Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • Community Health Data Forum: The Community Perspective

    On Wednesday, I moderated a Community Breakout Session at the Community Health Data Forum, hosted by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in partnership with the Department for Health and Human Services (HHS) and our colleagues over at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. This was a conference to discuss the use and continued creation of tools which could provide the public with access to community health data, to ultimately empower communities to take action.


    HHS and OSTP are coordinating and releasing troves of valuable health data to the public, and the Forum was a chance to highlight some of the ways that technology developers in the private sector are already using this data to create tremendously valuable tools for health systems, communities, and individuals to assess, synthesize and act upon this data to improve health. After seeing some of the potential ways the data could be processed and thinking about future uses, our session was designated to get community stakeholders to give feedback on how these tools can get communities to improve their health.

    To jump start our conversation we heard from some innovators who are using data and technology to be more inclusive of community participation and decision making. Dr. Jim Bower discussed his innovative work with Whyville. Additionally, Deborah Estrin discussed the Boyle Heights Project engaging the community using participatory wireless sensing through smart-phone technologies.

    We then opened it up to the audience to solicit thoughts or ideas on how we can use this data to reach out into communities and impact decision-making. One take-away from the discussion was there is a great need for communities and application developers to start having regular conversations regarding the use of data and solving community issues to connect the technologies developed to the needs on the ground.

    The goal is to find out how can we use this data to help the community make smarter decisions and how communities can hold institutions- health, government, and otherwise- more accountable. And as an exciting and actionable step, -HHS announced a partnership with Health 2.0 to create a Developer Challenge that will spur creative applications that can present the data in a form to impact communities. The challenge will conclude in October at Health Innovation Week, so stay tuned for more health data and more applications that will help get Americans on the path to a longer and healthier life.

    If you have ideas on tools that can be created to help communities use the data that’s being released to change behavior, go to to submit your ideas.

    And the whole Community Health Data Initiative in response to President Obama’s Executive Order regarding Transparency and Open Government that he released on his first day in office. For information on Open Government generally or progress on the Open Government Directive please visit




    Sonal Shah, Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation


  • The Social Innovation Fund: Driving Solutions and Rewarding Results

    Every day, in communities across America, promising non-profit organizations direct heroic efforts to implement innovative, effective solutions to our nation’s most daunting social challenges. Tackling a wide variety of issues, from poverty to failing schools, non-profits are at the forefront of what I call the “solutions business.”  The impact of their good work is only hampered by a lack of resources and insufficient capacity to gauge their programs’ impact, improve on them, and grow them to serve more people in more communities.

    What if non-profit funding could be better focused on the best solutions?  And what if we could share what works more broadly, so leaders in any community could tackle these challenges with ideas and approaches that have demonstrated success?  The benefits would be enormous. 

    A new program called the Social Innovation Fund (SIF) will do just that.  Run by the Corporation for National and Community Service, this fund represents an extraordinary opportunity to drive results-oriented responses to critical social challenges, stimulate innovation in the non-profit sector, and support community-led approaches.

    The SIF will drive the best solutions and reward results. Instead of providing resources directly to non-profits, the SIF channels funding through foundations and other grantmakers who will competitively select, fund, and support promising non-profit organizations working in low-income communities over a period of years. Through evaluation and knowledge-sharing, the SIF has the potential to transform how our nation tackles social challenges. 

    It’s an approach that has clear benefits. 

    • The Best Ideas.  The SIF provides investments to multiple non-profits in an issue area or a geographic area, allowing the best innovations to rise to the top. 
    • Capacity Building.  It provides non-profits with critical support for management, staffing, data collection, fundraising and other challenges that they will need to overcome as they grow.
    • Accountability.  The SIF provides funding and incentives for non-profits to evaluate their effectiveness.  Grantmakers will be true partners in these evaluation efforts and will be jointly held accountable for results.  This focus on evaluation is a critical part of expanding non-profit capabilities.
    • Matching Funds.  The SIF leverages private funding from grantmakers and others.  Each federal dollar will be matched with private funding, enhancing the government’s investment to result in greater impact.. 

    First Lady Michelle Obama said: "By focusing on high-impact, results-oriented non-profits, we will ensure that government dollars are spent in a way that is effective, accountable and worthy of public trust.” 

    Tomorrow at the White House, the First Lady, Melody Barnes, and I will join over 100 philanthropists, foundations, and innovators for an exciting announcement about progress on the SIF.  We hope you’ll watch it live here at 11:45 AM EDT.

    Patrick Corvington is the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service


  • Promoting Partnerships for Innovation in Energy

    It is President Barack Obama’s priority to find new ways for this administration to partner across government and across sectors in addressing our nation’s greatest challenges. Given the nature of the problems we face, the ability of government to forge effective relationships with organizations of all types will be critical in making progress on the President’s agenda –particularly in areas like energy innovation.

