Make Better Decisions: Why Policymakers & Funders Need Systems Mapping

Canada’s social safety net is one of its greatest assets — supporting people in need and creating a better quality of life for all Canadians. However, the social safety net also carries the massive responsibility of supporting people at their lowest points, and often dealing with the social repercussions of economic and health crises. 

To power this work, the vast majority of social safety net revenues come from funding partners, such as government initiatives, private philanthropy, or community foundations. As a result, the social sector relies heavily on its funders to do its important work,  and often agencies are forced to compete for the resources and political support they need to tackle our toughest issues, including poverty, homelessness, and discrimination. Without the right funding and policy guidance, the social sector would not be able to fulfill its purpose.

As charities and non-profits constantly compete for limited resources with changing mandates, careful decisions about the social safety net are key for policy-makers and funders. Decision-makers are increasingly in positions of having to make difficult decisions about where to invest, and how to respond to complex social issues in a timely way. 

However, without the information to do this, most of these important policy and funding decisions are made based on limited information.  These decisions have massive implications and ripple effects, right from the system level down to the individual service providers and the people they work with. We need to make sure to get these decisions right, and that means grounding decisions in evidence and data, while still ensuring community fit. 

Historically, some of the information that we need to make these kinds of decisions has been scarce. Information that does exist gets outdated, focuses only on a specific issue or requires thousands of dollars to uncover in a research study. 

Without the right information, it’s hard to know what to do, never mind understanding the current state of the system. This puts policy-makers and funders in a position of risk and uncertainty. How do we justify our decisions? What can we rely on to ensure our decisions are grounded and rational, while still giving us the agility to respond quickly?

What is Systems Mapping?

Systems mapping, simply put, is creating a picture of all the actors, touchpoints, connections, and activities that happen in a given system that is defined. You can create a systems map for anything from small businesses in the cleaning industry to entire hospitals and healthcare systems. Historically, creating a map was referred to as “asset mapping,” and was typically used to demonstrate financial assets (ie. buildings, resources, human capital) and where they existed, and tended to be done either in 2D images or lists. There has also been recent research on the value of systems mapping in systems thinking, an emerging field of study that focuses on understanding systems behaviour and dynamics that has its own set of systems mapping methodologies. Both the academic systems maps and historical methods of creating a systems map, however, are quite cumbersome, relying heavily on interpretation and inferences.

To create a systems map for the social safety net, HelpSeeker has created Canada’s digital social systems map, capturing all the programs, services, helplines, and benefits available to individuals looking for help. The map is updated in real-time, with hundreds of updates made per day. 

The Importance of Systems Mapping from an Advocacy Perspective

From an advocacy perspective, systems mapping is the first step to setting up an argument for change or taking action on a shared vision. To justify a cause for change, you need evidence to demonstrate that a change is needed. This means finding tangible, up-to-date information that captures the situation in its entirety. For policy advocacy, this often means identifying trends, stakeholders, social structures, collective action initiatives, power dynamics, and leverage points to create a complete picture of the sector: one that tells of underlying system issues and impacts investment opportunities. 

Systems Mapping Methods 

Previous to HelpSeeker’s social systems map, most mapping methods consisted of a single point of view at a single point in time: lists of assets that go out of date quickly, fail to illustrate complexity and are time-intensive to create. Now with open data and technology to support dynamic maps, we can take a more participatory approach to telling the story of the system. 

Rather than relying on a single source of information, HelpSeeker’s systems map involves data collection with and from the sector itself, resulting in a co-created map that involves a variety of actors. Initial versions of the map can be collected from existing open data, but its power comes when there is cooperation with service providers. By having data be open-sourced and updated in real-time by the service providers themselves, the systems mapping platform removes the time it takes to conduct costly studies and instead reflects the state of the social safety net in real-time. These participatory systems maps provide a snapshot of the community across sectors and communities, more than the work of any single organization can typically offer. 

Why Policymakers & Decision-Makers Need Systems Mapping 

Beyond advocating for a cause, policymakers and decision-makers have a responsibility to understand systems thinking, collective action, and the causal relationships between events in the sector. A key part of a problem-solving mindset is to understand the problem from different angles, and systems maps do just that. 

