On April 23, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Hawaii, the number of calls seeking help to Aloha United Way’s 211 line reached an unprecedented level — as much as 10 times the normal — and crashed the system for several hours.

The phone line, which provides access to health and human services, as well as compiling anonymized data from callers that can be used to inform policy and funding decisions, depended on such an antiquated system that it couldn’t handle the volume of calls by people impacted by the pandemic.

“We’ve been around for over 30 years now,” said Lisa Kimura, the organization’s vice president of community impact. “During that time, obviously, technology has vastly improved. We were still on a very dated system.”

Now, it’s getting a much needed upgrade with the help of Hawaii Data Collaborative, which is helping overhaul the decades-old system with a brand new one that officials say will allow Aloha United Way to help people more efficiently, as well as use the data to more accurately inform bigger initiatives.

“We needed to upgrade the system to something that is flexible, that stays on top of technology,” said Adriann Gin, an engagement specialist with Hawaii Data Collaborative who is working on the project.

Aloha United Way’s 211 phone line helps connect callers to a variety of resources. Screenshot: Aloha United Way

The upgrade, which started last summer, is in its final stages, she said. Since November, Aloha United Way’s staff has been working with the new system and has already seen improvements in efficiency and responsiveness, both Gin and Kimura say.

Eventually, officials said they hoped the upgraded system would enable Aloha United Way staffers on the 211 line to connect people directly to services like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, rather than just referring them.

Gin’s group first began looking into 211 data in 2019 — well before the pandemic — as a way to provide insight into which communities need help in what areas, she said.

“Then COVID-19 hit and the conversation just became even more urgent, if not the top priority, because there is no other data source that collects timely data here,” she said.

For example, datasets like U.S. Census surveys predate the pandemic and cannot provide real-time insight, she said. But 211 data can show what people need right now and lead to immediate action.

What Can 211 Data Show?

But there were problems, she said. The old system was so outdated and fragmented that it undermined the data’s integrity.

Aside from the interface looking like it’s from the 1990s, she said, the phone system was not integrated with the resource database, creating more work and confusion for people handling the information.

“With a system this fragmented, fraught with unreliable data flows and prone to human error, the implications immediately raised data integrity concerns,” Gin wrote in a post about the upgrade.

With the overhaul, “We can actually rely on the data and confidently share it with decision makers to say, ‘Look, this is good data and you can use that to guide the decisions that you’re trying to make to help struggling households,’” she added.

Learn More About 211 Data

A public health and economic crisis, when many people needed help, wasn’t the easiest time for a system upgrade, but Kimura of Aloha United Way said her staff has been adapting and learning.

“They’ve really been able to roll with it,” she said. “Our responsiveness to changing needs is one of our strongest assets.”

The past year has been challenging in many ways, she said. The volume of calls has increased exponentially — from about 1,000 in a month to about that much in a single day.

“It really speaks to what’s happening in the community right now and the intense needs that people have,” she said. Some of the biggest needs her organization identified during the pandemic were housing and health insurance.

The need for data to make informed decisions was “greater than ever,” she added. That’s why this upgrade was necessary.

“It ultimately enables us to serve people better and faster,” Kimura said.

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