    Last Friday, the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation co-convened a conference on Energy Innovation that included participation by five White House offices, four federal departments, three federal agencies, entrepreneurs, state government officials, academia, private sector leaders, nonprofits and innovators.  Through this convening, we sought to embrace these actors as our partners in three areas: advancement of shared policy objectives, enhancement of visibility around these issues, and the coordination of resources so as to improve the government’s ability to fulfill specific objectives of the Administration.

    Throughout the day-long conference, attendees discussed ideas and mechanisms to help scale-up private sector investment, direct philanthropic support, and increase the efficiency of the government’s role in these areas. Entrepreneurs are already building on the foundation of the Administration’s Recovery Act, which provided over $36 billion of federal funding to stimulate the sector. This unprecedented ongoing investment in areas such as research and development, have created an atmosphere for accelerating innovation and growth to jumpstart a thriving, private market for energy innovation that will put thousands of people back to work.

    Participants of the conference discussed that all sectors need to encourage American innovation for American jobs, and that few areas are more ready for innovation than the energy sector. If businesses and entrepreneurs can harness resources and ingenuity available to them, they can become world leaders in clean energy production, and capitalize on this rapidly growing sector. US investment in basic energy research is at its greatest, but attention must also be given to the private market for energy. Energy innovations are capable of receiving additional attention from investors, and limitations such as short-term costs, restricted financing options, and the inability to access current and relevant information, need to be addressed. Attendees agreed that it could be more straightforward to know if and when new technologies can be deployed, which is currently difficult because regulations vary from state to state.

    Finally, we discussed the opportunities provided by the diverse set of organizations present, and it was determined that near-term and long-term challenges need to be addressed in a strategic, integrated way. The group recognized that government can create the legal and policy conditions for energy prosperity, can draw on large scale resources, and can utilize its ability to attract attention in order to drive market progress. At the meeting, the Department of Energy and the Small Business Administration jointly announced that the Small Business Investment Company program, and the Small Business Technology Transfer program would begin using their existing network of funds to promote small green energy firms, though a new $60 million Business Clean Energy Innovation fund.

    Private corporations and venture capital firms at the meeting offered to play a productive and sustaining role in tactically addressing structural and institutional challenges that inhibit the long-term success of proven models. In terms of providing support to early-stage energy companies, these groups can bring their business acumen to the table, and their access to a large group of peer organizations, to achieve some the goals that were discussed – including the creation of an energy innovation network for entrepreneurs.

    Participating philanthropic foundations, such as the Kauffman Foundation and the Nebraska Community Foundation, expressed their experience thinking strategically about effective ways of working with multiple stakeholders to address these conditions both nationally, and locally. These groups indicated that they have the flexibility to develop new ideas and can use their on-the-ground experience and relationships to identify the local problems, as well as the interventions that will make a true difference.

    In concluding Friday’s conference, it was announced that a series of regional follow-on meetings would take place, beginning in Omaha, Nebraska on June 16, 2010, to continue the dialogue with a diverse set of actors in communities across the nation over the next few months.

    Howard W. Buffett is a Policy Advisor in the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

  • Text4Baby Going Big

    Over at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Hillary Chen provides a progress report today on Text4Baby, a health information service provided to new and expecting mothers by text message, made possible by a public-private partnership.

    During her visit to Memphis earlier this week, Sonal Shah highlighted Text4Baby as one of the many innovative ways that government is addressing challenges like infant mortality. Memphis has tremendously high infant mortality rates, due in part to expecting and new mothers not engaging in appropriate, evidence-based behaviors to ensure the health of their babies.

    Read Hillary's post today to find out more about the partnership and, if you know someone who is a new or expecting mother, have them text "Baby" (for English) or "Bebe" (for Spanish) to 511411 to sign up.

    Charlie Anderson is a Policy Assistant in the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

  • Community Solutions Tour: Porter-Leath and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Memphis

    I had a pretty full day yesterday, sandwiching my visit to Youth Villages between two other Community Solutions Tour stopsPorter-Leath and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Memphis.

    For over 160 years, Porter-Leath has been assisting at-risk children and families in Memphis, helping more than 10,000 low-income children and families annually with programs designed to meet their developmental, health and social needs at the earliest opportunity.  Porter-Leath addresses the dire need for infant mortality prevention by utilizing AmeriCorps members as paraprofessional home visitors to deliver an evidence-based curriculum into the home of at-risk pregnant women— resources on prenatal care, nutrition, and infant health are shared with the mother-to-be over the course of the pregnancy with bi-weekly visits.  (As an aside: One thing that I continue to find with many of the innovative organizations I visit is that when you pull back the curtain, they often effectively use voluntary service and national service resources like AmeriCorps to deliver their program model, showing that the service agenda and social innovation agenda often go hand-in-hand.)

