Big Data to Fight Poverty, Part 1: A Chance to Listen Deeply to Low-Income Families

This is the first in a three-part series about how big data can be used to transform the safety net.

Tech giants are vacuuming up massive collections of behavioral data — what we search for, or ‘like’ along with the groups we belong to and even how we drive our cars. But what if search data could be gathered ethically and put to work for the greater good? What if we could use big data to understand and fight poverty?



In this three-part series, I’ll explore this question. My organization, One Degree from Alluma, analyzed data about hundreds of thousands of searches on the One Degree platform. These are anonymized searches by low-income individuals and families facing hardship. People like Seisha. Seisha lives in East Palo Alto with her children. She uses One Degree to help meet her family’s basic needs in a region where the cost of living is growing out of reach even for middle-class families.

Behind the numbers and charts I’m going to share are thousands of stories like Seisha’s — of real people working hard to build a better life for their families.

This analysis isn’t just a “user study” for us. Our community is at the heart of everything that we do as an organization. Our community is speaking to us as they use our platform to find what they need. Every day we hear from our community directly, real people reaching out to our support team or interacting with our UX researcher in interviews. But analyzing their behavioral and demographic data is another way we can listen, and understand how families facing poverty are working to build a path to a better life.

In this first post I want to make sure you know who’s speaking through these data. Our community is made up of diverse and vibrant individuals and families like Seisha’s.

About Our Community: Who’s Using One Degree

As of March 2019, over 500,000 people have searched for social services and community resources on the One Degree platform over the past six years. We log a variety of data points about each search — decoupled from personal identifiable information (PII). To date we have over 1 million data points. The platform is currently populated with more than 21,000 resources across California’s 10 counties reaching more than 40% of the state’s population. We conducted a survey of members to learn more about them, and we learned a lot.

About 75% of One Degree’s community lives in the counties of San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Alameda (home to Oakland):

One Degree Users

Since One Degree launched in Los Angeles County in 2017, we’ve seen 175% member growth there, now nearly 30% of our total membership.

One Degree’s community by race/ethnicity:

One Degree’s community by race/ethnicity

One Degree’s target audience is low-income, tech-enabled adults. Unsurprisingly, most people using the platform (61%) are aged 18-44 years old. We were, however, a bit surprised to learn that 24% of those using our platform are aged 55 and older:

One Degree Users by Age

  • 74% of our community identifies as women and 25% identifies as male. 1% identify in another way.
  • More than 65% report that two or more adults live in their household.
  • Nearly 56% of those on the platform report there is at least one child under 18 years old living in their household:

One Degree Users With Children

We surveyed members about their housing status. Even members of the One Degree team were a little taken aback by what we found: 26% of those using One Degree reported they are currently experiencing homelessness and 32% told us they were homeless in the past.

One Degree Users Experiencing Homelessness

More than half of all those using One Degree are on a mobile device:

One Degree Users on Mobile Devices

Though there were a few unexpected results from our survey, our community overall reflects the low-income and marginalized communities that call California’s major population centers home.

What might we learn about how the One Degree community searches for help on the platform? Is it possible to discover insights not only at the regional level, but even down to neighborhoods? In the next article in the series, I’ll share more about what we learned from our search data analysis. How can we put big data to work fighting poverty? We explore some ideas in Part 3.


This data analysis was supported by a grant from The James Irvine Foundation and from the California Endowment.

Andrea Wood is the former Head of Development at One Degree. Previously, Andrea worked as Director of Advocacy and Fundraising at Mozilla and as Senior Director of Client Services at Change.org.

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