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 In Current Events, Data Analysis Concepts Simplified, Data Resources for Nonprofits, Experts, Interactive Data Viz

Data, as we’ve discussed before, is about so much more than just counting how many people need your help or measuring how much of a difference your efforts are making. Many nonprofits are using data in innovative ways to help solve social problems.

Data is not just limited to telling us how many or how much. Smart organizations are realizing that data can provide answers to the who, what, when, where, and why. It can provide the insight needed to solve social problems in ways we’ve never thought of before.

As I continue my August inspiration series, highlighting nonprofits using data in clever and creative ways, I want to talk to you about the various ways Sasaki’s Understanding Homelessness project is applying data to solve social problems.

Understanding Homelessness

The team behind Understanding Homelessness is aiming to use open, public, and internal data to improve the understanding of homelessness in the US. Their focus goes beyond how large a problem it is. They are also examining who it affects, where, how and why it has become a problem, and what solutions are most effectively addressing it.

The group hopes to help mitigate the negative stigma associated with homeless populations, shine a light on homelessness location data, and help find solutions for cities, social sector organizations, and private citizens to eliminate homelessness in their area. (Also, as a data nerd, their visualisations are quite beautiful.)

The Understanding Homelessness project is using data in a number of ways to help solve social problems. Rather than just counting the homeless population in a given area, they are using data to answer more in-depth questions — giving those with the power to help a greater understanding of the problem.

Data to Measure the Scope of the Problem

“Homelessness isn’t an issue here. That’s more of an urban problem.”

Unfortunately, this map tells a different story.

Before we can solve social problems, we need to understand them.

Explore Homelessness Data Across the US (from

How can anyone ever hope to address the issue of homelessness if they aren’t fully aware of where it happens? By collecting and visualising this data in such a compelling and easily understandable way, the UH project brings cities, states, and nonprofits one step closer to solving the problem. It helps them recognize it.

Data to Understand the People Affected

“Most homeless people just aren’t trying to work.”

The definition of homelessness is much broader than many people realize. A person or family may be considered homeless if they:

  • Will be without housing in 14 days or less (ie., about to be evicted)
  • Are victims of domestic violence (their home situation is life-threatening)
  • Share accommodations with more people than is reasonable for the size of the structure
  • Rely on shelters or missions to keep a roof over their heads
  • Inhabit an abandoned building or vehicle
  • Move more than twice in 60 days

Obviously, these situations vary in severity. But it’s important to understand that any person without reliable shelter is, effectively, homeless. It’s not just the drunk guy you see sleeping on the sidewalk (who may, incidentally, also be there for reasons beyond his control).

In order to solve social problems, we need to have a realistic picture of who they affect.

When we learn more about who the homeless are and what is depriving them of reliable shelter, we move closer to solving this social problem.

Data to Show What Solutions are Working

“Using data to show which solutions are most effective is just impact measurement, isn’t it?”

Yes and no.

Obviously, a major factor in using data to solve social problems is measuring the impact your efforts are having. But what if your efforts haven’t started yet? Data on the success or failure of similar programs in other areas can help nonprofits solve social problems using methods that are more likely to succeed. There is no single solution, and different responses will suit different situations.

Click on Tell Me a Story on the top left of the page and check out the stats the project has gathered on how different regions are supporting homeless populations in different ways — and see what works where. Take a look at the Strategies page to narrow down which solutions you might be able to contribute to.

You don’t have to have a high-end developer to help solve social problems with data. Tableau Public lets you visualize all kinds of data (no coding experience needed) for free – like someone did with this homeless shelter visualisation. The data is there. And it has the answers we need.

Want to Solve Social Problems With Data?

At Datassist, we specialize in helping nonprofits, journalists, and social sector organizations collect, analyze, and understand data. If you need help applying data to any part of your efforts to solve social problems, we’re here to help. Get in touch with us now.

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We’re highlighting nonprofits using data in the social sector.Falling Fruit collects and shares data for social good.