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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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Sparking Change for the Better: Why We Don’t Need to Wait for a Visionary Leader

SparksPeople ask me why the “Spark” in Spark Policy Institute on a regular basis. The answer, in short, is that change has to be triggered – there has to be that moment where inspiration meets commitment. As I’ve delved deeper into causing change through cross-sector partnerships, I am increasingly aware of the importance of that SPARK.

In a meeting with Jennifer Bradley from the Brookings Institute, she boldly stated that change doesn’t happen just because of a visionary leader and that it’s time to stop waiting around for that leader to show up. I couldn’t agree more. There are so many things that will SPARK a change for the better – we just need to be ready to act.

  • Sometimes the SPARK is the intensity of the need, such as the hunger issues arising from the great recession, leading the Denver Foundation and its cross-sector partners to look for a new way to meet Denver’s hunger needs.  That spark led to Hunger Free Colorado.
  • Sometimes the SPARK is a mandate, such as the Affordable Care Act. When the ACA passed, new organizations were formed at the state and local level to help implement and to ensure the consumer voice was part of the process.  At the same time, many existing organizations shifted their work to dive deep into advocating for successful implementation. Collectively, these groups moved the needle on access to health coverage and care.
  • Sometimes the SPARK is the resources that are available. The White House’s initiative known as the Social Innovation Fund has a new strategy for funding and scaling change: they are investing significant resources into non-profits like Year Up, giving them the funding to spark growth not only into new cities and with new partners, but also in thinking about how to better serve the youth who need them the most.
  • Sometimes the SPARK IS the visionary leader, but often that leader is backed up by a team of incredible people with deep passion. Dr. Carl Clark at the Mental Health Center of Denver has led his organization into the future, pioneering a Recovery model that has been recognized nationally for its exceptional outcomes. But he wouldn’t have accomplished this without the team he assembled, composed of passionate, smart people who thought about how to build public will for mental health, how to engage communities and youth in understanding mental health, and how to drive systemic change to make services more accessible for those most in need.

These are all ways to spark change, but here’s what I think the real SPARK is:Circle

Sparks-psd46817It’s when these different factors come together and bring people across different sectors and communities together.

Sparks-psd46817It’s when necessity meets an influx of resources of any type and a leader and team of people decide they are ready to act.

Sparks-psd46817It’s when a new mandate is a game-changer and the stakeholders decide to treat it as an opportunity, not a problem.

Sparks-psd46817It’s when an influx of new resources are directly related to an intense need and the stakeholders come together to make decisions instead of competing with each other for the resources.

Sparks-psd46817It’s any combination that creates sufficient motivation to cause people to commit to the change.

As someone always committed to being an agent for change, I’m going to keep my eyes open for these convergences and add whatever element is needed to move from a SPARK to an inferno of innovation, passion, commitment and change for the better.