Exploring Uses of 211 Data in Social Planning and Research

Map image of Ontario on a green information sign

Today, we were pleased to release a final report from a partnership project that explored the use of 211 data in analysing the unmet needs of residents in rural Ontario communities.  Made possible through a grant from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, we worked with the Rural Ontario Institute to engage researchers, planners, funders and GIS mapping experts to understand the potential differences in unmet needs between large urban centres and rural or remote Ontario communities.

From the early days of 211 development in Ontario (and across North America), one of the ultimate outcomes of 211 service that we envisioned was a human services system that was easier to navigate and more responsive to the needs of Ontario residents because of the work we do in partnership with others.  By collecting information about who contacts 211, where they are located and what their needs are, and by sharing that information with others, we can help to inform policy and funding decisions.  Through this project, we have explored many social research questions that this data can help to answer.

So, what did we learn that can help us move this important work forward?

1 – Data is key

Governments, non-profits and private sector organizations are all struggling with a move towards evidence-based decision making. While most agree that it is the right way to go, there is a lack of capacity (particularly in our sector) for sophisticated data collection and evaluation. 211 data around service availability, demand and service gaps can be useful for agencies, funders and planners – particularly when it is layered with socio-economic or other service usage data from other services.

2 – Usefulness of 211 data will increase with greater awareness of 211

Today, there are clear differences in communities in terms of 211 awareness and usage.  As a relatively new service (211 has only been fully activated province-wide since late 2011), there is low awareness in many parts of the province.  Through this project, we built awareness of the data that the service collects and how it can be interpreted, but nearly all participants felt that if we can increase public awareness and usage of 211, the value of the data for community-based planning and decision-making would increase exponentially.

3 – 211 Data must align with other data sets to allow for useful comparisons

Based on the input of the project team, Dillon Consulting, and all of the project advisors, the report identifies some clear recommendations for 211 around the collection of data, and how to make it available for communities and organizations for planning and research.  Over the course of the coming weeks and months, we will share the recommendations with our staff on the front lines, and work with them to enhance our data collection methods and reporting processes.

4 – Place does indeed matter when it comes to service access

The project helped to paint a picture of the differences between urban and rural services in the province. Issues such as lack of transportation, service availability, and energy poverty appear to be more pronounced in rural or remote areas.  The Index of Remoteness used in this project helps to understand the differences in how services are accessed and what the underlying needs are in comparison to urban communities.

As a province-wide service, 211 is in a unique position to contribute to the exploration of these issues across municipal and regional boundaries, and to work with our vast network of agency partners to dive deeper into emerging issues or trends that may be common to other similar communities. We are committed to increasing awareness and usage of the 211 service in Ontario so that we continue to increase the value of the data for decision-making.

We are so grateful to those who participated in this important project, including the team at Ontario 211 Services, Rural Ontario Institute, Dillon Consulting, and our many advisors and workshop participants.  We are also grateful that Ontario Trillium Foundation will continue the conversation with a broader network through its Knowledge Centre.

Interested in learning more?  Read the full report here, or join the conversation here. (OTF discussion board)

See the media release here.

– Blog post by Karen Milligan, Executive Director of Ontario 211 Services.

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