United Way’s 211 empowers local leaders through data

Feb 23, 2023

By Kyle Kutuchief, Akron Program Director, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation 

Last fall, I attended an Infrastructure Innovation conference where former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and U.S. Chief Data Scientist Denice Ross were guest speakers. Earlier in her career, Ross worked for then Mayor Landrieu as New Orleans was rebuilding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 

During the conference,  Mayor Landrieu and Ross stressed the importance of using data to drive decisions about resource allocation in cities. One example that stood out to me was how their team created the city’s first online public dashboard of blighted properties to inform decisions about which ones would be prioritized for repair or demolition. 

Landrieu summarized why he placed such a high priority on public data: “If you can’t count it, you can’t manage it, and it is almost impossible to govern.”  

Making a Real Impact

It makes sense that data should drive community decision-making, but it’s easier said than done, especially in a disciplined way that ties select data points to strategic outcomes and then tracks them over time. Though we have a lot of work to do on the aggregation of public data to help inform our decision making in Greater Akron, one bright spot that should be used more often to inform community conversations and decisions is United Way of Summit and Medina’s 211 dashboard. 

211 helps people throughout our community find local resources when they don’t know where to turn for help. If someone calls for food assistance, the 211 staff takes the time to ask the caller if they have other needs like housing, utility assistance or dozens of other areas where help is available. The 211 team seeks to support the caller and help them navigate the network of nonprofit providers to get the total support they need. By calling one number, 211 can connect callers and support their interaction with over 1,300 agencies and over 12,000 different services. Their case information is accessible by anyone in 211. This allows callers to “pick up where they left off” each time they call for concierge-level care by phone, text and online, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Putting Data In the Hands of Local Leaders

Personal information is always kept confidential, but anonymized data about needs and requested services is logged and available to view in real time, giving local agencies and leaders a glimpse into the changing needs of the community.

In addition, 211 data can also give a glimpse into the services that are most being utilized in an area. In late 2020, Summit County created the Summit County Cares program, which distributed rent assistance to local residents, with 211 being one of the key entry points for the service. As residents applied for the service, calls related to rent assistance rose from 10,000 in 2020 to 15,000 in 2021 and 18,000 in 2022.

As a member of United Way of Summit & Medina’s board, I’ve seen firsthand how the organization uses the 211 dashboard data to inform decisions about resource allocation. That is a good start, but this dashboard could be an important source of real time data for more local conversations. And it is a tool that can lead to real impact, and real results.

How might we use it to broadly inform the decisions we make as a community? I don’t have all the answers, but I’ll be using it more in the months ahead. I encourage leaders across our community to do so, too. 

In our community. With our community. For our community.

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