Jan. 26, 2021

New collaboration helps women escape domestic violence

Social work researcher Lana Wells leads 'game-changing' Alberta project bringing together 300 community agencies and leading-edge big data company
woman's hand presses against glass from inside home
The Data2Action project will help women escaping violence to find services nearest their location. KristinaTripkovic, Unsplash

In Alberta, hundreds of agencies and informal supporters do critical work serving women who are looking for help escaping abusive, violent relationships. Each of those organizations and supporters has a unique relationship with the people they serve, and each keeps their own data.

The problem is these formal and informal organizations have no way to share that data. No way to connect to show growing demand or to discover services that might be missing in part of the province. For users, finding services when they need them most can be frustrating.

It’s the old adage of not being able to see the forest for the trees.

A new collaboration called Data2Action, co-led by Lana Wells, University of Calgary Faculty of Social Work researcher, is looking to reveal that “forest” with a dashboard of real-time data that will better inform community-based agencies, government, researchers and policy-makers. The project will also help users by providing a convenient smart-phone app to help them find the services they need, nearest their location.

Data from a variety of sources

“It’s a game-changer,” says Wells, the Brenda Strafford Chair for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, with obvious enthusiasm. “And it’s so important right now. COVID-19 has created a pandemic of intimate partner violence within the global pandemic.”

We can see from reporting in Europe and Asia and here in Alberta that rates have significantly increased. However, in Alberta we don’t really know the extent of the problem.

Many of the traditional measures — such as women finding protection in a shelter — or police reports are not necessarily good indicators when movement restrictions trap women and children in dangerous situations. This project will help us get better data from a variety of sources so we can better understand the scope of the problem and where to focus our attention on prevention.”

Lana Wells, Faculty of Social Work researcher

Social Work researcher Lana Wells

The Data 2 Action initiative is a partnership between IMPACT, a collective organization supported by Sagesse, representing almost 300 domestic and sexual violence prevention and support organizations in Alberta, and HelpSeeker, a Certified B-Corp technology enterprise based in Calgary. By focusing on scaling positive systems innovation, HelpSeeker will use big data to improve the impact of the social safety net. Their technology will enable, for example, a dashboard of real-time data that can be used by decision-makers in government and social service organizations. Similarly, their smartphone app will provide real-time information showing services available nearest to the location of the user.

As co-leaders in Data2Action, Wells and her research team will help make sense of the information and provide their expertise in safeguarding and using the data ethically. They are committed to an equity framework and will help lead knowledge mobilization to create policy and community responses focused on prevention.

“We are trying to ensure from the outset that the data is handled and used ethically and help all the partners make sense of the data points being collected," she says. "This game-changing project will result in a dashboard of real-time information that will let decision-makers see, at a glance, trends across the province. They’ll be able to understand, for example, hot spots along with the gaps in services which may exist in a geographic area. This project will help government understand which communities are in crisis along with helping agencies to streamline, co-ordinate and provide people with timely and effective services.”

Focus on informal service providers not included before

Much of the data will be pulled from Alberta anti-violence organizations along with Google Analytics, Twitter, StatsCan and HelpSeeker. The project will leverage their reporting of service usage which has never before been collected in one place. A big focus will be on collecting data from informal service providers who have not been counted before in traditional datasets. Data2Action will allow governments and the human service sector to collectively better understand what’s happening across Alberta.

Wells adds, “I’m very excited about this project because during the pandemic this information has been needed by both those trying to escape intimate partner violence and those trying to help women and children. Gathering multiple points of data in real time will help governments and communities better co-ordinate resources for the greatest impact, and from a research perspective, when we can see the trends and identify patterns, we will have a better understanding of the scope of the problem of intimate partner violence here in Alberta.

“When we have a better understanding of the problem, we can focus our efforts on preventing it from happening in the first place.”