Mapping The Need: Project Gleans Health Data From National Helpline Calls

Mar 9, 2016

Here are some numbers you wouldn’t have been able to find two years ago.

Last week, 3,428 people from the St. Louis Metro Area called the United Way’s 2-1-1 hotline, asking for help. One in four requested financial assistance to pay a utility bill. Nearly 500 callers asked for rent assistance, a bed in an emergency shelter, or another housing request. Another 114 needed help filing their taxes.

These data, long recorded and maintained by the United Way, are now compiled publicly and continuously updated. Coordinators at Washington University in St. Louis say the information has the potential to inform the work of policy makers, local governments and nonprofits, and they hope to go national soon.

This story was produced by St. Louis Public Radio

"We know an awful lot about folks who call 2-1-1. Callers are predominantly women … more than half of those have children in the home. Unemployment rates are high, income levels are low," said Matthew Kreuter, the lead researcher for the project and an associate dean at Washington Uversity. "These are essentially folks who just don’t make enough money to be able to live." 

"If you found that there were certain zip codes that had very high rates of people calling looking for food banks or food pantries, and you didn't serve that area, maybe you would. Maybe you would set up a mobile food pantry."

In October 2014, Kreuter and his team launched 211counts.org with data from two states: North Carolina and Florida. They added Missouri in the spring of last year and have since expanded their reach to 10 states. Every night at midnight, the data collected by participating 2-1-1 call centers are sent to the humming servers of Washington University’s Health Communication Research Laboratory, where it is input to an interactive database. Trends over time are recorded, as well as the frequency of requests for specific needs. Researchers can pull reports for an entire state, a municipality, or just a few zip codes.

Like any data set, 2-1-1 calls are limited in the way they can measure need. Only 3 percent of clients served by the United Way of Greater St. Louis go through 2-1-1, according to the organization. And because the data is entered by staff members during a call, some logs may contain errors or be incomplete.

Still, Kreuter says there are many ways the data could be put to use: a senator could look up how many people are calling from her district with needs related to a proposed policy. A state could see which basic necessities its residents are requesting most frequently before a large scale study even gets off the ground. And a new nonprofit could see where its work might be more efficient.

"If you found that there were certain zip codes that had very high rates of people calling looking for food banks or food pantries, and you didn’t serve that area, maybe you would. Maybe you would set up a mobile food pantry," Kreuter said.

Last fall, researchers identified a spike in calls from Flint, Michigan complaining about water quality.

Staff at the United Way of Greater St. Louis said the information proved valuable during the New Year’s floods this winter, which temporarily displaced thousands of people in Missouri and Illinois.

"Moving into long term recovery…we’re able to see in real time, and share that out to anyone in terms of what people were needing when the floods occurred and as they moved through it, what are the types of requests that they’re asking for," said Regina Greer, the organizations’ vice president of community response.          

That information can then be shared with federal authorities when the state requests disaster assistance, Greer said. But she firmly believes the tool can be used for emerging disasters as well, to predict trends before they are visible elsewhere.  

Sometimes, a spike in a specific type of requests can be a "canary in a coal mine," researchers said.

"Many 2-1-1’s, back before the mortgage crisis hit, were already starting to talk about the increase in mortgage related calls or mortgage assistance calls," Greer said. "If we would have had this data and were able to show that, thinking back on that, we were predicting something, just by the calls that we were getting from the community."

Kreuter, Steensma and their colleagues are on the cusp of filling in the map even more: Connecticut and California are in the works, and contracts are in the works with other states as well.

"The ultimate goal is that we can see the needs of a nation, see the needs of a state, a region and a community in real time. And that’s a powerful tool," Steensma said.

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