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Research in Translation


Supporting Young Families: The Role of Social Network Analysis

November 2, 2015

Young parents, especially teen parents, must depend on a network of support and multiple services to raise their children, achieve educational and financial goals, and keep their families healthy. Resources for expectant and parenting teens and young adults may come from many directions: supportive housing, child care, and employment services, to name a few – but often there is no clearly identifiable system that coordinates these efforts.

Pathways to Success, an initiative of the New York State Department of Health, aims to better connect parenting teens and young adults to key resources in Buffalo, Rochester, and the Bronx. The initiative funds one community college and one public school district in each community, with technical assistance provided by the BCTR’s ACT for Youth Center of Excellence. Specifically, ACT staff members Amanda Purington, Dora Welker, Divine Sebuharara, Mary Maley, Christy Heib, Jane Powers, and Heather Wynkoop-Beach have all played important roles on various parts of this initiative.

While Pathways grantees had a good sense of available services, coordinating these services to best serve youth in need was a daunting challenge. ACT staff recognized that social network analysis could be used in these communities to both create a distinct picture of existing networks and identify ways to strengthen collaborations.

Social network analysis is a set of methods for examining social structures and relationships within a network. Using the PARTNER social network analysis tool (created at the University of Colorado Denver), ACT staff worked with grantees to build customized online surveys and analyzed results in order to better understand collaborative activity within grantee networks and possibilities for new connections.

To define their networks, all the Pathways grantees were asked to compile a list of organizations with whom they already have relationships, or would like to be connected. ACT staff then developed PARTNER-based surveys tailored to each community. Next grantees distributed the surveys to their network lists, encouraging participation. Finally, ACT staff quantified the results, creating a visual representation of how the different organizations are -- or are not – connected.

ACT maps visual

These example maps show a city's grantees' (yellow dots) network with all collaborations (top) and then those at the "networking" and "coalition" levels of engagement.

Using the survey results, ACT staff created two types of network maps for the Pathways to Success initiative. The first map illustrates the level of collaboration. “Networking” is the most basic level: members of the network are aware of one another and may have informal relationships, but do not make any major decisions together. Networking is followed on the continuum by cooperation, coordination, and coalition, with collaboration at the highest level – when all major decisions are made collectively. The second map depicts frequency of contact among organizations. “Higher” and “more frequent” are not always ideal or feasible. The maps help spur discussion of what level of collaboration and frequency of contact would best serve young families in each community.

Three network indicators are also included in the analysis: 1) density -- the number of network ties relative to the total number of possible ties – which demonstrates the overall cohesiveness of the collaborative, 2) degree centralization, which refers to how well connected the members of the network are collectively, and 3) the level of trust among the members as a whole. For example, one community network had an overall trust score of 78%, indicating that a majority of responding organizations reported high levels of mutual trust. In addition to these whole network indicators, many other metrics can also be examined for each of the organizations in the network.

To discuss the findings, ACT for Youth held “data dialogue” sessions with grantees in each community. The network maps clarified where communication and collaboration are strong, and where there are opportunities to help the community better serve expectant and parenting young people. Some grantees were surprised that while their community was rich in resources, those resources were not being evenly accessed. Grantees also recognized a lack of coordination among certain organizations, resulting in some members of the network “doing the same job many times over.” Other grantees realized the need to focus on strengthening and building community systems to include organizations that may not have completed the survey, but should be at the table. For example, one group was surprised when they noticed that their county health department and a home visiting program had not responded to the survey, prompting the grantees to think about strengthening connections to include these valuable resources in future conversations.

Following these initial sessions, the grantees are holding meetings with their networks of community organizations. These meetings mirror the first data dialogue session, but allow an opening for the larger community to discuss how they can strengthen relationships in the entire network, bring others to the table, decrease duplication of services, and take steps to bridge gaps.

For the Pathways to Success initiative, this first implementation of the survey will serve as a baseline for the communities. ACT for Youth will help grantees administer the survey annually, documenting change over time, including stronger relationships among the vital organizations within each community.

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