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September SparkNews: Better, Together

Like a good book and a rainy day, cookies and milk, road trips and your best playlist, some things are just better together. Why? Because they are able to bring out the best in their partners. It’s often the same in systems change work: when we strategically partner with each other, the whole is better than the sum of its parts because of the synergy created from the collaboration.

This is not to say good collaborations just happen. As anybody who is in a relationship can tell you, they take work and commitment; sometimes they take compromises; and almost always they take introspection and honest assessments. This month, we’re taking a look at how to do just that. We’re featuring blogs and actionable tools around strengthening collaborative efforts, as well as taking a look at what collaboration and collective impact really mean in practice, in an effort to help us get to better, together.

Read the rest of the newsletter. Want to receive more updates like this? You can subscribe to our newsletter here.

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Setting the Stage for Collaborative Initiatives in Kenya

Social Ecological Model

We all do better when we work together. This is particularly true in the social justice world, in which systems change and collaboration are intricately and inextricably linked: systems change cannot happen without key players, systems, and sectors joining together to accomplish a common goal. Recently, I had an opportunity to dive deep into a systems change process that laid the groundwork for supporting collaborative initiatives in Kenya to address challenges in family planning.

Kenya’s relatively new constitutional family planning provision states “every person has the right to the highest attainable standard of health, which includes the right to health care services, including reproductive health care.” However, despite this constitutional mandate, there are high unmet family planning needs in Kenya, the reasons for which are varied and complex.

Enter, the systems approach.

I visited four remote villages in an effort to identify the levers that could shift the system in a way that supports family planning,. There, I worked with the communities to detangle their family planning attitudes and beliefs and understand how this translated to their behaviors.

What I discovered was a complex, intricate system of players, policies, and programs, which influenced individual beliefs and behaviors in an often negative way. While individuals understood the importance of family planning, many were not using it for reasons that ranged from propagation of contraceptive myths and misinformation at the individual level to government policies regulating the availability and use of contraceptives at the countrywide level. Tackling these barriers to family planning in Kenya lends itself to a collaborative approach: true impact will require addressing the interconnected nature of these factors and coordinating effort across sectors and silos.

But where to start?

The Social Ecological Model is often used in public health as a tool for prevention strategies and illustrates the interactional effects of individuals, their relationships, and their environment, including the community and society in which they live, on behavioral outcomes. Each of these levels is a part of the larger system, all with the ability to act on and influence one another.

In order to collectively address the factors contributing to family planning beliefs, attitudes, and behavior, my colleague Araceli Alonso and I applied the Social Ecological Model to identify mediators associated with family planning behavior. We then developed policy and system change recommendations based on the model:


The Social Ecological Model allowed us not only to make recommendations at each level, it provided us an opportunity to take a step back and apply a systems lens to the issue. We were able to make connections across policies, funding, and formal and informal processes in our recommendations. By taking this holistic approach, rather than looking at the factors individually, we hope to have opened the door to moving the system to change family planning behavior in a positive, sustainable way over time.

Michele Coleman will be presenting this research at the Annual Public Health Association meeting in Denver this fall. A full publication is set to be released in the World Medical and Health Policy Journal, special edition “Women’s Health in the Global Perspective” in spring 2017, under the title “A qualitative study exploring how family planning beliefs and attitudes contribute to family planning behavior in rural, southeastern Kenya: application of the Social Ecological Model.”

Araceli Alonso is a 2013 United Nations Award Winner for her activism in women’s health and human rights. Dr. Alonso is an Associate Faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies and in the School of Medicine and Public Health, where she teaches classes on women’s health and international human rights. Alonso holds a Nursing degree and a Ph.D. in Anthropology. She is also the Founder and Director of the numerous award-winning non-profit organization Health by Motorbike, through which this research took place, that provides a comprehensive model of health and well-being for women and children in rural communities of southeastern Kenya.

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Our Commitment to Addressing Inequity

Spark Policy Institute

Complex problems are just that: complex. They stem from complicated interactions among multiple actors, against the backdrop of history, systems, and institutions. Within these interactions, we cannot overlook the way race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, country of origin, religion, economic status – all the things that make us unique, and the “isms” they engender – are entangled with inequities. Nor can we overlook the need to address these biases in order to drive the meaningful change we are all looking to create.

