

“There wasn’t the public outcry because people were so overloaded with the vicissitudes of life,” she said. The reaction was, ” ‘I gotta worry about water too? Are you kidding me?’ ”

When Thomas found the notice stuffed in her door jamb she was probably unaware a 1988 law—the Lead Contamination and Control Act signed by Ronald Reagan nearly 30 years to the day before she found that slip of paper—was meant to prevent this.

In the US, lead was nearly phased out of gasoline and paint by the mid-1980s. This, alone, was a huge public health victory that was years in the making, and showed nearly immediate benefits.

“When we took lead out of gasoline, the blood lead of Americans went down by 80 percent,” said Ellen Silbergeld, a MacArthur Foundation genius award winner who was at the forefront of toxicology research and advocacy at the time.

“In my life working on environmental problems, I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said. “Within three months you saw the results. That’s astounding.”

After removing lead from the welds of tin cans, gasoline and paint, “It was almost like, ‘Hey! We solved this,’” said Silbergeld. “We were really overlooking the potential for lead in drinking water.”

The LCCA was meant to further these public health laws by requiring schools and daycares to test for lead-in-water, but in 1996, it was unexpectedly gutted in a New Orleans court. Two families whose children were exposed to lead-tainted water at school sued Louisiana for failing to notify schools in a timely manner about lead-lined water coolers. They won in lower court, but the state appealed, and they were sent before a three-judge panel in the fifth circuit.

Judge John M Duhé, a Reagan appointee, wrote the decision for the majority, and it meant schools no longer had to test for lead in water. Without the obligation to test water, schools and daycare centers did almost nothing to address the problem for decades.

The scale of the problem is only gradually becoming apparent. Across the US, four in 10 school districts did not test for lead in the previous 12 months, a 2017 report by the US Government Accountability Office found.

Of the 43 percent of districts that had tested, which cover 35 million students, more than one-third found lead. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 March 2019 at 7:55 am

Scientists Found Worrisome New Evidence About Roundup and Cancer

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Tom Philpott writes in Mother Jones:

The long-simmering debate about whether the world’s most widely usedherbicide causes cancer has bubbled up anew. Glyphosate is the key component of weedkillers such as Monsanto’s Roundup. On March 12, attorneys made closing arguments in San Francisco on the first phase of a closely watched lawsuit against German chemical giant Bayer, which acquired Monsanto last year. Plaintiff Edwin Hardeman claims his use of Roundup caused him to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), a type of cancer.

The jury is expected to decide Friday whether glyphosate-based weedkillers were a “substantial factor” in causing Hardeman’s cancer, as US District Court Judge Vince Chhabria put in his instructions to jurors. If they rule unanimously in Hardeman’s favor, the trial’s second phase will consider Monsanto’s liability in the case. A split decision from the jury will result in a mistrial and likely trigger a new trial for Hardeman.

Major regulatory agencies in the United States and Canada have concluded that glyphosate is not carcinogenic. But the chemical remains under scrutiny. Just weeks before the start of the Hardeman trial, several researchers who once served on a government panel assessing glyphosate’s safety released a new study suggesting people exposed to large doses of the chemical have a heightened risk for NHL. Two of the expert witnesses in the Hardeman case cited the study during their testimony.

The researchers performed a meta-analysis of the epidemiological research around glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In a meta-analysis, scientists combine and analyze data from multiple studies and look for broad trends in the research. The team found a “compelling link” between exposure to glyphosate-based weedkillers and NHL. The study concluded that people exposed to glyphosate at the highest levels have 41 percent higher risk of contracting non-Hodgkin lymphoma than people who aren’t, a measure known as “relative risk” in epidemiology.

Rachel Shaffer, a co-author of the paper and a PhD student in environmental toxicology at the University of Washington, put that number into context ina blog post: The results suggest that people who are highly exposed to glyphosate have a roughly 2.8 percent risk of contracting NHL, versus about 2 percent for the overall population.

A spokeswoman for Bayer flatly disputed the study’s findings, writing in an emailed statement that it contains “no scientifically valid evidence that contradicts the conclusions of the extensive body of science demonstrating that glyphosate-based herbicides are not carcinogenic.”

Agencies including the US Environmental Protection AgencyHealth Canada, and the European Food Safety Authority have concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer, and they continue to allow its widespread use. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, on the other hand, decided in 2015 that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” That finding prompted charges that IARC had reached that conclusion by willfully ignoring then-unpublished research that might have exonerated glyphosate, a controversy my colleague Kiera Butler laid out here. IARC, in turn, has pushed back against those allegations.

Monsanto grew into one of the globe’s largest agribusiness firms largely on the strength of its blockbuster glyphosate weedkillers and associated products. In buying the smaller US company, Bayer inherited not only those assets but also lawsuits from approximately 11,200 plaintiffs claiming “personal injuries resulting from exposure to those products, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma,” Bayer noted in its 2018 annual report. Last August, a California jury awarded $289 million in damages to a groundskeeper who argued glyphosate exposure gave him NHL. (A judge later reduced the award to $78 million, but didn’t strike down the jury’s judgement that Monsanto had acted with malice—a ruling Bayer is appealing.) Bayer stock has lost nearly 30 percent of its value since last August’s big jury award—a possible measure of just how much the question of glyphosate’s status as a carcinogen hangs over the company.

