Using 211 Data to Measure Real-Time Community Need during the COVID-19 Pandemic

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A 211 hotline operator supports a community member to receive social supports.

By Camille H. Anoll

A publication of the Local Data for Equitable Recovery Resource Hub

During the COVID-19 pandemic, 211 has become a lifeline for many families in the US as they struggle with financial stress, housing insecurity, and health care needs. A free telephone and online referral service that operates in 240 locations across the US, 211 connects callers to community resources to address their needs, whether they are experiencing a personal crisis or a natural disaster. In addition to helping people individually, 211 hotline data are sources of real-time information about community needs that can help inform policy and programs.

Because of COVID-19’s dramatic and immediate effects on communities, the traditional sources of survey and administrative data do not offer a current picture of hardship because the data were collected before the pandemic. Partners in the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) have partially filled this gap by using data from 211 calls to assess demand for services in their communities and to identify types of support local families need most. In Seattle and King County, Washington, the public health department’s 211 data analysis is informing resource allocation and has been used by media outlets, such as NPR, to report on food insecurity during the pandemic. In Austin, Texas, Children’s Optimal Health and the University of Texas School of Public Health are analyzing 211 data to inform community organizing and outreach efforts in Austin’s hardest-hit communities. Boston Indicators includes analysis of 211 calls in Massachusetts as part of their COVID Community Data Lab to help community groups, researchers, and government agencies understand the pandemic’s effects on area residents.

Data sharing

The first step for anyone interested in 211 data is to acquire the data. Half of 211 programs in the country are run by local United Way branches as in-house programs, with the others led by local nonprofits. Some NNIP Partners, like Public Health — Seattle & King County, have strong relationships with the organizations that manage the 211 data, facilitating data sharing. Public Health — Seattle & King County worked with the organization that runs King County’s 211 hotline, Crisis Connections, and quickly negotiated a data-sharing agreement specifying the terms of data transfer and use. “Data moves at the speed of trust,” said Aley Joseph Pallickaparambil of Public Health — Seattle & King County.

NNIP has posted a sample data-sharing agreement to encourage data sharing in more places. In other cases, the data may already be open. The Boston Indicators team leveraged the national 211 data-sharing website, 211 Counts, to pull the data manually for their state. The website has data for all but three states and includes interactive charts by service type and maps by zip code, and it has been used for national trend analysis during the pandemic.

Data analysis

Organizations choose different approaches to analyzing and visualizing their 211 data. Potential indicators to examine include the number of calls or the number of service requests by type, which may be multiple per call. Public Health — Seattle & King County and Boston Indicators have both chosen to analyze the data over time to show trends in demand and used the need categories used nationally by 211 counts. Boston Indicators does a week-for-week comparison with the 211 data from 2019 to show how the demand for support has changed. Alternatively, Children’s Optimal Health has focused on a participatory, place-based approach to their data analysis. Children’s Optimal Health and their community partners reviewed the national 211 counts need categories and adjusted it to be most helpful to their local context. They map the number of service requests for a given two-week period by category and zip code to map a geographic understanding of need, along with charting changes in need over time.

Data considerations

Although the 211 data analysis has been immensely valuable, these three NNIP Partner organizations warned about the data’s limitations. For example, if the 211 data are not showing a high demand for one category of support, it might be because people are going to other, more widely known programs that support that need outside of the 211 system. The organizations do not want to deter people from calling, so they often do not ask demographic information like race and ethnicity or age. These data gaps limit knowledge about the groups of people most in need, preventing tailored service provision. In addition, some groups in the community might be less willing or able to use the 211 hotline, such as those who do not trust the government or who have limited English proficiency. Even if they do call, people may hang up if there are long wait times for callers who need an interpreter.

Analysts can augment the 211 data in several ways. Boston Indicators’ COVID Community Data Lab includes other indicators from the US Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program applications. People with local knowledge of the service landscape should participate in the data interpretation. Tools such as the Urban Institute’s Spatial Equity Tool can also identify potential bias in the data. Qualitative data from focus groups and interviews can add perspectives from people experiencing hardship.

With careful interpretation, 211 data analysis is a great place to start learning about a community’s current needs. Communities can take advantage of insights from this unique source to shape their responses to the pandemic.

Thank you to Aley Joseph Pallickaparambil of Public Health — Seattle & King County, Peter Ciurczak of Boston Indicators, and Dan Brown of Children’s Optimal Health for sharing their insights.

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