Our mission at Spark has long been to develop innovative and research-based solutions to society’s complex problems. After a summer of devastating violence and expressions of xenophobia and hate across the country – as well as outpourings of generosity and stories of strength – we are more committed than ever to addressing structural inequities head-on in order to create meaningful systems change.

A few years ago, we developed Spark’s organizational commitment to diversity and inclusion:

Spark Policy Institute believes diverse perspectives are key to achieving meaningful change. We are committed to fostering an organizational culture where all people are treated fairly; supporting communities with tailored approaches that lead to a successful future; and ensuring all voices are heard, particularly those most affected by the change.

Since then, we have been working to actualize this commitment, ensuring it is not just words; that it is embedded in our relationships, work, and culture. What does this mean in practice? It means we:

  • Recognize the assets, diverse voices, perspectives, and knowledge communities bring to the table in a way that fosters trust, respect, and acceptance.
  • Approach all of our interactions with integrity.
  • Keep equity front and center.
  • Respect lived experience and social identity.
  • Continue to focus on internal and external capacity-building, providing fair and equitable access to culturally-appropriate tools, learning, and support.

While we cannot dismantle centuries of institutional “isms” overnight or in isolation, we can each take steps toward a more just, equitable world. We can show, through words and deeds, that we are committed to driving meaningful systems change. Complex problems take time, resources, and hard work to solve. We believe with diverse voices, innovation, and continued dedication, they can be solved.

And we won’t stop until they are.

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Is Google Fusion Tables Right for My Social Impact Project?

Colorado farm to school Google Fusion Tables map

What do the Colorado Farm to School Task Force and a Denver-based Community Navigator initiative have in common? Well, beyond the fact that they’re projects looking to make a big change in the world, they’re both initiatives that rely heavily on the idea of “place”. In our last blog in this series, we explored how mapping can help tell a powerful story and how GIS can help tell that story. But what do you do when you need a tool that is easy for your partners to use and apply on their own? Enter Google Fusion Tables. As the name implies, this web-based application makes it easy to merge (“fuse”) and analyze data with charts, graphs, and maps. In both projects, Fusion Tables allowed us and our partners to combine our existing information to produce actionable insights for the populations we serve.

From our experiences using Fusion Tables, we’ve found them to be…

  • Google Fusion TablesVersatile – effective for various tasks, including mapping and data management. Even better, it plays nice with other Google products like Google Sheets and Forms, which can be a significant benefit when working with community partners.
  • Good for Collaboration – as long as your partners have a Google account, they can use or modify the data, charts, and maps.
  • Relatively Easy-to-learn – if you feel comfortable navigating the internet and using basic spreadsheets, Fusion Tables are easy to use. However, administering and developing a new Fusion Table takes a bit more tech savvy.
  • Limited in Comparison to Specialized Tools – while you can get a nice set of maps, Fusion Tables are much more limited than standard GIS software. Similarly, if you want better tables and charts, Excel and Tableau are the way to go.

Over the years, our partners in in the Colorado Farm-to-School Task Force have cataloged the various initiatives and projects they and their collaborators have developed. They realized that combining and geocoding could:

  • Help them to address questions about how farm-to-school activities in Colorado have developed; and
  • Help their local partners identify potential collaborators in their geographic area.

We needed an easy-to-use tool that would allow for quick updates to a master dataset as new data comes in, to share the resource across collaborators, and to produce maps nice enough to include on a poster presentation. Fusion Tables met these needs and – importantly – allowed us to collaborate without worrying about the problems of version control. On the down side, we were unable to include multiple layers of geographic information, a standard feature of most GIS software; however, we were able to come up with a work-around solution. In the end, the maps we produced using Fusion Tables uncovered patterns about how farm-to-school activities relate to other food systems activities in Colorado. With this information, our partners can see potential partnerships with other food systems actors and identify which regions are most in need of their attention.

Colorado farm to school Google Fusion Tables map

Community Navigation

Using Fusion Tables for our work with the Denver Foundation’s Basic Human Needs Project was driven by the need for a database system that could be updated and used by a large number of individual community navigators. Community navigation, which connects low-income people to local resources through a resident navigator, can be improved when navigators share information about local service providers. The challenge is that this information is constantly changing. As part of the initiative, the navigators initially assembled a list of all the providers they use, but they lacked a mechanism for keeping the information up-to-date.