    And in continuing the theme of yesterday’s post on the importance of measurement and evaluation, Porter-Leath has partnered with the University of Tennessee Health Science Center to provide an independent evaluation of its programs.  Porter-Leath utilizes the evaluation results to improve the quality and efficacy of its services—ensuring that the program is making improvements in the lives of the most at-risk children and families.  The results are telling:  In an area with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country, over 93 % of babies that underwent the Porter-Leath program in 2008 were born with a healthy birth weight of at least 5.5 pounds, the leading factor in infant mortality.  The program is not only effective but affordable with the cost being only $1,354 for 20-40 home visits over a one-year period as opposed to the average cost of a two-week stay in the neo-natal intensive care unit for a low birth weight baby being $75,000.

    Sonal Shah Visits Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Memphis

    Sonal Shah visits with students and their mentors as part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters after-school mentoring program at Ross Elementary School in Memphis, Tennessee. May 4, 2010. (by Morgan Mukarram)

    The President and First Lady have continually emphasized the importance of mentoring as a means of service—launching the White House Mentorship Program to put their own words into action.  As the President said during a Ceremony in Honor of National Mentoring Month on January 20, 2010:

    That’s why mentoring is so important.  We know the difference a responsible, caring adult can make in a child’s life:  buck them up when they’re discouraged; provide tough love when they veer off track; being that person in their lives who doesn’t want to let them down, and that they don’t want to let down; and refusing to give up on them—even when they want to give up on themselves.

    Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Memphis is one of the many chapters of the national Big Brothers Big Sisters carrying out this mentorship mission.  The program targets the most at-risk-children of incarcerated individuals, children from single parent households, and children who are in foster care.  The program applies community-based mentoring—one-on-one time spent between the volunteer and young person around a shared activity or interest that can range from performing a service project together or shooting hoops after school.  In a nationwide study, Little Brothers and Little sisters were found to be 52% less likely to skip school and 46% less likely to use illegal substances. 

    Today I ended my tour of Memphis with an address before the Annual Conference of the Alliance for Nonprofit Excellence. The Conference brings together non-profits from across the region to discuss a range of topics—from measuring impact to focusing on community-based solutions.

    It’s been a privilege to visit all of these organizations and to have the opportunity to speak to many of the community leadership and engaged citizenry of Memphis. Let us know where you are seeing similarly great work by sending us your feedback.

    Sonal Shah is Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in the White House Domestic Policy Council.

  • Community Solutions Tour: Youth Villages in Memphis, Tennessee

    Today I will be making a Community Solutions Tour stop at Youth Villages in Memphis, Tennessee.  Youth Villages serves more than 15,000 children in ten states with one simple mission:  to help behaviorally troubled children and their families live successfully.  When President Obama announced the creation of the Social Innovation Fund, he highlighted Youth Villages as an example of an organization that identifies and supports “the rigorous evaluation and scaling of innovative, promising ideas that are transforming communities.”

    Often, we will use this blog to highlight specific examples of broader principles or mission areas embraced by our Office. One of the principles underpinning our Office’s mission is the belief that “strong programs and organizations measure and evaluate what works and why, continuously improve when presented new information, and invest in the most effective solutions.”   Youth Villages puts that belief into action.

    So just what makes Youth Villages so successful in transforming lives?   The answer stems in large part from their results-driven approach to treatment.  In addition to a residential program for children facing these challenges, Youth Villages has adopted a preference for home-based treatment of children living with their families in their communities, which has shown solid results.

    Youth Villages continually collects and analyzes data from its programs, and drives the knowledge generated from that data back into how they do business.  Tracking youth who receive at least 60 days of service at six, twelve, and twenty-four months after they leave the program, Youth Villages followed up with more than 12,000 children and their families in 2009.  This diligent process has allowed Youth Villages to amass one of the most comprehensive data sets in the country on the treatment of children with emotional and behavioral problems and their families.  More importantly than just collecting the data, they undergo a constant evaluation process that has yielded crucial information and has translated into direct program improvements and improved outcomes for children.

     As one example of continuously improving the information at their disposal, Youth Villages has hired some of the best minds in the country to figure out how their already robust tracking of their alumni can be improved to be even stronger. This will allow them to make more conclusive assessments of what their programs are doing effectively, and what could be done better.

    As the President recently reaffirmed at the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship last week, “I learned as a community organizer in Chicago, real change comes from the bottom up, from the grassroots, starting with the dreams and passions of single individual serving their communities.”  Starting as a single residential treatment campus in Memphis, Youth Villages has grown to offering a continuum of programs and services to become a nationally recognized leader in the field of children’s mental health.

    I look forward to visiting Youth Villages today as part of the Community Solutions Tour.  And if you know of organizations that are successfully addressing challenges in your community who are using data in an effective way to drive better outcomes for the communities they serve, please tell us about them.

    Sonal Shah is a Deputy Assistant to the President, and Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.