App of the Month: United Way Centraide’s COVID-19 Radar

June 1, 2020 Dani Pacey

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for social services has increased sharply. To help people find food assistance agencies during the pandemic, United Way Centraide is engaged in a nationwide effort to develop resources to help local partners with service distribution. A special COVID-19 edition of United Way Centraide’s Radar app has been released using data from Centraide of Greater Montréal, and it’s our App of the Month for June.

Challenges and opportunities

Registered charities like the ones within United Way Centraide’s network deal with enormous amounts of data every day while doing their best to serve large numbers of people in need. Before the Radar project came to be, the enormous amounts of data captured by United Way Centraide partners across Canada were housed in many different unlinked spreadsheets, without a spatial component. Analysis projects to pinpoint the locations in greatest need took up to six months to complete, delaying funding distribution and making it difficult to make quick strategic and tactical decisions.

Another challenge was obtaining data from local partner organizations, as these organizations stored their data in different ways and in different spreadsheets—in “islands of information”. The risk of data loss during the already time-consuming information transfer process was high.

These difficulties, along with a desire to more clearly communicate funding decisions and neighbourhood needs to stakeholders, led to the initiation of the greater Radar project in 2017. The Radar project is a pan-Canadian initiative among three United Way Centraide partners (Centraide of Greater Montréal, United Way Calgary and Area, and United Way Greater Toronto). The goal of the project is essentially to map United Way Centraide’s distribution of funding to smaller community agencies against poverty in Canadian communities.

In an urgent and fast-evolving situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected employment and greatly increased need for social services, waiting for time-consuming spreadsheet-based data analysis would have jeopardized United Way Centraide’s ability to meet community needs. With a large amount of funding—both emergency funding from the federal government and funding coming from private donors—being distributed, they also needed to demonstrate to donors and stakeholders how United Way Centraide was investing COVID-19 emergency funding exactly where it was needed.

The solution

To do this, United Way Centraide worked with Esri Canada to develop the first COVID-19 release of their Radar app for Centraide Greater Montréal. Releases for Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver will be available next month. Esri Canada’s team developed the release, which is a relatively simple ArcGIS Online map, in just one week. The team combined Centraide Greater Montréal’s existing data; data from 211, Centraide Greater Montréal’s helpline; and demographic data from Environics Analytics with a spatial component. The result is a simple, easy-to-use interactive map that allows users to see where poverty sits in Greater Montréal and find their nearest food assistance agency.

The COVID-19 release of United Way Centraide’s Radar app for Greater Montréal allows users to see which food assistance agencies nearby are open. It also shows which areas of the city are most affected by poverty.

United Way Centraide is now able to use the resulting map to see which agencies in Greater Montréal are likely to be swamped, helping to allocate resources and increase transparency about where funding is going. Harnessing this data to produce insights fast saves time, effort and cost, allowing staff at Centraide of Greater Montréal to focus on urgent front-line work like fundraising and investment. Showing the correlation between physical location and determinants of poverty can also help them validate their distribution of resources. It can also show donors what they’re donating to.

A tour of the app

On opening the app, the user is greeted by United Way Centraide’s red-and-white customized branding in the top menu bar. Below that is an interactive map of Greater Montréal. With information in French and instructional tooltips in English, the app is bilingual, providing its target users with easy access to the app’s functions. By entering an address into the search box at the top left corner of the map, users can see nearby food assistance agencies and whether they’re open.

The app completely automates key steps in the complex analysis process that would previously have been done using multiple spreadsheets, saving time and allowing Centraide of Greater Montréal’s staff to focus on their number one goal: providing community support. This analysis is enabled by the app’s layers, which contain demographic data supplied by Environics Analytics. By default, the most visible layer is household income, shown in shades of brown. Other available layers include education level for 24- to 65-year-olds, population and political boundaries. The app allows users to shift the position and transparency of the layers so that they can see the locations of food assistance agencies in relation to these different determinants of poverty.

The layers available within the COVID-19 release of the Radar app for Greater Montréal include food assistance agencies, household income, level of education for people aged 24 to 65, population and political boundaries.

Users can also use the tool to get an at-a-glance view of the emergency funding available to specific areas of the city. By clicking the calculator button on the left-hand side of the app, users can zoom in and see the total number of organizations in a given area as well as the available funding.

A look to the future

The Radar project is a pan-Canadian effort. United Way Centraide will eventually develop releases for communities across Canada, allowing partners nationwide to more easily use data to drive their decision-making. The immediate next step in this process will be for United Way Centraide to build out versions of the app for Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary.

Future versions of the app will include layers summarizing the funding allocation per census area, as well as an automated data pipeline so that United Way Centraide doesn’t need to manually intervene to refresh the data feeding the map.

In the long run, United Way Centraide hopes to one day use artificial intelligence to model determinants of poverty to see what kind of an effect addressing them directly would have on neighbourhoods around the country. A tool like the Radar, paired with this type of modelling, could help United Way Centraide see the long-term effects of its poverty mitigation efforts on local communities. It could potentially show where improvements have been made as a direct result of United Way Centraide investment.

If you’re interested in learning more about United Way Centraide’s incredible work, visit their website. If you’d like to learn more about how organizations are responding to COVID-19 using Esri technology to improve response times, communicate with their people and pinpoint the locations of problems and opportunities, please visit Esri Canada’s COVID-19 Resource Library.

About the Author

Dani Pacey

Dani Pacey is a Marketing Specialist for Esri Canada. She digitized her first map at the tender age of 10 and has been fascinated by the relationships between people and places ever since. An avid technical communicator with degrees in Science & Technology Studies from York University and History of Science & Technology from the University of King's College, Dani has always blended science, social science and the humanities and loves bringing them all together to tell great stories about human life.

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