Unlike some other tools we explored, navigators can update information in the shared Fusion Tables database in real-time. They go even go beyond basic content information to adding columns for a rating scheme or updates about upcoming events. Moreover, the map option improved on the original shared Excel spreadsheet, allowing navigators to sort by different types of service providers in different locations and print either a table view or a notecard view of their sorted list.

We also learned that some collaborators can easily embrace the Fusion Table approach, but others struggle with committing the time needed to maintain the data and make the tool worthwhile to all.. If collaboration is essential to your effort, as it was in ensuring community navigators have access to up-to-date information about local service providers, it is important to have a conversation with your partners’ about their willingness to learn this new software.

Want to Learn More?

There are many resources on the web for learning how to use fusion tables. A good place to start is Google’s official site. Searching the web, you’ll find that other people have used Fusion Tables for a variety of tasks, including to tell causal stories (e.g., the Guardian’s analysis of the role of poverty in sparking riots in England), to produce information-rich interactive maps (such as The Nature Conservancy’s maps), and to incorporate publicly available data into their project (like the The Montreal Gazette’s depiction of population density in Montreal metro area).

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Data Mapping as a Tool for Change

ata Mapping of minority business enterprises and job losses

Place matters, and whether or not we explicitly or consciously use the term “place-based initiative,” it describes much of the work we are undertaking right now. In essence, a place-based initiative is an effort to address an issue in a specific geographic area; instead of trying to solve the issue for everyone, everywhere, you focus on solving it in one place (at least, to start!). Not only do place-based initiatives provide a testing ground for larger solutions, they are also a fundamental part of driving effective systems change: local community change fundamentally affects larger systems by directly addressing community needs, empowering residents, and building community capacity and resilience.

But being a place-based change agent and finding solutions to complex problems isn’t just about having skills, knowledge, and vision to tackle change. It’s also about knowing where to look for information – and knowing what tools are out there – that can help you understand the problem and find solutions. This blog kicks off a series on some of the data tools and resources Spark has used to support place-based efforts. Over the next few months, we’ll look at online tools such as GIS, Google Fusion Tables, Kumu, and more, all of which can help support place-based initiatives by providing a visual map of needs, relationships, and complex interactions.

First Up, GIS
ata Mapping of minority business enterprises and job losses
SOURCE: GIS Mapping in the field of Social Equity and Advocacy work

While data in itself is helpful – and necessary – to start to wrap your arms around a problem, geographically mapping data creates a compelling story, helping illustrate community needs and disparities in a clear, visual manner. Geographic Information Systems (or GIS) can be a powerful tool when geographic location is an important part of the problem you are hoping to solve and the solution you want to implement. For example, through GIS, you can create a visual depiction of where the highest-need populations in your community are, or look at where service providers are compared to those in need or where jobs are compared to areas with high concentrations of poverty.

Why use GIS? Maps are a type of visual storytelling, allowing us to quickly see and digest large volumes of data that would otherwise by overwhelming. They also allow us to make spatial connections, such as the location of low-income residents to job centers or highlighting the intensity of a problem in one area compared to another, in a way that would be significantly more difficult in words. Similarly, they allow for layering data to see the interactions or commonalities across multiple indicators. Have you heard the term “disaggregating data”? It’s an important part of digging down into where equity issues exist and is accomplished by unpacking patterns among different subgroups within the data. Geographic distinctions are an important way to disaggregate data. This is the type of analysis that helped surface the reality of the zip-code effect!

Need another reason to use GIS? Maps are visually appealing, making them engaging and memorable in a way many other forms of data presentation just aren’t.

What does it look like in action?

One example of how GIS supports place-based initiatives is equity mapping, which helps make connections between “areas of opportunity” and high-need communities, highlighting the disparities that exist between the two. The Regional Equity Atlas, originally released in 2007, helped change the conversation about equity in the Portland-Vancouver region, providing clear information that policymakers and stakeholders used for advocacy and policy-making efforts, such as improving transit access for low-income residents. Here are some other cool examples of how GIS can highlight disparities in a place-based effort:

  • The Community Commons Maps and Data Center is a free, online GIS resource that includes data maps, along with data sets you can use to create your own map (login required).
  • The Food Desert Locator lets you zoom in on your community (by census track) to identify food deserts and learn about the population in those areas.

Up next, we’re taking a look at Google Fusion tables, using examples from two recent Spark projects where we needed to take data visualization to the next level.

Have you used GIS to support your place-based effort? What was the result? Tell us in the comments!