AWS Public Sector Blog

Generating program-defining insights in seconds for child, adult, senior, and military services

This is a guest post by Shahirah Mahmood, PhD, director of data management, measurement, and outcomes at Easterseals, DC MD VA.

Easterseals, DC MD VA is a multifaceted nonprofit organization with the goal of enriching lives and expanding opportunities for children and adults in the Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia (DMV) area, including people with disabilities and military backgrounds. We are an independent affiliate of the national Easterseals organization, highly focused on the needs of our local community in the greater Washington, D.C. area. Last year, we served more than 6,000 individuals and families through our many programs: early childhood development centers, including Head Start and Early Head Start programs; employment services for veterans and individuals with disabilities; reintegration services for homeless veterans and incarcerated veterans; behavioral health services for military and veteran families; respite services for families with children with severe disabilities; and early intervention services. Our program participants range in age from six weeks to 102 years old.

With support from our account team at Amazon Web Services (AWS), Easterseals established a data lake to better understand and define the impact our organization has on its participants with the overarching goal of empowering all people to to achieve their potential and live meaningful lives.

From data silos to strategic insights in seconds with AWS

The principal challenge Easterseals faced before implementing AWS solutions was siloed data. We experienced rapid growth and launched several new programs, each with its own data systems and reporting mechanisms – more than 17 core data systems did not interface. We lacked a unified data management strategy, and our data lived in a mix of on-premises and cloud-based systems. Answering simple questions like, “How many people with autism do you serve?” became a complex project that involved collecting data across several programs, manually analyzing it, and then reporting findings. This process could take days or weeks, depending on the workloads of our program officers and administrative staff.

We needed a way to aggregate and visualize our data in a secure, cost-effective way. With this goal in mind, we applied for and won the AWS Imagine Grant. Working through the grant application process helped us map out our data management strategy and crystalize strategic plans for the organization. We used AWS Glue and AWS CloudFormation to prepare, integrate, and establish our data in a data lake. Housing data this way allows us to analyze it by demographic as well as program or service. As a result, we know more about what our programs are accomplishing and who they are impacting, and we can access this information quickly.

Using Amazon QuickSight to create dashboard visualizations lifted reporting burdens on program team members, allowing them to focus on the delivery of services at the heart of our mission. Generating reports now takes seconds when it used to take days. Leadership, marketing, and fundraising teams now have program metrics from the child development centers (one of several programs at Easterseals) at the ready to create presentations, public-facing communications, and grant proposals at a much higher velocity.

Most importantly, as we continue to ingest data from other programs, Easterseals will have the metrics to show our stakeholders—parents, participants, and caregivers—the impact that its services have on solving big problems like school preparedness for students, reducing isolation in senior citizens, or veteran reintegration. For example, we can analyze surveys and feedback from our veteran population with job placements to determine which industries or geographical areas are hiring veterans, and what their level of job satisfaction is. We can say with confidence, “We listened to your feedback, and here is how we’re making change to improve the lives of our participants.”

Using AWS solutions not only allows Easterseals to look back on its accomplishments but it also helps us look forward and make strategic decisions about the organization’s growth. We stood up a dashboard on enrollment trends for our early childhood education centers. Analyzing longitudinal demographic data with geospatial analysis helped us determine the areas of greatest need for establishing new programs and centers. These insights have proven critical for budgeting, strategic planning, and investing as the organization looks toward future expansion.

Collaborating with AWS to create a personalized data strategy

At the onset of our organization’s journey, we had almost zero cloud experience. We consulted with our AWS account team on the specific needs of our organization, identified our knowledge gaps and sought training, and developed a roadmap for our transition to the cloud. One of our biggest lessons learned was that there is so much cross-team collaboration and communication involved in getting a project like this right. We worked with our leadership team to demonstrate the value of an integrated data strategy to grow buy-in across the organization, and we worked closely with our AWS team to take things step-by-step. Our philosophy became: Create a nimble strategy to leverage the resources you have, and learn along the way to create momentum. Successful adoption of the data lake demonstrated how important data standardization is to our organization. This made the case for adding a new team member to help continue the Easterseals cloud journey.

As an AWS IMAGINE Grant recipient, implementing this project has been a true collaboration with AWS. The Amazon “Customer Obsession” leadership principle resonated deeply with the team at Easterseals and showed alignment with our values. It is our goal to make sure we’re developing programs and services that deliver value and impact for our participants. Data is one piece of the bigger story you’re trying to tell. Data plus storytelling paints a comprehensive picture of your impact as an organization.

Learn more about AWS for nonprofits

Are you curious about how your organization can advance its mission with cloud technology? Learn more about how nonprofits around the world use AWS to advance their missions at the AWS for Nonprofits hub. Start a conversation with an AWS team member to answer questions about how you can use AWS to support your organization’s unique needs. Explore credit programs for nonprofits like the AWS Imagine Grant. Plus, dive into more nonprofit stories to learn how nonprofits are expanding their impact with the cloud.

Read more about AWS for nonprofits:

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