Data Scarcity to Data Abundance

How we took a crucial inner-city programs from data scarcity to data abundance

Last year, funding for our Winter Emergency Response (WER) program was in jeopardy.

The program, which allows to keep our doors open and help Edmonton’s most marginalized fend off winter’s bite, had poor data. Though just as busy, we reported a 50% decrease in visits from the year before; in those visits we were missing 57% of the demographics necessary for reporting. We needed a change, fast.

In just a few months between funding cycles we completely turned our data around. With a new approach and technology, we more than doubled our reported visits while eliminating all 57% missing demographics. With our accurate data now available on demand, we developed a one-of-a-kind live data visualization advocacy project that has been covered in the Edmonton media. So how did we go from lagging to leading? Our change can best be described as an emphasis in what we like to call “data ergonomics.”

What is ergonomics and how does it apply to data?

Ergonomics is concerned with designing and arranging people and their tools to increase effectiveness and efficiency by improving the ways in which people interact with tools by minimizing technological, physical, or organizational pain points. In this case, we completely redesigned our data process: which data we collect, where we store it, and how we access it.

Staff are averse to bad ergonomics, not data

We see data as story-telling. An important assumption to data ergonomics is that staff have an intrinsic motivation to represent the important work they do. This motivation fails when a data-system…

1) is overly bothersome

2) feels meaningless because collected data is not used

By enhancing the ergonomics of data entry to address 1) and data visualization to address 2) we can generate staff buy-in naturally.

To help visualize how data ergonomics can be considered in our sector, lets divide the data process into 3 main elements:


Where collection is how data is collected and entered, architecture is process of storing the data, and visualization is how the data is seen.

Database administrators know the importance of designing database architecture, but often accept the “default” methods of data collection and visualization. When carefully integrated with people and environments, the design of collection and visualization can have profound impacts on program data.

Out with the old

Our previous data was managed by a ‘Web-based Case Management System’. Though it handled the architectural element of data well enough, customization for collection and visualization was limited.

In searching for software that would be able to fulfill our dreams of great data-ergonomics, we decided on a group of Microsoft products that are deeply customizable and communicate well with each other. Microsoft offers significant discounts for non-profits to use this technology (around 80%) which lets organizations like ours adapt the latest in business technology to our mission. Though monthly upkeep license costs are only $50/month, the system does need to be custom-built and consultants in this space can easily charge $125/hour. Over-the course of ~6 months, we had a tech-savy employee with a background in software and UX design develop our solution in-house, learning as they went.

We implemented the new technology into each element, as can be seen in the updated model below:



Designing architecture requires a delicate balance between funder desires, organizational desires, and reality. In reviewing our practices, we found we were collecting information that wasn’t being asked for. We collected data that gave us a sense of unique visitors and demographics over months, while the funder was asking only for data tallied daily. In theory, our collection method should have covered both the funders needs and our curiosities, but in reality, it was a mess.

We began to streamline our practices. What resulted was a “daily visit” approach to our program’s data. With this approach, we entered demographics for each community member’s first visit and marked subsequent visits as “return visits” with no demographics. This completed all funding requirements and provides extra data about our building’s flow, something Boyle Street has been curious about for a while.

The web-based system’s architecture could be designed to fit this approach, but it couldn’t save data as fast as people were entering our building. Because of this, we moved to a system with better options for data entry: Dynamics 365.


One of the most immediate ways to improve ergonomics is to eliminate the redundant data-work created by a “paper-first, database later” approach. In combing data collection and data entry, we went from the data collection sheet below:

To the following PowerApp:

PowerApps, the underlying technology, is a fantastic way to quickly build custom data entry experiences. In the hands of a pro, a data collection app can be made in a couple of days. Apps are accessed via phone, tablet, or web browsers: perfect for non-profits with a rag-tag assembly of technology. PowerApps talks with our Dynamics architecture easily. The technology is very new (released October 2016) but we’re very excited to see where it progresses.


Now that our data is entered directly into the database, it becomes much more accessible and powerful. Dynamics has built-in reporting capabilities, but PowerBI allows us to make interesting and interactive data visualizations fast. Our Drop-In Coordinator now completes the funder’s report in mi.

With renewed confidence in our data we now use it to advocate for our community. Using the live-visualization capabilities of PowerBI, we created, a transparent look at poverty in Edmonton’s inner-city automatically updated every day. We believe this is an exciting new way for non-profits to engage with community and funders in the information-age.


The lead for this project is David Woodruff, originally the Data Coordinator at Boyle Street, David now develops custom data-systems in the non-profit space.

Find him at


We are asking individuals to donate just 10% of their holiday budget, volunteer for 10 hours over the winter and do one of our 10 Boyle Street Holiday Activities.

For just 10%, 10 Hours and 10 Activities your family can help create meaningful change in the lives of people living in poverty. #TakeThePledge and commit to supporting people in Edmonton experiencing homelessness.

