January 26, 2022

How Organizations Can Use Data to Combat the Housing Supply Crisis

By Jennifer Looi

Manager of Data Consulting, Ajah

The Housing Supply Challenge, delivered by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, invites applicants to propose solutions that will reduce or remove barriers to new housing supply. Evergreen supports applicants of the Housing Supply Challenge by providing guidance, mentorship, and resources needed to develop and improve their submission.

Evergreen is asking experts from the housing sector across Canada to share their experiences and highlight some key barriers to new housing supply.

Jennifer Looi is the manager of data consulting at Ajah, an organization that specializes in data and technology for the social good sector. Here, she explains how to demystify data when working on solutions to the housing supply crisis.

Specify your Immediate Goals

In my work, I’ve collaborated on a number of nonprofit projects with folks that are looking to understand how they can be using data and technology more effectively to achieve their goals. The first step for every organization regardless of size is deciding what your data goals are. Ideally, the focus should be on a singular goal; the more specific the better.

I worked with an organization that had a great idea to essentially crowdsource information and create a database of rental leases. The goal was that other people could look up how much a person was paying for rent in a specific building at a given point in time to help inform what to expect.

The core data needed to achieve this is pretty straightforward: address, monthly rent, lease period, and maybe some basic information on what else was included in rent (e.g. gas, electricity, etc.). Although a lease does capture all of this, all of the other information it contains like names and contact information can introduce new hurdles to achieving this goal: people are likely more comfortable submitting that kind of information anonymously than they are sharing a copy of their lease with their name and other sensitive information. Similarly, not having the right infrastructure in place to keep this information secure can open a new world of risks that aren’t necessary to take on given the immediate goals.

Often people will start scenario planning for multiple things that could happen in the future where they might want all these other pieces, but they don’t have a concrete plan for how to manage it. Instead, start by asking yourself “What do you need now?”

Map The Data You Already Have

It’s always much easier to build on existing information than starting completely from scratch.  With an organization with a lower capacity, working with data doesn’t have to look like purchasing a big fancy system. Consistency is key with data collection—whether it’s a simple Excel template or a platform with tons of bells and whistles, it’s about making sure people know which data matters and are on the same page about how, where, and when to keep it up to date. By being consistent with the data you already have, it will be easier to streamline and build on this information. People, whether caseworkers, clients, or otherwise, don’t want to spend a ton of time learning how to use multiple systems to collect similar information.

Understanding the data you already have will help you figure out where your gaps are.  We’ve observed that shelters, for example, are more likely to have operational systems that focus on availability of beds at a point in time, i.e. where the units are beds or rooms and how many are available on a given day.  And yet, if you wanted to shift the focus to people – how many people, how often, and what other services they might be in need of – that data would likely be disconnected, not as consistently documented, and/or in a different system altogether. This is when being able to coordinate across a network of organizations that serve similar populations would be useful. Data sharing can help with that.

Source the Data You Need

There’s an assumption that necessary data already exists out there—perhaps collected by a similar organization—and that it just needs to be consolidated. That can often be an oversimplification of the issue. People may think that with the modern age of technology and social media, information is always being collected and that it’s just a matter of figuring out the right way to patch it all together. But data collection isn’t always consistent. An available room at one shelter might mean space for two people, a room at another might mean spaces for eight people, and when housing needs are counted by people rather than rooms, this can create a disconnect. It’s not that there’s nothing out there, it’s just that it’s never quite as neat as you’d like it to be. Sometimes when even the data is available, there are jurisdictional or legal barriers over what can be shared. When it comes to making data actionable, focusing on the details matters; having clear goals and an understanding of exactly what you’re looking for will help make this process more manageable. Pursue one new source at a time.

Data can seem daunting to those who aren’t familiar with its uses, but it can be crucial when implementing solutions to housing supply barriers. Breaking down your project into manageable goals and starting small are great ways to begin pursuing a project.

For more tips, read this round-up article:

Experts Weigh in on Barriers to Housing Supply

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