United Way of Dane County Unveils Its 211 App: Finding Help When and How You Want It

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by Jonathan Gramling

There are three universal call numbers: 911 for emergencies, 988 for suicide/crisis issues and 211 for service referrals

For over 20 years, United Way of Dane County has operated a 211 call center in its facilities on Atwood Avenue. It utilized volunteers and paid staff to answer calls to 211 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. And callers would be referred to one or more of the 1,000 resources in their data base. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced some adjustments to the model. The volunteers left and never came back and so 211 is staffed by paid workers.

And now 211 has adapted to the times and the digital age.

“One of the things that we realize is that sometimes people are hesitant to call 211 or they may not find it convenient or they may be a little embarrassed about calling,” said Ed Wall, director of 211 for United Way of Dane County. “We wanted to make it as easy as possible to put these resources right in people’s hands. And we recognize that a lot of things are being done by app now. About 90 percent of the homeless folks just

in Madison have got a smart phone that may be provided by different programs. So we wanted to make it as easily accessible as possible. We had a very generous donor come forward, Phil and Kit Blake who live in Madison. They donated $250,000 to have the app developed. It took about 18 months work to get it developed and field tested and into the hands of our testers.”

While United Way of Dane County took the initiative to develop the app, it shared it with the rest of the United Ways in the state.

“We soon realized that since all centers run on the same databases, it didn’t make sense to have it limited to just our coverage area,” Wall said. “All of the centers in the state agreed and voted unanimously to roll it out statewide.”

And now, people can contact 211 in whichever way they are comfortable with, either over the phone or on their smart phones.

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“You’ll have people who still want to call in because they want to talk to somebody and have then walk them through the particular resources available to them,” Wall said. “You have other people who don’t. Typically, when you release an app, especially for social service like we have, you expect to see a 15-20 percent increase in the use of the service. But that doesn’t translate to increased workload on our staff because those folks may have called, but now they are using the app. We expect to see about a 20 percent increase in our use either through the app or in-person. We’re indifferent as to how people acess 211. We just want them to know that they can go in at any time and access those resources that they may need.”

The 211 app is user friendly.

“People are much better with the app than you would think,” Wall observed. “We purposely took the app in the testing phase and we gave it to elderly folks, folks who weren’t particularly tech-savvy. I’m 63-years-old and I told them that when I sit down to look at it, I don’t want to have to sit there questioning what do I do next. So if you download the app and look at it and bring it up, you’re going to see just how intuitive it is. It’s going to ask you if you want to be anonymous or register. If you pick anonymous, it’s going to ask you what you are looking for. And it will list all of the different categories that we have. You can just scroll down, pick the category you want and it is going to bring up the selections from there. It is very intuitive.”

And readily, you can find everything that you could possible need with just a few steps.

“You can go around inside and pick whatever particular category you want, whether it is food assistance, housing assistance, legal aid, utility assistance or rent assistance,” Wall said. “And then they can pick from the selections that come up on those different categories. And we even went beyond that. It utilizes the smart geolocation of the device that is using it. You can bring up the results and it will also bring up a button to ‘Show Map.’ If you hit ‘Show Map,’ it will map those resources all around you, so you can click on the one that is closest to you. It will tell you right where it is at and give you directions in how to get there.”

And no matter if people call 211 or use the app, they still get the same up-to-date information.

“Our staff does the updates,” Wall said. “We already have staff who are resource managers. They are the ones who go in constantly updating the 1,000 plus resources that we have within our database just in the greater Dane County area. So as our staff updates that, the app actually works off of our data backbone. So it is constantly curated.”

While the app is only in English now, there are plans to expand the number of languages once the financial hurdle of development costs is overcome.

“if people call into 211, we are part of the language line,” Wall said. “We can answer calls in 300 plus languages. If they have a language issue, they can call into 211. And if they are okay with English, then the app is available to them.”

The 211 app is a free service and the app can be downloaded for free from the Google or Apple Stores. Now vital services are just a phone call — or click — away. Help is always there when you need it.