Inner-city organization tracks visits to Edmonton centre in groundbreaking open data project

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Inner-city organization tracks visits in groundbreaking open data project
WATCH ABOVE: Boyle Street Community Services is tracking the number of people who use its services in real time. The step is groundbreaking when it comes to data. Emily Mertz explains. – Jan 5, 2018

In an innovative public data project, an inner-city support group is tracking traffic and demographic information of clients using its Edmonton services.

Since the end of November 2017, Boyle Street Community Services has been collecting data on number of visits — as well as age range, gender, ethnicity and where people slept the night before — in real time.

“It’s been really important to know how many people have been accessing our building. That’s been a really big gap missing for a very long time at Boyle Street,” data coordinator David Woodruff said.

“This project specifically came out of our Winter Emergency Response funding that we’ve been doing for a number of years, but our data collection has always been kind of lacking, so this is the first time we’ve really had a good sense of how many people are entering the building on a daily and hourly basis.”

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Boyle Street is committed to being open with the data while making sure the collection of it is done with integrity and respect.

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The public data is posted on the organization’s website and the results are available for anyone to look at and filter through.

“The coolest part of it is that it’s interactive,” Woodruff explained. “You can click on a demographic you might be interested in… You can select ‘places where people slept’ and see how the demographics change according to that.”

The project is already grabbing the attention of other groups in the sector.

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“It’s so far been used as somewhat of a weathervane kind of in the inner city. Seeing how much traffic Boyle Street is getting, you can kind of make some assumptions on other places in the inner city.”

Woodruff sees all kinds of value in having this kind of hard data available.

“One is from kind of a government and policy perspective. People can kind of see data on what has historically been a really hard population to get data on. So, for policy makers, it’s really big.

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“For funders, it’s really helpful to tell funders: ‘If you want to see what we do, go to our website’ and it’s all out there for anyone to look at. It’s also been great in getting public engaged.”

Boyle Street is sharing its traffic information in a public data portal online. Courtesy:

Boyle Street offers 39 programs and services to the inner city community — everything from housing supports and job searches to addiction and mental health assistance.

The data shows, during its busiest times, the centre will see upwards of 265 visits per hour.

“This has been a really big help for our Winter Emergency Response funding,” Woodruff said. “Previous years, it wasn’t that great, there were a lot of missing demographics.

“This year, we have 100 per cent complete demographics, we’re reporting almost three times as many visits as we were last year.”

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Woodruff said that spike is a combination of a real increase in demand and the ability to more accurately track that demand.

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Not only do the numbers help inner city organizations more effectively offer their resources, but having hard numbers helps them when it comes to seeking funding.

“This is kind of a way to say: ‘This is what Boyle Street Community Services does. This is breakdown of the population we serve.’ I know it’s been a lot of surprise to some people just the sheer amount of people that enter our building every hour and seeing how many of them use emergency shelters as their main place of stay.”

Boyle Street hopes to expand the program to collect data on which services are most used and when.

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