Image: Erica Martin, Food Security Initiative for the Bainum Family Foundation

Creating an online tool to strengthen offline communities

Many people may not make the connection between technology and food/agriculture, but when we merge the two together, we can transform the way we connect with, produce, and consume the foods that end up on our plates. And my team at the Bainum Family Foundation’s Food Security Initiative had a small taste of this potential when we created an online platform called the Food Learning Locator, which we just relaunched in March.

The Food Learning Locator originally went live in September 2017, shortly after I joined the team. The intention of the tool was to address a large information gap. No one (our foundation and our partners included) seemed to understand the full scope and types of food-related education and job training opportunities available in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. As we began to collect the data, we quickly realized a greater need. We weren’t the only ones unaware of so many opportunities around us. Our community was missing out on them as well. This spurred the idea to create an easy online tool to help people find and participate in food-education and job-training programs, many of which are offered by nonprofits and other community organizations that have limited resources and time to market their programs.

After the site’s beta launch, we learned from our partners that we could add even greater value by improving the Food Learning Locator’s UX and UI. I then took the lead on getting feedback on the site, and we used it as the backbone of an eight-month web development process to add to and improve the data structure, add an administrative portal for organizations on the map, and find ways to measure the use of the tool.

But what all was involved with each of those steps? Let me share our experience with you.

User research

Since this tool had the potential to benefit many audiences (i.e., community members, advocates, funders, and program providers), we encountered a major challenge — how to create a tool that addresses numerous needs and interests. For such a wide-reaching site, we realized we had to meet people where they were to get the necessary feedback.

We sought feedback from as many people as possible, hosting a focus group with community members and one-on-one feedback sessions with healthcare providers and program providers to accommodate everyone’s schedules. We also attended community events and conferences to market the site and ask for thoughts and suggestions. With this invaluable feedback, we were able to both identify and carry out the next steps for improving the Food Learning Locator. For example, we completely changed the UI from having food-education and job-training programs on the same map to splitting those categories into two maps and we added new data points to further improve user experience.

Updates to data structure

Our challenge was to create a tool that encompassed the key program offerings we knew about in 2017 but to also structure them in a way that allowed new data points and content areas to be added over time. The food-education and job-training space is constantly evolving and adapting, so developing an agile tool was key to its long-term success.

The web developers we worked with were incredibly helpful in structuring the back end of the site to allow us to easily add new data filters or content areas requested by community members (e.g., program cost and registration information). We also made sure to structure the front-end map and back-end Program Manager Portal so that it could be easily used as a template for other cities or regions that may eventually be interested in bringing this tool to their communities.

Development of the Program Manager Portal

With the data structure refined and the UI designed, we developed a Program Manager Portal for program providers to dynamically update, add, or remove organizational and programmatic data. The addition of the portal was a huge improvement over the beta version of the site, where update requests had to be submitted via SurveyMonkey and then manually changed by the Food Learning Locator team on a semiannual basis. This portal simplified the data-maintenance process, which was particularly helpful given how quickly the site has been expanding since its launch. Since February, we’ve added more than 10 new organizations to the Food Learning Locator, bringing the total to more than ten organizations in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Across these organizations, there are nearly 90 food education programs and more than 30 job training programs — all displayed and searchable on our now easy-to-use site.

The portal still has room for improvement but having it has helped both our team and program managers maintain accurate information, consequently creating a more reliable source of information for community members interested in the food space.

Data collection

Like most websites, we’re able to easily track site traffic and other metrics using Google Analytics. However, this tool doesn’t help us measure in-person user outcomes of the Food Learning Locator (i.e., the number of users attending programs they found via the map or the number of new collaborations or partnerships among program providers.)

We’re still in the early stages of determining the best method of tracking these connections, as they play a large role in evaluating the success of the tool. For now, we’re relying on qualitative feedback from site users — whether directly (online or in-person) or through program providers or community advocates — to understand budding connections from the tool. We’re looking into how we can track referrals among program providers, but that’s likely something we’ll have to implement down the road. For now, we’re relying on qualitative feedback and testimonials to assess that success metric.

Key Lesson

So, technology and food/agriculture — not so separate after all now, right? While I myself am new to merging program needs and technological tools (at least on this scale), I see endless possibilities for so many fields to leverage online platforms to create real, lasting offline connections and impact. And my hope is that the Food Learning Locator will cultivate and strengthen our local food-interested community and will eventually expand beyond. With tech, the sky is truly the limit.

A special thank you to the web development team at Alley Interactive and the Food Learning Locator team — Andrew Curtis, Laura Hepp, Katie Jones, Ann Egan, and Morgan Maloney — for helping to develop this tool.

Erica Martin
Erica Martin works on the Food Security Initiative for the Bainum Family Foundation, where she leads the development, marketing and maintenance of the Food Learning Locator.