An Untapped Resource: Using 211 Call Data to Assess Community Needs by Tosha Shanableh, Steve Mumford, and Andrew Holbein

Greetings, AEA365 readers! Liz DiLuzio here, Lead Curator of the blog. To whet our appetites for this year’s conference in beautiful New Orleans, this week’s posts feature the perspectives of the Gulf Coast Eval Network (GCEval) members, where the uniqueness of doing evaluation in the gulf south will be on display. Happy reading!

Hi everyone! We are Tosha Shanableh, a University of New Orleans (UNO) MPA candidate, Professor Steve Mumford, also from UNO, and Andrew Holbein, Director of Resources and Data at VIA LINK. Our research partnership focuses on assessing community needs by utilizing VIA LINK’s 211 call data and resource database.

The nonprofit VIA LINK administers the 211 information and referral network in southeast Louisiana. Dialing 211 operates like 911: calls are routed to the local agency that manages the 211 system for that region. Each agency maintains an extensive database of resources available in their area, which staff uses to refer callers to organizations that can address their needs. Referrals are made over the phone and via text or online chat 24/7/365 to help meet basic needs for food, shelter, utility assistance, mental and physical health care, work and family support, assistance with disaster response, and more.

Rad Resource

Like other 211 providers, VIA LINK collects data from callers including phone number and zip code, demographics, and identified needs following a taxonomy. VIA LINK maintains the region’s most extensive database of social service resources, which identifies resources available to address the needs of residents, and where there are gaps. VIA LINK makes its data publicly available as anonymized, aggregate dashboards of call data.

We believe 211 data are under-utilized for conducting localized needs assessments. These data are potentially useful for analyzing and sharing with community stakeholders and the public to identify trends, prioritize service delivery, and fill resource gaps.   

Hot Tips

To make the most of your regional 211 provider’s data, evaluators might:

  1. Establish a formal partnership with the local 211 provider, including a data sharing agreement to protect confidential call data and proprietary data like the provider’s curated resource database. Evaluators will need support from 211 staff to: (1) obtain the data in a usable format, (2) clean and manipulate the files, and, (3) make sense of results.
  2. Explore trends in calls and callers’ needs over time and across caller demographics and geographic locations. We saw spikes in needs coinciding with waves of the pandemic and hurricanes, and differences in needs and use of 211 between urban and rural parts of the region and across callers of different genders, races, ages, and disability status. We compared geographic and demographic trends against U.S. Census data to determine how representative 211 callers were of the area’s population, and specifically of residents living below the poverty line.  
  3. Use GIS mapping software to assess resource accessibility. Evaluators can compare the number of calls by zip code to the precise addresses of available resources to get a sense of proximity between resource locations and those who require their services. Resource locations can also be mapped against publicly available data, such as the CDC/ATSDR Social Vulnerability Index (SVI), to pinpoint underserved areas. The SVI aggregates 15 Census indicators into a vulnerability score for each tract based on poverty, vehicle access, housing, education, etc. We identified remote parts of the region that were both vulnerable and lacking access to nearby resources for housing and shelter, food assistance, and health and mental health care.
  4. Make data-informed recommendations! Ours included suggestions for targeted outreach to underserved communities, expanded service delivery through mobile units in remote areas, and fine-tuning of VIA LINK’s data collection and evaluation forms and processes. 

We hope you’ll consider tapping into 211 data for conducting community needs assessments if you haven’t yet! And if you have, please drop a note in the comments – we’d love to hear what others are doing.

We’re looking forward to the Evaluation 2022 conference all this week with our colleagues in the Local Arrangements Working Group (LAWG). Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to contribute to AEA365? Review the contribution guidelines and send your draft post to The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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