For policymakers and funders to get started in systems mapping, here are the reasons why systems mapping is an invaluable tool for better decision-making. 

Live, Real-Time Data

The first thing in policy advocacy that needs to happen is making sure that whatever information is used to make these crucial decisions is up-to-date. It simply does not make sense to base decisions on year-old reports when the system is ever-changing, especially when responding to issues like poverty, homelessness, and health. In fact, relying on out-of-date information is one of the greatest weaknesses and risks of any decision-maker. Again, the decisions we make about the social safety net can heavily influence agencies’ ability to serve people in need and can be the difference between life and death for some of their clients, so it’s essential to use the latest information.

HelpSeeker’s systems map does exactly this, mapping community and social services across Canada in our dynamic, real-time inventory. The way we create this map initially is by using the original language from service providers off of their websites and directories. But, to truly keep information up-to-date, we made our platform community-driven. Service providers can claim their listing, meaning they take ownership of their listing and are accountable for its accuracy. Rather than creating a time lag between service providers reporting data and actually using it, our live systems map can capture changes within seconds of a listing being updated. This makes the systems map an invaluable resource for any policy-maker or funder. 

In terms of representation, this is also an innovative new way to let organizations and communities represent their own information in the systems map. A shift of power balances happens when we move from siloed organizations that only have a  picture of who they immediately interact with, to a community-driven map. For communities such as First Nations who administer services themselves, this also offers an opportunity to self-represent in larger conversations about resource allocation and reconciliation. 

See the Full Picture

Second, the information available to policymakers and funders must paint the full picture of the system. Unlike a traditional list or directory of services in an area, HelpSeeker maps several different data fields, including:

  • Agency name
  • Program name
  • Contact information
  • Exact location and address
  • Capacity
  • Occupancy
  • What specific services are offered
  • Qualitative descriptions of the services
  • Eligibility requirements
  • Population focus

With this information instantly available, we can not only understand what resources exist currently but also how those service mixes compare to other communities. To know that there are services out there that aren’t enough of, we also need to know how much they are being used, who they include and exclude, and the scope of their work. 

On top of this, it’s also important that we have all of this information on a national scale. To date, HelpSeeker has mapped over 70,000 programs, locations, helplines, and benefits across the country, with over 250,000 services among them, and is continuing to expand this work across Canada.

Quick Report Generation 

Especially in an age where information is so overwhelming and dense, reports on the state of the community need to offer a quick and concise description for stakeholders and relevant decision-makers. HelpSeeker’s systems map can offer visual depictions of the system in a helpful way for any policy analyst, decision-maker, or funder. 

Here’s an example: Suppose you were looking to improve support for newcomers in your community. Using the systems map, you could pull a report of what services exist for newcomers currently in your community, and have a qualitative and quantitative understanding of those services and their availability. You could look and see which neighbourhoods have the highest search rates for newcomer services, and compare that to the geographic location of those existing services. If you knew that another city in Canada was innovative and well-known for supporting newcomers, you could then compare your community to that city, comparing service mixes with them. From there, you could decide what kinds of services should be offered that aren’t already there, and where new and existing services should be situated.  All of this could be done in a matter of minutes. When asked about how that decision was made, you could point to real-time evidence and community-specific insights to justify it. 

Insights, Insights, Insights

Third, the real power of HelpSeeker’s systems map is at the intersection of what services currently exist (supplier network) and what services people in your community need (demand). Because of the depth and breadth of information on HelpSeeker’s systems map, we can compare what the service system looks like in similarly sized communities, as well as look back in time to see how the system has changed. These service mixes (or what services exist in proportion to each other) are incredibly illustrative of the social safety net in a community, and how a community chooses to address (or not address) certain issues. 

HelpSeeker’s systems map is also publicly available at and on our navigation app and wellbeing screener, as a resource for people seeking help and workers at agencies who support people in finding the help they need. From these digital tools, we can analyze interaction data to this mix (indicators of where, when, and how people search for help) to add to the picture. Both these supply network and demand information help us to understand where gaps and duplications occur. 

