April 5, 2018

Our story so far: pursuing evidence based impact

Centre for Homelessness Impact


Since our soft launch before Christmas, we’ve been introducing people to our mission, approach and early projects. It’s been a busy time as we prepare to launch fully in the spring. Watch above how Ligia Teixeira shared our story at a recent Advisory Panel meeting in Edinburgh.

We are trying to build the infrastructure we need to tackle homelessness better. We believe that three things need to happen for lasting change to take place:

Because we suspect the last one might be the most challenging, we like to start by talking about it. And we like to do this by telling a story about the power of challenging assumptions. It’s a story about a very different field and a very different time – aviation during the Second World War. The star of the story is a mathematician who was called to contribute to the war effort: Abraham Wald.*

Bomber aircraft in Europe were being asked to take massive risks. The probability of a pilot surviving a tour of duty was slim for certain periods of the conflict. Aviation officials spent lots of time collecting and analysing data from returning planes and the pattern seemed clear. Many of the airplanes were riddled with gunfire all over the wings and fuselage. But they were not being hit in the cockpit or tail. The longer the incident reporting continued, the clearer the pattern became.

So the military command came up with what seemed like the perfect plan: they would place armour on the areas of the plane where there were holes. This is where the bullets were impacting and therefore, where the planes needed additional protection.

But Abraham Wald wasn’t so sure. He asked a simple but important question: where are the missing holes? Wald was pretty sure he knew. The missing bullet holes were on the missing planes. The reason planes were coming back with fewer hits to the engine is that planes that got hit in the engine weren’t coming back. The pattern of holes, far from indicating where the armour needed to be added to the aircraft, was actually revealing the area where it did not. The insight turned out to be of profound importance to the entire war effort and many lives were saved as a result.

This is a powerful example because it reveals some key insights about evidence:

The last point inspires involving people with different life experiences and skills. Wald’s critical thinking habits brought him an insight the officers (who had vastly more knowledge and understanding of aerial combat) had missed. He asked, “What assumptions are we making? And are they justified?”

The airline industry as a whole is a big source of inspiration for us. The rate of aircraft accidents is at a historical low.** Why is that? Something that didn’t happen by chance. In large part it’s thanks to the way in which data and evidence is used to continually improve performance. For example, in the aftermath of an accident, the investigation report is available to everyone – airlines have a legal responsibility to implement the recommendations and every pilot in the world has free access to the data.

Imagine for a second that we applied the same rigour to the homelessness issue. Although we’re not talking about engineering, there is nevertheless a lot to be learned by individuals and organisations in the homelessness sector.  Across the country our collective efforts make a real difference. But despite all this great work, too many people face the trauma of waking up homeless each day. And the positive impact of our work has changed little over the past decades.

Our Centre for Homelessness Impact is here to help change that. So we can be confident that our values aren’t only articulated by our efforts but by our outcomes. So we know that we’re working towards ending – as opposed to managing – homelessness. Our mission is to accelerate the end of homelessness by focusing on what works. By championing the creation and use of better evidence.

By starting a movement that will lead to greater learning and experimentation across the sector, we hope to move faster towards a future without homelessness. We don’t believe this is something we can do on our own and we don’t intend to try. The challenge in a country like ours is this:

It’s not all bad news. Homelessness is finally back on the political agenda. And over recent years, in all UK nations, there’s been a growing awareness that the ideal solution would be to prevent people from losing their homes in the first place. Finally, thanks to the extraordinary work of so many policy-makers, practitioners, researchers and others – we now know more than ever before about what works to help solve or prevent homelessness. But we can do more.

Part of the problem is that we often know what problems need to be solved – but may not be making the right kinds of investments to address them. Why? Because we often don’t know what the right kinds of investments are – the evidence is lacking. In other fields, from medicine to aeronautics, we’ve improved our understanding of what works by applying scientific methods. The same is increasingly being done to help address social problems, so why not homelessness?

We have a lot to learn when it comes to evaluation from fields like medicine, international development and even the private sector. We will be talking in more detail about each one of them in future posts as well as other key sources of inspiration for our work.

We will officially launch in May 2018 and our first priority is to build an infrastructure for learning. We will take a 'what works' approach in our first year, to ensure that everything we do is as useful as possible to those in the sector trying to work as effectively as possible.

Specific projects we’re working on right now include mapping what evidence is currently available, co-producing standards of evidence and the digital tools needed to enable policymakers, commissioners and practitioners make better use of data and evidence. Our new centre will build the evidence of what’s working and more importantly, what’s not – to meet the challenge of ending homelessness better. Currently an important part of what is missing for lasting change is an evidence-informed, structured approach that facilitates quality improvements and service development. Our Outcomes and Evidence Framework and Tools will provide a new mechanism for change, drawing on existing research and development tools and applying them in new ways to set a higher bar for service development and evaluation.

As we grow, we’re committed to growing an evidence-based, collaborative, learning culture. Do reach out if you have any questions – and sign up to our newsletter at the bottom of this page and join our community while you’re here.

* For a comprehensive account of this story and more information about Wald see Jordan Ellenberg (2015) "How Not To Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking"

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