Glyphosate has had a rocky road through the US regulatory process, a journey all too familiar to three of the new NHL study’s co-authors: Berkeley toxicologist Luoping Zhang, Mount Sinai epidemiologist Emanuela Taioli, and University of Washington biostatistician Lianne Sheppard. All three scientists served on the EPA Scientific Advisory Panel that evaluated the chemical in 2016. While the EPA ultimately declared the herbicide non-carcinogenic, the 15-member panel was divided, as the EPA’s final report on the panel’s feedback and the transcript of its December 2016 meetings show.

Judging the carcinogenic potential of a pesticide is tricky. For one, you can’t ethically dose people with potentially harmful chemicals and then see what happens. And even if you could, cancers can take years to develop. So researchers generally take a three-pronged approach: They study populations known to have been exposed to the chemical and look for disease patterns, a practice called epidemiology; they study the effects on animals like rats or mice dosed with the chemicals; and they test whether the chemical shows potential in a lab setting to harm a cell’s DNA and thus potentially cause cancer, also called genotoxicity.

The EPA’s scientific advisory panel was charged with sifting through studies of all three types and making a judgement based on the weight of evidence. On all three fronts, dissenting voices emerged. The final report noted that based on studies of populations known to be exposed to the herbicide, “some Panel members believed that there is limited but suggestive evidence of a positive association between glyphosate exposure and risk of NHL.” On animal research, the report found that in “the view of some Panel members, there are sufficient data to conclude glyphosate is a rodent carcinogen.” On genotoxicity, members pointed to “remaining uncertainty” about several potential ways glyphosate might damage cells.

“Far from settling the matter” of the carcinogenicity of the chemical, “eight of the 15 experts expressed significant concerns about the EPA’s benign view of glyphosate, and three more expressed concerns about the data,” Bloomberg Businessweek reported in 2017. Ultimately, the EPA “tied themselves in knots to reach the conclusion that they reached—the evidence and the conclusions just didn’t align well at all,” Sheppard, a panel member and co-author of the new NHL study, told me.

Frustrated by the process, Sheppard and co-panelists Zhang and Taioli decided to band together and investigate what they thought was a particular point of concern in the existing epidemiological research: whether glyphosate might be linked to increased risk to non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Three previous recent meta-analyses had detected an association—see herehere, and here. (All three surfaced in testimony during the Hardeman trial.) When Sheppard and her co-authors embarked on their own meta-analysis, they were able to incorporate an important cache of data that the earlier studies had not: the latest results of the Agricultural Health Study, a large, multi-decade project led by scientists at the US National Cancer Institute to track health outcomes among US agricultural workers and their families.

The AHS results had previously been analyzed by a research team led by Gabriella Andreotti of the National Cancer Institute for a 2018 paper that found “no association” between glyphosate and cancer, “including NHL and its subtypes.”

Sheppard’s team focused on one subset of the same AHS data: the study participants who were exposed to the chemicals at the “highest biologically relevant” levels, with a long-enough time lag for cancer to develop. In their statistical analysis, Andreotti and her team sorted participants who had been exposed to glyphosate into two groups—those with a 20-year lag since exposure, and those with a five-year lag. Among those groups, they broke them into four groups, from least exposed to most exposed. Sheppard and her team used data from the highest-exposed, 20-year-lag subset. This group showed a . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2019 at 3:46 pm

Nordic walking taking hold again

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38.8 minutes today, 106 steps/minute. Beautiful day: shirtsleeves and note cloudless sky in photo below. Three of the blocks I walk along have a cherry tree in front of each house, both sides of the street.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2019 at 2:26 pm

Use the Dutch Reach to open your car door and save a cyclist

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Open your car door using the hand farther from the door: the hand away from the door. This requires you to twist so you can clearly see whether a cyclist is barreling down alongside the car. See this post.


In the video (clearly made by people for whom English is not a native language) there’s the statement “Reaching to open the door with the hand that’s furthest away,” which has two errors. First, when referring to distance, use “farther,” not “further” (which is used to refer to degree). Second, since one has two hands, not three or more, the comparative is used rather than the superlative. Correct would be: :”Reaching to open the door with the hand that’s farther away.”

Written by LeisureGuy

17 March 2019 at 7:00 am

Posted in Daily life, Health

3 cities in the U.S. have ended chronic homelessness: Here’s how they did i

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Adele Peters writes in Fast Company:

In late February, the city of Abilene, Texas, made an announcement: It had ended local veteran homelessness. It was the first community in the state and the ninth in the country to reach that goal, as part of a national program called Built for Zero. Now, through the same program, Abilene is working to end chronic homelessness. While homelessness might often be seen as an intractable problem because of its complexity–or one that costs more to solve than communities can afford–the program is proving that is not the case.

