Bissell Centre uses analytics to better understand client data
March 31, 2023
Raised in Edmonton, Jakob Koziel is an enthusiastic champion for North America’s northernmost metropolis. Its cold winters thankfully give way to northern summers boasting up to 18 hours of sunlight a day – perfect for a place known as Festival City for the large volume of events over the summer months.
But Koziel often sees another side of Festival City. He’s the senior research analyst for Bissell Centre, an Edmonton-based social agency offering outreach services to people experiencing poverty and houselessness.
“Many of the challenges we face mirror the challenges that are being seen across most cities post-pandemic,” Koziel says. “Growing citizen vulnerability, cost of living, isolation, polarization, and infrastructural issues are the significant problems Edmonton faces now.”
There’s also a cultural component: “Living in an oil city, many people consider employment as people’s value to society – everyone just needs to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and get to work,” says Jesika Lefebvre, manager of administration at the centre.
Lefebvre has experience with Bissell’s family programs. She and her husband adopted a two-year-old from foster care named Alex, who struggled with aggression and anxiety. “Those first eight months were really tough,” she confides. “I was exhausted, unsure if my husband and I were using the right strategies and burning out quickly.”
Jaye Brown, manager of the centre’s early childhood development program, points to the lack of compassion for a diverse population as problematic, along with the shortage of affordable housing in Edmonton. “The lack of urgency to allocate enough funding for housing is a major setback to the city,” Brown says.
While there has been progress on those fronts, “the city still has a lot of work to do.”
An essential part of daily life: Bissell Centre offers programs for individuals, families, and communities, aimed at lifting them out of poverty. The organization provides housing, employment, mental health supports, harm reduction practices, and much more.
“Life for many children and families who access Bissell services would be drastically different” without the programs, Brown says. “Without these supports, many families would not have their basic needs met on a consistent basis. They would not have the support they need to be set up for success and turn their lives around.”
Bissell leverages data to evaluate its programs, determine factors directly associated with leaving poverty, and communicate program successes to stakeholders. It’s also crucial for identifying areas of improvement. Koziel’s job is to “amplify voices” of these programs and ensure everyone who is passionate about eliminating poverty can contribute to this mission. Data has also helped the organization receive continued funding for some of its programs.
The biggest challenge, he says, is the sheer volume of information they have.
“We estimate that it would take nearly 100 years to analyze all our data,” he says. “That is how much information we collect. While there is tremendous opportunity in having all that data available, one can also become overwhelmed with how much there is.”
Turning data into insights: Along with other software, Bissell Centre uses SAS to evaluate and improve its programs. Koziel and his team got a chance to experiment with higher-end data mining and visual analytics tools by participating in SAS’s Hackathon in 2022. The team is also participating this year and is looking to assess factors associated with improved program outcomes.
Bissell Centre’s maturity around navigating data and leveraging analytics has attracted people like Jakob to the organization. But it’s also inspired community partners to collaborate with the non-profit and develop new strategies to fight poverty, according to Gary St. Amand, Bissell Centre CEO.
“As we’ve seen our reputation grow around how we use data, partners in the community like SAS, but also other partners in the non-profit space focused on data analysis, are coming around and telling us ‘We want to be part of the work you’re doing,’” says St. Amand.
The more partners involved in eliminating poverty, he says, the more data could be analyzed to develop concrete strategies. It’s led to the development of a referral tracking system, which allows them to gain insights into the referral process and track factors like wait times. St. Amand says their use of analytics has also enabled them to show the government the impact an increase in disability benefits has had on housing retention in the city.
“We are honored to support Bissell Centre’s mission to eliminate homelessness,” says I-Sah Hsieh, SAS principal program manager, Corporate Social Innovation and Brand. Hsieh has worked with non-profits and NGOs around the world to harness their data, including partnering with the United Nations on earthquake relief and refugee crises. Hsieh believes the Bissell Centre’s proactive approach to enhancing its services has been impressive.
“By harnessing the power of data, Bissell has been able to gain critical insights into the complex challenges facing those experiencing homelessness and develop targeted programs that address their unique needs,” says Hsieh. “We are inspired by the work Bissell Centre has done, and SAS is committed to continuing to support their efforts through the use of data-driven strategies.”
Those strategies underpin the staff’s efforts to deliver programming that touches families and communities of Edmonton in diverse ways. For Lefebvre and her family, it meant the confidence that Alex could blossom in day care – and that she and her husband could find a balance between the demands of their jobs and raising a child.
“If it wasn’t for the expertise and encouraging culture at Bissell Centre, I don’t think I would have been able to leave Alex in childcare,” she says. “I don’t think Alex would be thriving as much as he is today, and I wouldn’t have known where to turn for the resources and counseling he is receiving.”