Data-Smart City Pod: YMCA and Mission-Driven Data

Episode Summary

Professor Steve Goldsmith interviews Maria-Alicia Serrano, Senior Director of Research, Analytics, and Insights at the YMCA of the USA

Episode Notes

In this episode, Professor Steve Goldsmith interviews Maria-Alicia Serrano, Senior Director of Research, Analytics, and Insights at the YMCA of the USA. As an organization operating in over 10,000 neighborhoods across the country, the YMCA relies on geospatial data tools to understand each local community and work with individual Ys to address pressing issues of equity, public health, and mental wellbeing. The Community Insights data tool empowers local Ys with the information they need to provide optimum services for local youth and families, while efficiently allocating budgeting and personnel.

About Data-Smart City Pod

New from the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the Data-Smart City Pod brings on top innovators and leading industry, academic, and government officials to discuss data, innovation, and government. This podcast serves as a central resource for cities and individuals interested in the intersection of government and innovations, the adoption of data projects on the local government level, and how to become data smart. Hosted by Stephen Goldsmith, former Deputy Mayor of New York,  Mayor of Indianapolis, and current Professor at Harvard Kennedy School.

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Music credit: Summer-Man by Ketsa

About Data-Smart City Solutions

Data-Smart City Solutions, housed at the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School, is working to catalyze the adoption of data projects on the local government level by serving as a central resource for cities interested in this emerging field. We highlight best practices, top innovators, and promising case studies while also connecting leading industry, academic, and government officials. Our research focus is the intersection of government and data, ranging from open data and predictive analytics to civic engagement technology. We seek to promote the combination of integrated, cross-agency data with community data to better discover and preemptively address civic problems. To learn more visit us online and follow us on Twitter

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Episode Transcription


Steve Goldsmith: Hello. This is Steve Goldsmith, Professor of Urban Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School. And you're listening to Data-Smart City Pod, where we bring on top innovators and experts to discuss the future of cities and how to become data smart.

Steve Goldsmith: This is Steve Goldsmith, Professor of Urban Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School for another podcast on the use of data to improve the quality of services, community services, and governmental services. Many of our previous interviews have been with government officials and today we have an important change as we look at a large nonprofit, how it uses data and mapping to improve the quality of its services. Our interview today is with Maria Alicia Serrano, the Senior Director of Research, Analytics and Insights for Y USA. Welcome Maria Alicia.

Maria Alicia Serrano: Thank you so much.

Steve Goldsmith: Great to have you. Let's start out a little bit about you. Before you tell us about your job at the Y, take us back to what you were doing before and how you ended up at the Y, and we'll go from there.

Maria Alicia Serrano: Well, a little bit about me. I have always been someone that loves data. I come by it naturally through my parents who have been big on believing that using information can help make the world a better place. My career actually started out at the Chicago Housing Authority doing a lot of analytical work at a time when they were really working on a lot of revitalization initiatives across the city. I love working at CHA, but I was interested in expanding a bit to understand how you can use data to think about changing and improving communities nationally so I joined a boutique firm in Chicago that worked nationally called Applied Real Estate Analysis or AREA.

In that AREA, I was really fortunate that I was able to continue to apply my interests in understanding shifting demographics and changing community assets and needs in communities across the country with a lot of work in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Los Angeles. I loved working at AREA. I was a VP of our Public Sector Services there. But then after a while, I decided I really wanted to go back to working at one organization because sometimes the challenges of consulting are you really love the work you're doing with a client, but you don't get to quite see it all the way through. That's how I ended up at YMCA of the USA. It's kind of a best of both worlds.

Steve Goldsmith: Well, that's an interesting data-driven path. What's your portfolio at the Y?

Maria Alicia Serrano: I focus on the Insights tools at Y USA. My focus is on developing those tools. I've got an amazing team that I work with that does both GIS-based tools as well as Power BI and other data visualization tools that we designed for use by YMCA of the USA. But our bigger focus is on developing them for local Y's that act as consultants to other Y's, as well as the larger YMCA network. The other part of my work that's really critical though. I always joke that everyone loves interacting with Insight tools, thinks they're great, but people don't like to talk as much about the data you need to create and clean and analyze and collect to put in those tools. That's the other half of my work in close partnership with our information technology department and my other colleague in research, identifying the best strategy for us to collect data from the 800 YMCA associations across the country.