Boyle Street Holiday Ambassador Activities:

For more information:

Brent Guidinger

Access to Financial Services

By: Marg Archibald, Four Directions Financial Manager

Access to basic financial services – like a bank account or the ability to cash cheques – is something most of us take for granted. But many individuals don’t have easy and affordable access to these essential services.

In order to alleviate these challenges, Boyle Street Community Services has formed a partnership with ATB Financial to create a bank for the unbanked and the under-banked. We offer low-barrier financial services that allow our clients to access an unlimited transaction chequing account for just $9.95 a month.

Why does this matter?

Lack of financial services for inner-city communities mean that many low-income earners are forced to resort to cheque cashing companies that charge exorbitant fees just to access their money. These toxic relationships exploit an already marginalized population.

Lack of access to financial services also means that community members are forced to access all of their funds at once, increasing the danger of clients losing or having their money stolen.

Other clients are burdened by the (often physical) perils of relying on street lenders where failure to repay a debt can result in consequences much worse than a poor credit rating.

The path from poverty to economic self-reliance can be a lengthy struggle, but with the support of staff at Four Directions Financial clients are making lasting and meaningful changes in their financial situations.

The path begins with a basic first step – getting a bank account – through this comes learning how to save and invest, build credit, to pay off loans, and finally, owning assets. The road to true financial security is long but with the support of Four Directions Financial, it is now more than just a dream for those that are the most vulnerable in our community.

Hidden Talent at Boyle Street

By: Kaylee Cheladyn

Terry Prince has worked as a janitor throughout Edmonton in non-profit organizations for 14 years, with the last 5 of them spent here at Boyle Street Community Services. In addition to being a diligent employee, Terry is a self-taught artist who has painted multiple murals throughout the Boyle Street building and the neighbouring social enterprise Four Directions bank.


Terry has created art since he was an adolescent. As a teenager living in British Columbia, he would spend his summers sketching and drawing and selling his art to tourists at the beach. With no formal training — other than the occasional art class in high school — Terry taught himself how to paint by reading about artistic techniques and studying animal anatomy. “I spent a lot of time in the library,” he says, “I wanted to understand muscle tone and bone structure… I figured, ‘I can’t paint [animals] until I know what’s underneath it all’.”

Terry completed his first full-scale mural while working as a janitor for Operation Friendship in the mid-1990s. Gradually, he began contributing to the walls at Boyle Street, after his artistic talent was discovered by another staff member during a painting activity a few years ago.

Painting is purely a passion for Terry; “I quit for a few years,” he said, after he kept getting requests from friends and family members who wanted to commission his artwork, “I wasn’t looking to make money.”

Terry says that it takes him a few weeks on average to complete a large-scale mural. His latest piece, a mural featured in the Family and Youth Unit in the Boyle Street basement, illustrates his interpretation of an Indigenous folklore tale: a turtle swimming through the universe with the world on his back.


When asked about the origin story, Terry said that “[Indigenous peoples] knew the universe existed before the discovery of space… long before we decided that the Earth was round.” This legend has been passed down for generations in his family, “I first heard the legend from my grandfather, who probably heard it from his father, who heard it from his father.”

He spoke about the important role that art and creativity play in the lives of the community members at Boyle Street. “It takes their mind off what’s really inflicting them… gives them time to rest, time to clear their mind,” says Terry. He feels like his own art helps him do the same.

Terry’s right — studies have shown that art therapy is proven to serve as a coping strategy for those who have experienced trauma; people experience satisfaction at seeing their own visual representations of emotions, challenges, and strengths. Art can even be considered a kind of harm reduction, encouraging community members to find a healthy and creative outlet for their energy.

For his next mural, Terry looks forward to challenging himself with something new. “The hardest things to paint are waterfalls and fire,” he says, “they each have movement and many different colours.” His favourite scenes to paint are of nature; many of Terry’s pieces are inspired by the mountainous landscapes of British Columbia, as Terry says “they remind [him] of home.”

Street Ways

“Helpful tips for accessing resources (getting stuff).”

That is the goal of the newest inner-city community booklet called Street Ways, a joint project between 8 agencies (including Boyle Street Community Services), designed to help homeless individuals navigate Edmonton’s vast network of agencies, programs, and services while providing tips for living on the streets.

Street Ways is a unique approach to the dissemination of information to Edmonton’s homeless population. The booklet is written by folks that have experienced homelessness themselves with the goal of ensuring the language is clear, informative, and presented in a way that is accessible to individuals living rough.


Beyond the basics, (including a map of inner-city agencies in Edmonton) the booklet includes information on how to access specialized services, provides health information for those living rough, and provides tips for dealing with police, EMS, and other emergency services.

Hardcopy versions of the Street Ways booklets are available at Boyle Street in Streetworks.

Download a copy of Street Ways