New Insights to Improve Service Design & Coordination in the Social Sector

Service providers and funding organizations have grappled with the need to coordinate services across a complex social system littered with barriers at every turn for clients and frontline staff. One of the ways the barriers manifest is in our lack of understanding of the “bigger picture.” We tend to refer clients to those we know, and instinctively run through a mental Rolodex of programs, services, benefits, and colleagues to find that right fit. Coordinated Access initiatives have prompted more transparency in this process, but they’re still a long way from coordinating parts of the system, never mind the full system of support locally.



However, in the past three years, HelpSeeker’s work with CMHC has resulted in Canada’s first-ever supply map of the social services sector. As a living dataset, the supply map has accumulated over 6.2 million data points – and more are being added. We’re in the process of upgrading the map in selected communities to contain 20 times as much information. 



Here’s why this data is important for the sector to leverage: you can now access Karto,the product that pushes insights and visuals from this dataset, folded with other datasets, including the Census, Kijiji, and CRA – to understand trends locally around supply and demand. 



Let’s take a look at how you can use this information to develop a new service, or to revamp an existing service to better meet client needs and unmet demand:

1. Get your bearing on market dynamics.

In considering the target population for your service, you should have a good understanding of what’s happening in the housing market locally, in relation to housing affordability, but also mental health and addictions and other social data trends. You should also see how populations like Indigenous people or newcomers are specifically affected by these trends.



In Karto, you can browse through data trends in a few clicks to get the general idea,, and then grab any supporting information for a presentation to leadership or funders. Knowing that racialized populations are a growing group, or that rental market rates are increasing much faster for certain types of housing will be essential in understanding the challenges your program will face, and the kinds of expertise you will need to build into it. For instance, seeing that more refugees are arriving in your city, you should consider whether your programs have the capacity to deliver services to this group, or if you need to plan collaborations and build up expertise now, ahead of clients reaching out.

At a practical level, consider the wide difference in rent  for a 3-bedroom apartment in official CMHC data below, compared to Kijiji live data. If you overshoot budgeting for your financial subsidy for a Rapid Rehousing of Housing First Intensive Case Management program by $1,000 per unit per month, you can see how much of a problem that creates for your organization’s sustainability and performance for funders, as well as your ability to help clients with the realities of the rental market.

2. Get the big picture on supply.

The supply in the social sector includes such diverse services, programs, resources, and facilities that it truly requires decades in the field to fully grasp the local ecosystem in larger communities. That being said, we do have a good idea of the supply mix, both across the country and locally, to help speed up this learning process. 



Understanding how large the social sector is, who does what, where they operate, and who they serve, is table stakes information for any organization and staff. This helps staff design better interventions, because they understand the resources available to them, allowing them to leverage these more effectively. This also helps services stay current with trends in the sector, and find potential gaps. 



Rather than looking at a small part of the ecosystem focused on homelessness, the Supply Mix can give you that at-a-glance understanding of all services, how they are being delivered, and to whom. Looking at how services are bundled together in the wider ecosystem can also inform your service design with new insights. You might see that women’s programming tends to coincide with general health supports, but your program doesn’t offer this. Maybe it’s something to consider. How are these organizations funding this combination? Is it providing a better impact?

3. Define programs by the services and resources they bundle.

One of the challenges we face in systems-mapping work is that most organizations do very different things, for very different target groups, even if they are providing the same program type.



To help you understand what’s happening locally, we dug more deeply into the specifics involved by area of need. For instance, in the Housing & Homelessness Service Mix in Karto, you can browse by Program Type, but can also see what kinds of services and resources are often included in these programs. 



This helps you understand how what you’re designing – say a new or revamped Intensive Case Management (ICM) program – compares with what others are offering in the community. This helps you get an idea of what you may want to include in your offering. It can also help you dig into any population groups that your program type is currently serving that others are not. Or you may find that it’s a crowded space, and you should look at an under-served population in your design instead.



Once again, you can see the kinds of skill sets other programs have in their staff, the kinds of offerings they provide clients, and even where the program is offered – all with a few clicks instead of having to call everyone or attend meeting after meeting to get the basic details you need to move forward.

4. Define collaborators for better referrals and service integration.

Moving beyond our usual approaches to serve clients can take service design to a whole new level as well. Once you have a good idea of where you want to focus, you can consider existing and new types of partners you want to bring into the fold. For instance, if you want to support seniors with a housing program, but know you’re not an expert in mental health, you can browse through all the listings in your community and look at organizations that provide outreach services that may come into your building, or can add your residents to their caseload. 


This can also help you create a solid referral network for your staff and clients. In Karto, we include contact information for all the listings, so you can make quick work of finding your target list to approach.

We would love to hear your success stories using Karto for better service design and referrals. If you’d like to be featured in our social media and future blogs, reach out and tell us all about it by emailing We also want to know if you have ideas for new datasets we should be adding to Karto to help the product be even better.

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