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The Roanoke Council of Community Services was set up in 1960 to aid the planning of community services in Roanoke Valley. Its vision is to establish a community where organizations are able to work collaboratively to increase social wealth, provide greater access to resources, reduce redundancy and focus on human potential as the drivers for economic development and individual well-being. The Council has three areas of activity. First it acts as the central hub for identifying community needs and developing solutions to address these needs. Second it serves as a central clearinghouse, or gateway, connecting individuals in the community to programmes that are best suited to address their needs and third the Council serves as a launching pad for developing new programmes to meet community needs.
We spoke to Dan Meranda, Vice President of Planning & Consultation at the Council about data visualization and how it is being used to provide community organisations with timely insight about the local community. Dan explains that the Council put a lot of effort into establishing which indicators could be used to develop a picture of trends over time. The Council worked with Ben Warner, Deputy Director, Jacksonville Community Council to build a suitable list of indicators. “It took us about a year to produce our first report using these indicators and at the time everyone marvelled at the 150 page or so of charts,” says Dan. However, he is candid about how useful the hard copy report was. ‘A lot of them ended up on shelves,” he says. However, the Council’s funder the United Way – a community fund established in 1924 – was very pleased with the output. “At the time we were storing all our data in an excel spreadsheet and using pivot tables to extract the date we needed for each indicator. We realised that we needed to offer access in such a way that users could paint their own pictures of the region using an online format.”
Having seen how Jacksonville Community Council was using InstantAtlas Dan and his team started to look at ways they might be able to use online data presentation software. “Our biggest fear was that an interactive web-based system would be difficult to use,” says Dan. He says the tutorial videos were a great help to grasp the basics and Ben Jackson also gave his assistance but it was the InstantAtlas support team which made the difference. “They were great,” says Dan. “InstantAtlas is also robust and doesn’t break. I don’t think there is a less expensive and more effective tool.” The spreadsheet data was reconfigured so it could link with InstantAtlas and the Council began producing its first online reports in a matter of days.
Meeting the need
Since the website was made available in September 2011 there has been a 300 per cent increase in unique visits. Dan says: “What InstantAtlas is doing for us is increasing the number of reasons for people to visit the site. It is helping to position us as ‘the’ source for information and data about the local community. It also means we can promote what we are doing to other agencies and service providers.”
“We have had numerous supportive comments and positive feedback from the board of directors at United Way. We have also managed to secure additional contracts. One of the largest employers in the area is the hospital and we are now tracking health indicators.”
Dan says that one of the future developments will be to provide data on where neighborhood services are being provided. This can then be used in conjunction with existing data to see whether services match community need.
The Council is also expecting further developments to come from its Statewide contract to run the 211 service. This is a free information referral system and has an extensive database of local services. This is a rich source of data and the Council could develop an interface with its existing community platform.
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