“By ending homelessness, we mean getting to a place where it’s rare, brief, and it gets solved correctly and quickly when it does happen,” says Rosanne Haggerty, president of Community Solutions, the nonprofit that leads the Built for Zero program. “That’s a completely achievable end state, we now see.” The nonprofit, which calls this goal “functional zero,” announced today that it is accelerating its work in 50 communities.

One key to the process is data, and a visual dashboard that lets agencies track people experiencing homelessness in real time. In Abilene, with a population a little more than 120,000, for example, the city located every homeless veteran, gathered information about each individual situation, and stored this information in a “by-name list” that was continually updated. “It basically just forced us to continuously look to change improvements to our system, and how to use real-time data to improve our performance,” says John Meier, the program manager for supportive services for veteran families for the West Central Texas Regional Foundation. “We’ve always had lots of data sitting around, but haven’t had it in one place and [haven’t been] utilizing it to our advantage.” Every agency in the city began working together and meeting to discuss how to get each veteran–21 people, as of February 2018–into housing. While watching the data, they could test interventions like working with local landlords and the public housing agency to prioritize people on the list. The average amount of time to house a veteran shrank from more than 40 days to 26. By November 2018, 10 months after joining the Built for Zero program, Abilene had reached the goal of “functional zero” for veteran homelessness. (It made the announcement in February in part because it was waiting for federal confirmation, which was delayed by the government shutdown.)

Community Solutions had previously worked with 186 cities in a campaign that got more than 100,000 homeless people into housing in less than four years. But it wanted to go further. “We got to a point where we helped communities house a lot more people and get better at housing people,” Haggerty says. “But we still didn’t see them ending homelessness, and that’s where Built for Zero came in. It really is a very radical idea that without real-time, person-specific information, communities just can’t pool everything they’ve got together and be accountable at solving the problem.”

The nonprofit partnered with the Tableau Foundation, a philanthropic arm of Tableau Software, to use the company’s data visualization tools. Being able to easily track the data helped communities in the program shift “from incremental improvement to transformational results,” Haggerty says. Tableau saw parallels to the work that it had done in Zambia to help the country track its work to eliminate malaria; before using a data visualization tool, the government there had struggled to see who was contracting malaria and how they were being treated. In planning meetings, the government had been using outdated data from the previous year. As in American cities tackling homelessness through multiple agencies, Zambia wasn’t seeing a systems-level view of the situation and couldn’t respond strategically. After it started working with real-time dashboards, it was able to reduce malaria deaths by more than 90%, and reduce malaria cases by more than 80%.

The company saw the potential for similar transformation of work on homelessness. “For decades, homelessness organizations would collect data, and they would send it to HUD,” says Neal Myrick, global head of the Tableau Foundation. “Once a year, HUD would produce a massive report that nobody was really reading. And the information wasn’t really usable to the people who needed it on the ground to make active decisions about what to do day-to-day to better solve the problem.”

Communities in the program use a coordinated approach. Bergen County, New Jersey, with a population of nearly 1 million, was the first in the country to end chronic homelessness, reaching the goal in 2017. (Six months earlier, it had also ended veteran homelessness.) The county created a “command center” that brought together various organizations working on homelessness, and then began using real-time data about each person experiencing homelessness so that everyone could work together to get them housed. Like many places, Bergen County also committed to a “housing first” approach, meaning that people move into permanent housing as a first step before also getting help with finding a job, mental healthcare, or other issues. The data revealed trends, like the fact that their population of those who were chronically homeless–homeless for more than a year–was growing because people were sitting on a waiting list for so long that they were passing the one-year threshold. The county was able to begin prioritizing those who were close the one-year mark to get them into housing faster; now, no one has “aged in” to chronic homelessness for months.

Some advocates for people experiencing homelessness are concerned about this type of data-gathering and the risk that data could be misused by law enforcement. In communities using the Built for Zero system, law enforcement may be part of a local team working on the problem, but typically doesn’t have access to the data. Community Solutions says that there haven’t been any cases of law enforcement trying to seize the data or use it inappropriately.

Continuing to use real-time data helps the county identify new problems that are emerging; right now, for example, they’re seeing an uptick in both young people and seniors who are homeless. “The data is so important because by the time you know it’s a problem, it’s too late,” says Julia Orlando, director of the Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Service Center. “So if you can start seeing trends before it’s a really bad problem, you can start adjusting your policies or trying to get additional services in your facility to try to address that.” For example, they can now start planning to add skilled nursing care to their shelter and searching for different types of grants to support eldercare.

The county had the resources to achieve the “functional zero” goal, Orlando says. But the focus of the program and its use of data helped it actually accomplish it. While cities and organizations working on the problem of homelessness often point to a lack of resources, it may be the case in many communities that the right resources exist–or can be mobilized–with a more strategic approach. “Once communities can actually see what’s going on, they can make informed decisions about where to put resources and where new resources are needed,” says Haggerty. In Montgomery County, Maryland, the government used specific data to say exactly how much money it needed to end veteran homelessness, and that helped get it the funding to reach the goal.

The next opportunity for cities or counties to join the program and get training will happen in October. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 March 2019 at 3:07 pm

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