Athens nonprofits are ready for a technology upgrade that could help the area’s biggest social issues. They receive more than 20,000 phone calls each year about a range of services, such as utility bill assistance, foreclosure guidance, transportation and meals for seniors. Though they’ve been able to track a few trends over the years, it’s tough to figure out specifics, such as peak call times and where the highest need is.
But that’s changing this fall. Community Connection of Northeast Georgia is launching a new database and website that will give callers, donors and volunteers a place to find the latest information about Athens services. As callers continue to use the 211 information hotline, Community Connection will record demographics, pinpoint major intersections and identify hotspots.
“How can we translate this hotline service that is being rendered obsolete by the advent of technology?” asks Fenwick Broyard, Community Connection’s executive director. “How do we maintain relevance in our community, address the emerging needs and partner with other area agencies to have a greater impact?”
Broyard is working with the Urban Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C., to customize its Community Platform software to collect location and needs-based data. Though Community Connection serves 12 counties in Northeast Georgia, the site is rolling out in Athens first in mid-September. Think of it as a “big data” approach to social services.
During the first year, Broyard wants to map out the health of the community, which means more than physical health. It will require plotting out where nonprofit offices are in town and determining easier ways for people to find services. Community Connection and the Athens Health Network—a nonprofit that’s working to address low-income health care—will dispatch street outreach teams with iPads to survey residents in different neighborhoods. At that time, they’ll talk about nonprofit services and offer free blood pressure and blood sugar checks. For example, one group will travel to Our Daily Bread to map out homeless services with those seeking help.
“We want to hear more about what people are experiencing,” Broyard says. “These key interviews and participatory mapping exercises will tell us more about what’s going on behind the numbers.”
This story-mapping technique has been used to help agencies in Baltimore, MD, and Memphis, TN, get a better handle on needs in the community, says David Hooker, a community engagement specialist with the Fanning Institute.
“People feel like they’ve been heard when they talk about what happened to them between the time they needed help until they time they got the help,” he says. “And we get a better idea of the challenges they experienced at the personal level, such as transportation and communication barriers.”
Community Connection teams will tote large maps of Athens and ask residents to talk about their problems and point out where they find answers. In that moment, the teams will identify disparities and also raise awareness about community resources that aren’t well known.
In a recent interaction, an Athens agency worker listened to moms talk about their struggle to find help for their children with asthma. The worker was able to tell them about an asthma clinic around the corner from their homes. “Lack of awareness is the same as lack of access,” Broyard says. “We’ve got a problem. Let’s bring these services to the people.”
The new software will also give area donors a way to pinpoint need and decide how to give. The Athens Area Community Foundation will work with churches, civic groups and foundations to address the big issues—creating a thriving local economy, adequate transportation, affordable housing, clean water, neighborhood safety, literacy. “This is a chance to hold a mirror up to ourselves. Is what we’re doing working?” says Delene Porter, foundation executive director. “What do we need to put into place to really move the needle?”
Several years of data will help them build on this year’s baseline numbers. On the funding side, it will give agencies real-time, location-specific data for grant applications in a way they’ve never had before.
At a meeting in August, several agency leaders asked questions and discussed the benefits as Broyard showcased the new software. Officials from Teen Matters, Athens Community Council on Aging, Clarke County schools and the Athens Regional Library system attended and expressed interest in joining the effort.
“I have binders thick [with] data, and each agency has primary and secondary data of their own,” says Tim Johnson, executive director of Family Connection-Communities in Schools of Athens. “This is just one way to combine information and see our biggest needs.”
In the next few months, area agencies will update online information pages to create a “one-stop” website about agency offerings. Themed pages, such as early childhood, seniors, veterans and literacy, will provide more searchable information by interest. In the next year, the site will include details about volunteer opportunities and a comprehensive calendar featuring events such as school supply giveaways, restaurant percentage nights and civic group meetings. It’ll take agency collaboration and effort to get these facets off the ground.
“A key element in any collaborative initiative is not only trust but a mutual agreement about what the goal is,” says John Jeffreys, board member for Athens Tutorial Program. “There must be open dialogue and a specific plan of action.”
So far, Jeffreys is excited about the idea of collaborating to map out services and needs, especially for at-risk students. “This sounds like a robust database,” he says. “If you have data, you can drive behavior.”
That includes decision-making behavior for both local agencies and local government, says Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Kelly Girtz. “It’s a huge benefit to have mapping on the ground level for our service providers,” he says. “And at the macro level, it’ll help us better direct county funds and staff resources.”
The new software will provide immediate opportunities for initial analysis, Broyard says. The system includes Census data and national statistics to give context to local numbers. Athens will be the 14th community in the country to adopt this platform to identify hiccups in the social service process. “Our mission is to ensure that no need goes unmet,” he says. “But the truth is, needs go unmet here every day.”
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