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Applying the element of WHERE to social change

Working for social change in the increasingly diverse Canadian neighbourhoods is not an easy task, especially when it comes to Ottawa, a city rich in difference. United Way/Centraide Ottawa is using location intelligence to overcome these challenges and making donating and receiving help more meaningful than ever.

Who should I ask for a major gift?

Where do my donors live?

Where should these donations be invested? What are the investment priorities in any given community and how will that change in coming times?

The questions are umpteen. And, while we may not have heard of terms like “donor intelligence” or “donor segmentation” in common parlance as yet, they seem to be catching up fast in the non-profit sector where big data, data mining and customer relationship management (CRM) have become a part of everyday marketing and operational strategies. Many charities have now started investing in dedicated data analytics teams in their organization who use location intelligence, data science and CRM tactics to streamline fundraising and community investments. If this seems unbelievable, take a look at how United Way/Centraide Ottawa has transformed in the last decade – making location-enabled, evidence-based investment decisions.

With an active and thriving presence for 80-plus years in the National Capital Region, United Way Ottawa is known for its work in improving people’s lives. Its mission is to bring people and resources together to build a strong, healthy and safe community for all.  While the general notion is that United Way invests in programs that help vulnerable individuals and families, few people know that this leading worldwide movement also works to put in place opportunities that encourage residents to contribute to their neighbourhood in meaningful ways.

Each United Way works independently in its city, but the overall national goals are pointed in the same direction – social change and a better life for everyone. United Way is committed to investing resources where they are needed most and where they will have the greatest impact. How does it make this happen?

Working for social betterment in a multidimensional city like Ottawa is not an easy task. With 103 diverse neighbourhoods, it’s a city rich in difference – in age, race, gender, socio-economic status, religion and more. Whether it’s fundraising or investing in community development, organizations need to find out how to overcome the challenges that are posed by a variety of pluralisms in any given geographical area; how to make sure that the money raised is accounted for, and invested intelligently.

This is where geographic information system (GIS) technology found its role.

Creating a Geographic Frame of Reference

In 2012, United Way purchased its first subscription to ArcGIS desktop software. The goal was to optimize resource allocation, identify and build relationships with critical stakeholders, tell clients’ stories and encourage collaboration with other contributors to design a cohesive strategy for community success.

“We started to explore GIS solutions in 2012 when we realized that large, population-level databases were being made available through open data initiatives and consortiums. With the right tools, we could leverage this data in order to create a geographic frame of reference to inform decision-making,” explains Paul Steeves, senior manager, evaluation and analytics, United Way Ottawa.

“At the time, maps were difficult to create; they were static and primarily a “back room” function.  Today, ArGIS Pro and ArcGIS Online allow for a much more user-friendly, accessible and low-cost solution to all of our mapping needs. We have grown along with the technology, and we now use Esri’s mapping tools and analysis services for planning, storytelling, community engagement and marketing,” he continues.

Over the years, the organization’s interest in using GIS for demographic segmentation, donor identification and engagement grew. Meanwhile, it also noticed a change in the donor landscape. The city was expanding and there were new kinds of donors emerging. This meant that United Way needed to understand its donors better – where they lived, how to reach them, what they contributed and how they wanted to see their gifts being used.

Other than donors, United Way also needed to understand the communities – the neighbourhoods it was operating in.  In 2007, it began partnering with the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study and other local organizations that were working in various neighbourhoods of the city. With his background in using data for social programs for early childhood and school readiness, Steeves knew that by leveraging neighbourhood indicators, a comprehensive place-based, geographic frame of reference could be created, which would in turn allow United Way to make decisions that inform and, in some cases, drive collective community impact.

In 2016, United Way launched the “Our City” series to shine a spotlight on how it leverages data to ensure resources are invested where they are needed most and will have the greatest impact. The series examines some of Ottawa’s most pressing issues through the lens of a data analyst, and shares how, together with its partners, it is using that information to make a measurable impact.

United Way overcame the challenge to communicate sheets of spatial data that was important to share, by using Esri technology. ‘We Change Lives in Ottawa” story map explains where and how the money is invested, and how it has changed lives in Ottawa.

“While not only helping to solidify United Way Ottawa’s commitment to transparency and accountability as a charity, embedding mapping tools into our storytelling makes complex data simple to understand to the general audience. The series also allows United Way to use its organizational reach to bring donors closer to the local issues that exist, while showing that the organization is in tune with the ever-changing dynamics of Ottawa’s neighbourhoods,” added Steeves.

ArcGIS provided a platform for all employees and the network to discover, use, make and share maps and data as well as cross-network access to authoritative information for trend harvesting and joint initiative planning, execution and measurement.

Partnering with Esri Canada

Since United Way was already using ArcGIS, partnering with Esri Canada for the cause seemed the natural thing to do. Esri Canada not only extended help through technology and GIS expertise, but contributed in other ways such as volunteering and fundraising.  When asked about community partnerships, Gord Watts, vice president of marketing and communications at United Way Ottawa, said: “Thanks to Esri’s interactive story maps, web apps and more, the fulfilment of United Way’s promise can be expressed on a whole new level. Knowing that we have these tools available to us gives new light to any story we’re looking to tell, or issues we’re hoping to highlight. Interactive maps allow readers to immerse themselves into an issue at the neighbourhood level, gaining a much deeper connection to an issue than they would have if they had simply been shown a city-wide statistic, for example.” 

With the help of Esri Canada employees’ volunteer support, United Way Ottawa produced ‘The Population of Ottawa is Aging’ swipe map as a storytelling tool to communicate the issues of Ottawa’s aging population.

In June 2017, United Way released A Profile of Vulnerable Seniors in the Ottawa Region – a report that analyzes the state of vulnerable seniors in Ottawa and makes recommendations to address this emerging issue. To connect different audiences to the report, the organization wanted to create a dynamic tool that allowed people to interact with the report and understand how an aging population will affect their neighbourhood. Once again, Esri Canada staff jumped in and helped United Way create a swipe map – an interactive public-facing app that has garnered more than 600 views from individuals across multiple sectors.

The organization has already embarked on a more ambitious geospatial plan for 2018 that includes expanding the use of story maps and web apps for outreach, optimizing donor segmentation using GeoEnrichment services, and mapping as a cornerstone for further social policy research and collaboration with other funders.

For other non-profits looking to use GIS for their organization’s success, Steeves suggests, “Set up a free, ArcGIS Online account. From here, you can quickly learn how to create a map and add your own data to the map. You’ll discover that it’s not only easy to use, but it’s also fun!”