This past week, five area community foundations released a 28-page joint report entitled The Recession’s Impact on the Safety Net in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The result of a two-month study,the report was in part written using data generated by Rhiza Community Catalog. These data are publicly available under “Community Profiles” on HumanServices.net, an online tool implemented in partnership with 3rc that uses Catalog to simplify intake, referral, and analysis of community services. NeighborAid, an emergency fund for community organizations facing budget crises resulting from the economic downturn, has also begun to use HumanServices.net to refer local residents to social service providers.
We at Rhiza are struck by two contrasting emotions. On one hand, we’re proud to see our tools being used to promote analysis, understanding, and discussion of critical policy issues, and to connect those in need with vital services. On the other hand, we’re alarmed by the joint report’s findings, and the conditions that have made the NeighborAid initiative necessary. The recession is responsible for both an unprecedented swelling of demand for social services and a sharp drop in funding for social service agencies; the result is an $3.3 billion anticipated budget shortfall for social services agencies in our region.
Perhaps the former can mitigate the latter. All of the information analyzed in the report is free public data from public agencies. The Information Commons, via open platforms like Rhiza Insight, enables agencies to retrieve and analyze these public data in-house, freeing up resources that ordinarily would be used to contract with outside agencies for analytical assistance.
In a time of unlimited demand and sharply limited supply, this reduction of overhead enables more money to be spent on direct service provision; it also enables smarter decisions on investment and better analyses of program effectiveness. HumanServices.net’s Community Profiles are a great example of such a tool, as they display key measures that services in each community should impact, as well as the trends in usage of those services for each community in Allegheny County.
The report suggests that community foundations “request, in a unified voice, for immediate financial relief for our urban areas.” That financial relief, it suggests, should be disbursed either as services or direct assistance to households under financial stress. Again, open data and open data platforms like Insight ensure that these public investments are made wisely and managed well. They facilitate data-driven decision making — investments made on up-to-the-minute, hard facts. They also ensure transparency in public decisions by allowing the public access to the same data that decision-makers use, and by illustrating and simplifying the decision-making process.
Our recommendation is that the government and those foundations still able to make investments immediately grant emergency funding to vital services, in order to secure our region’s battered social safety net. These same agencies should also increase the quality of information systems that help policy makers make decisions, residents access the services they need, and citizens openly track the impact of those services on their communities. With an area facing so much need and with so few financial resources, there is no alternative.