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FSC Accelerator helps YSM explore emerging opportunities through prototyping and other innovation processes

Yonge Street Mission (YSM) is dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty in Toronto. We do this by offering holistic and personalized approaches that take clients through a customized set of support services designed to move them forward in their lives and in their community.

For the past six years, we have continuously asked ourselves, “How do we know if we are actually helping individuals achieve their goals and emerge out of poverty?” To answer this question, and as part of our commitment to data-driven design and decision making, YSM created a tool called the Transformation Integrated Measurement and Evaluation System (TIMES™). Our vision is for TIMES™ to become a key driver of information and change, allowing us to manage our data and help us make decisions at all levels of the organization.  

TIMES™ gathers many different kinds of data, including demographic information about our clients, the services they are enrolled in, and the partners we work with to provide support. Each call, accompaniment and attendance is there – a data point which can be aggregated to see trends, potential interventions or program refinements.

Joining the accelerator / to prototype or not to prototype

Currently, all data collected and analyzed is housed solely in the TIMES™ database. However, we began asking whether adding third party data from external sources would generate greater insights. Our original grant activities did not include adding or appending data from external sources – in particular, government funded programs – in our analysis.

TIMES™ joined the Future Skills Centre’s Fall 2022 Accelerator to address this question. Typically, non-profit grants do not make space to investigate emerging ideas partway through a project. Fortunately, the Accelerator program allowed us to be experimental – which is rare in the non-profit sector – without disrupting our main project activities. True to its name, the Accelerator had an accelerated timeline focused on adopting innovative new practices and tools to fast-track our learning and test new ideas in a safe environment with dedicated support. 

For YSM, we focused on adding third party data to TIMES™ and investigating whether this would reveal new lessons about how our clients can obtain employment and escape poverty. FSC’s Accelerator team introduced our team to prototyping as a low-risk way to test the use of third party data before committing resources to a larger implementation. As a prototype, YSM employed analytical tools to marry various databases and conduct exploratory tests to see if new insights could be generated.

RESULTS: What we expected vs what we got

There were three key learnings during the Accelerator:

  1. The TIMES™ database is fairly comprehensive and the addition of third party data does not bring substantive insights.

In our initial analyses, we found that the TIMES™ database was fairly comprehensive and already included many of the data fields from third party datasets. While each new database added some information to the system, we found that the additional data did not substantially change the assessment results or the lessons learned. In fact, the TIMES™ database actually contributes additional demographic information to the third party datasets, giving them a deeper illustration of who was achieving desired employment outcomes. As a result, we could avoid a lengthy and possibly expensive project to add data fields into our database. However, we now have a viable process to append and analyze data from outside of the database platform, which will prove useful in the futurel.

  1. The sector needs to do better when it comes to data.

As part of the Accelerator, we conducted an environmental scan to learn from others. We found that while data may be plentiful in the sector, there were very few examples of how the sector was aggregating data from multiple sources to drive client plans or program refinements. The information we are gathering through TIMES™ and the process we developed to capture and share this data across our programs and with our partners is critical to expand our sector’s knowledge and support for our clients. We continue to work towards collecting enough data to identify the most important services needed for individuals to attain meaningful work and emerge from poverty.

  1. Prototyping is a useful tool to investigate new questions, without deeper commitments.

Before the Accelerator, we did not understand the value of taking time to prototype an idea. We often associated prototyping with products (e.g. Nike develops a sample of a new shoe design), rather than with the non-profit sector. However, for a service agency like YSM, prototyping has been a useful tool to quickly address a question before investing deeper commitments. While pilots are designed as a small-scale implementation to prove the viability of a concept, prototyping tests new ideas without the pressure of having to demonstrate success right away. The space to iteratively think and learn in a safe environment, absent of the pressure to produce something tangible, quickly became valuable. Not only were we able to address our initial question on third party databases, but new lines of inquiry on topics such as diversity and inclusion within our data have emerged through the process, and we can apply prototyping to help pursue them.

Looking Ahead

Within a short period, FSC’s Accelerator allowed TIMES™ to take a big step forward by exploring the opportunity represented by third party data and developing a useful technique to quickly analyze information outside the main platform. With these lessons, our team continues to advance the TIMES™ initiative.

We often get asked why YSM is working with data. The answer is that working with people is complex and complicated, and capturing data on this work is producing learnings that will further improve our impact. The data tell the stories of our communities and their successes so others can learn and celebrate together through a narrative that includes the full richness of what we do.

If you’re interested in learning more, reach out to the TIMES™ team at YSM at lkaterberg@ysm.ca.

Jeanie Son is the former Director of Strategic Initiatives at Yonge Street Mission. This post is one in a series of blogs about the FSC Accelerator.

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint, official policy or position of the Future Skills Centre or any of its staff members or consortium partners.