This is a game-changer for the sector: for the first time, we can use data to find out where more coordination is needed, as well as where investments are redundant. With this data at our fingertips, we can make smarter choices about where and how to invest, identify opportunities for collaboration and innovation, and improve the quality of services in the sector overall by targeting services to where people need them the most. 

The transformation goals of most communities require not only a conceptual understanding of a system but also detailed information about the system and theories of change on how to move from a current to an ideal state. With the right information captured in a systems map, we can ask the right questions, involve the right partners, and come up with innovative solutions to complex social issues. 

Address Complex Problems

Complex social issues are systemic in nature: we need to understand the feedback loops between the external environment and the sector itself. Systems mapping helps to illustrate the complexity of a system while making it simple enough to understand and address. To address complex problems truly, engagement and action are necessary across sectors, organizations, and champions of change. However, it is nearly impossible to take collection action, never mind coordinate and cooperate without a shared understanding of the problem and a shared vision on how to move forward. As a rich information resource, systems mapping can be the basis for this collective understanding. 

The Value of Using a Systems Map with Other Datasets

Systems maps are a part of the essential toolkit for understanding systems dynamics but become even more useful when used alongside other extensive research. HelpSeeker’s systems map visually illustrates the supply network and demand of services in both a qualitative and quantitative way. 

Some quick-win examples for using a systems map could include:

  • Comparing demand indicators (interaction data) with external demand indicators or public discourse, such as social media. For example, if interactions with domestic-violence related listings were increasing, is the same trend happening on Twitter? Are new conversations about domestic violence empowering people to seek out help more? Or is it simply that rates of violence are going up and more people need services? These are questions being explored using HelpSeeker’s systems map as a part of the Data2Action project. 
  • Comparing service mix with population or socio-economic indicators. For example, how does population affect the service mix of a community? What is an ideal service mix for a community with lots of low-income seniors who identify as queer? These are just a few of the questions we are using the HelpSeeker systems map to answer in the Community Success Hub. 
  • Analyzing spending in the social safety net. HelpSeeker’s social impact audit module on the Community Success Hub compares openly available financial data in the sector such as charitable revenues, grants, charitable spending, and other social investments with the services in a community. The Edmonton Police Service recently completed its first Social Impact Audit using the systems map in Spring 2021. 

The Lasting Impact of Systems Mapping 

Systems mapping is the starting point of systems change and a catalyst to getting to innovative solutions quickly. Therefore, the lasting impact of systems mapping is not only to improve understanding of the sector and keep information up-to-date but also in systems transformation itself. Coordinated systems of care, smarter investments, and solutions tailored to community-specific context will ultimately be the legacy of using systems mapping. Addressing complex problems is no simple task, and requires action that is both well-informed and responsive to social need. With systems mapping, decision-makers no longer have to compromise timely action for research on the state of the sector. 

What’s Next?

Thanks to a major investment from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the HelpSeeker systems map is expanding every day, uncovering and mapping services in communities from coast to coast to coast. Through this partnership, HelpSeeker’s systems map has become the most valuable resource that exists to understand what services exist in a community.

In addition to a full national scale of mapping, HelpSeeker is currently revising its mapping process to provide even more detail about the service landscape. This includes innovative additions such as:

  • Specific tags for different types of services to tell a richer story about what services exist, as well as unpacking programs that often bundle several different services together (e.g. food bank, food vouchers or ready-made meals vs. simply tagging listings as “food.”) 
  • Further population-specific breakdowns, to capture what services exist for different demographics. Disaggregating the map’s data in this way helps to advance data equity for communities of different ages, genders, sexualities, backgrounds, nationalities, Indigeneity, citizenship status, and ability. This also helps inform decision-makers about the specific needs of communities. 
  • Attributes to describe what makes services unique to people seeking help, such as wait times for services, types of occupancy (e.g. beds, spaces), what to expect when arriving at a service, and the type of approach the service uses.

How to Get Started with Social Systems Mapping

As a policymaker or funder, you already know the importance of the decisions you make and understand how data and insights are invaluable to your work. By understanding what your community has today, and the insights that come with that, you will be empowered to address your community’s needs and take on complex social issues. 

Want to learn more about HelpSeeker’s systems map? Visit for more information. 

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