Steve Goldsmith: I want to in a few minutes talk about how you work in a federated organization. Let's start with what you do in the following since I run a program for chief data officers from cities, and they have focused on using maps to open up new ways of thinking about problems. If you have one layers, data on top of each other, and uses good visualizations, then it can cause people to ask better questions in addition to the analytics or just see things. The Y is an interesting organization because it's so big and it was really an early adopter at the nonprofit level of GIS and spatial technology. But how do you think about GIS and Insights together just from your perspective?

Maria Alicia Serrano: I think about it from a couple of ways. Being such a large organization, the data maturity and literacy varies across YMCAs. In some cases we're developing tools and it's meant to make people more aware of trends that from a gut perspective they may have thought existed and so it's providing them data to either find what they were thinking or to help open their eyes to a different way of thinking about what's happening in their community. For some, just seeing the trends, that's it, then that's good, and that's what they needed. Then, for some of our other Y's who, maybe, have had the opportunity to look at the data and want to go further, it becomes a space where they're able to start asking more questions.

An example I commonly use is, well, if you know now that the youth in your community are more prone to develop type two diabetes at a younger age and perhaps other parts of the community, what are you going to do now because of that? How does that change your operations? If you've been offering the diabetes prevention program and focusing on targeting it towards adults, does that mean you're going to start offering it towards youth now? What does that mean for your operations in terms of your instructors? It's really are encouraging them to think about how to take the data and combine that with their operational expertise and local understanding because what I always emphasize is, I have the luxury of being at the national office and getting to sit around and think about data and pontificate on these things, but I'm not the one who has to go into the community and talk to community members. So I think it's important to take that Insight tool and combine it with their operational expertise and with input from the community. I really see it as part of a three-legged stool.

Steve Goldsmith: I want to come back to your Insights hub in a minute. I think your model providing some services is important. But before we do that, one of the things that puzzles me a little bit is that you could create a platform, a GIS platform say, and have certain data loaded into it that would answer some of the questions you just referred to: the ethnicity of a community, the demographics of the community, maybe other insights. But a local Y would also perhaps benefit from the ability to grab open anonymized data, say, diabetes by neighborhood or absence of after school care. How do you think about ways that those additional localized datasets could be made available to the local Y's?

Maria Alicia Serrano: Well, we think about it in two ways. I mean, one is, there are some, fortunately now as opposed to when I started in this work 20 years ago, there's a lot more of those local data sets that have been nationalized that Y USA is able to leverage economies of scale and put those in for a Y to be able to access. But two, one of the things that we're not there yet but we're hoping to shift too quickly, is providing more capability for Y's to upload some of those data sets to that additional local layer. The example I would use is school district data. It's what's really important for the Y's work with youth, but as any person that dabbles in that and knows getting national level school data is near impossible or ridiculously high level of effort. We always say that we identify some key data sets, we think, from a national perspective, based upon Y's most common areas of focus, but that partnering with local organizations and leveraging their data as well is really important.

Steve Goldsmith: Let's go to how you support the local Y's because I think this model is broadly applicable to any organization that has local affiliates or local offices even. I know that your inside hub is a place for analysts to come to, but it may also be a place for people to get access to other data sets. Tell us a little bit about how the Insights hub works and how it provides services to, say, a local Y.

Maria Alicia Serrano: Our service delivery model really focuses on the idea that while Y USA has a variety of resources and understanding, that a lot of expertise and understanding how to run operating Y exists with local Y's. I referenced earlier Y's as consultants. There's a group of Y's called Service Delivery Y's, who act as consultants to support other Y's and addressing other issues of fundraising or financial development, as well as a group of Y's called Alliances who focus on helping Y's to address issues around public policy and strategic planning. While that's so valuable in terms of applying Analytics and Insights, it really narrows the pool of individuals and Y's that my team needs to really focus on interact with to about 70 or a hundred, as opposed to 800 Y's and put them in the position so they're able to, we use a teach-the-teacher model where these service delivery partner Y's and Alliances have access to Insights hub and these advanced analytical tools.

They can either run the reports for local Y's, but even more so help the local Y's industry on how to apply the information. Because again, we've got an amazing network of staff across YMCAs, but the reality is they're dealing with so much even pre-COVID. Operationally, that thinking about how to dig into an insight tool may not be at the top of their list of to dos for the day so those consulting Y's can really help them in thinking about how to apply data driven decision-making in their work.

Steve Goldsmith: So you've got different levels here and the analysts, some work with you and some work at the super Y's, is that the way to think about it?

Maria Alicia Serrano: Yeah. Some of them are full-time analysts, and then there are those that that's just a portion of their work is working with the Insight tools. We work with them very closely. We do have some other tools that we developed that are for local Y's that provide a bit more of the information on trends within the YMCA networks. In terms of membership level or program offerings, with the idea that allow Y's to more effectively identify other Y's that may have similar programs operate in similar communities to facilitate information sharing.

Steve Goldsmith: One could imagine, I could imagine, that you could use facial analytics and narratives, data visualizations to both drive Insights, but also to drive fundraising or point out areas that are underserved. How do you work on storytelling as it relates to what you're doing with GIS hub?

Maria Alicia Serrano: I think that's where that becomes critical. I think the ability for data to go from being something that a select few use to a larger part of the, not only in just Y's but other nonprofit and community serving organizations. It's key that to be able to tell a story with the data. The example I often use is I'll sort out 3000 row Excel spreadsheet all day long and thinking about it make some really interesting charts. But the next step is to take those Excel spreadsheets and put them on a map and geocode them. And that's going to reach one group of people.

But the next group of people you can reach is much broader, especially when you start talking about interacting directly with the community with data is when you can tell the story behind what you're seeing. You think about redlining in communities, that story, that history, you can also often see that in the data when you look at mapping and when you look at areas that have had significant amounts of disinvestment by local governments. You can see the story that's being told to the map that way. I think storytelling is critical for organizations to be able to do if they want to make that shift to being data driven because not everyone is going to take the time to really hone their data skills or has a desire to do that.

Steve Goldsmith: A number of organizations, I think, could benefit, nonprofits as well as government, but let's stick with nonprofit, from what you've developed at Y USA. In a kind of a concluding four or five minutes, what are the set of principles that you think a sister agency should pay attention to that wants to provide analytic tools, including spatial analytics tools, to a decentralized or federated organization?

Maria Alicia Serrano: I think the first principle is know that user, and being clear and consistently designing the tool for that user. It's, I think, one of the growth learnings that we have observed a team is we initially would design a tool and a lot of people would be interested and we start making tweaks to it based upon the different level of interest. All of a sudden you look back, you're like, "Wait, what were you originally designed this tool for? Because it's not doing that now." Understanding your user and being consistent about whatever you develop, what that use case is, and what that user is interested in. Particularly for local governments and nonprofits.

The other element is recognizing that the data is only part of the story and only part of the information need. That's always going to be combined with the reminder of what your communities and your organization's values are because there's a particular lens that you're going to end up applying to the data when you're looking at it, when you keep in mind your organization's values.

A simple example from the Y is one of our many important values that is reflected in our mission is that we're for all, regardless of any of their socioeconomic or other characteristics or identities. When you start with collecting data, it's making sure that we're reflecting communities accurately, and that we're asking questions that allow people to identify as they are, to when you're actually developing the Insight tool, ensuring that we aren't further perpetuating images, or we're not doing things that I can't believe sometimes I still see, like in identifying individuals who are Black or African-American and using the color black on the map. It's important to be clear about what your organization's values are and that should be reflected in your Insight tools.

The other thing is recognizing that the tool can't solve everything, that you've got to provide the capacity for people to interact with the tool on a regular basis and to make sure you understand what they see as important, what they see as a priority. Because you might, if you're a national office in a decentralized model at the Y is, you might think it would be really great and cool if they had some slider tool that showed trends over time and diabetes rates, whatever it was. But if that's not what is needed by the YMCA movement, for example, in our case, it's really irrelevant. It's what the YMCA movement needs to be effective in their work. It's always being nimble to the idea that it's important to show what the options are for Insight tools and make sure people are aware of the broad amount of analytical capabilities that exist.

But in deciding ultimately what you're going to do for us, it's based upon what Y's need. Because if they don't need it, then I'm not going to work on it and if they do need it, I'm going to make sure we can make it as great as possible.

Steve Goldsmith: Perfect. Thank you, Maria Alicia Serrano, the Senior Director of Research Analytics and Insights for Y USA. Her story and the story of how the YMCA uses maps and data to better serve communities is on the Harvard Kennedy school site Data-Smart City Solutions. Thank you for joining us today.

Maria Alicia Serrano: Thank you so much for having me.

Steve Goldsmith: All right. Good day.

Steve Goldsmith: If you liked this podcast, please visit us at, or follow us @DataSmartCities on Twitter. Find us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. This podcast was produced by Betsy Gardner and hosted by me, Steve Goldsmith. We're proud to serve as a central resource for cities interested in the intersection of government, data and innovation. Thanks for listening.