IN the Meeting Place/Pulling OUT Data

Nisha Haji works for the Open Government Unit in the Ontario Public Service. She spent a day embedded in our team – actually our very first day testing a new intervention, Grounded. It was a whirlwind of a day. Here’s her reflections:


In the spirit of the IN/OUT project, I wrote two reflections of my day of immersive learning with the InWithForward Team. IN the Meeting Place, which is a personal account of doing ethnographic research, and Pulling OUT Data, which is an analytic account of prototyping Grounded. Some names, details, and the plot of each account have been tweaked for the purpose of the narrative and protecting anyone who might need to be protected.

IN the Meeting Place

“Shall we?” Daniela locks the door and leads the way down the metal mesh stairs, around the corner and IN to the Meeting Place.

“It’s quiet today,” she notices. I scan the room. Six rows of red long tables on the right, a pool table in the back left corner and a small reception counter carved out of the wall across from me. Clean coffee mugs steps away from the main entrance.

“Hi Mike” Daniela greets a young black man in a baggy sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers.

“You got my money?” he asks as though he had made a deal and it was time to pay up. “I need the money, you know. So I can get the stuff, you know,” he slouches in his chair and shuffles his toque.

“Oh! Yes. I’ll be right back.” Daniela leaves me behind. I scan the room again. This time I notice the small paintings that hang around the room where the ceiling meets the walls, like a one-of-kind antique wallpaper.

My eyes lock in on a woman sitting a few tables in and avoid stares from around the room.

I feel “new.” She sits at the edge of the table. Easy access, I think to myself, and walk over to join her while I wait for Daniela to return.

“Hi,” I leap.

“Oh, hello. How are you? I am Lydia” she responds and I feel relieved.

“I am Nisha. I am here learning with InWithForward for the Day. What are you doing?” I ask.

Lydia goes on to share that she is “staff at the Meeting Place” and explains the arts and crafts project that she was preparing for. She tells me that her inspiration, the print outs of wildlife, comes from her “home, back in South Africa.” She cuts Zebras, Lions and Elephants. We share common roots.

“My home was once in Africa too, in Kenya,” I disclose.

“Oh, really? So you know what it’s like. But, I like it here. It reminds me of where I am from. I am from the ghetto. I have seen all this before. Even worse than this,” she reveals. I feel guilty for thinking our common roots are common.

We hear voices IN the stairwell behind us. Yelling. A man voice and a woman’s voice.

“I will be right back,” she too leaves me behind.

My gaze is forced to take note of the stares around the room. A young white male playing pool looks and then smiles at me, looks and then smiles, looks and then smiles.  A middle aged South- Asian man sitting a few tables down sips a coffee and then stares at me, sips and then stares, sips and then stares. An older white male- looking through his bag ignores me.  I scan him. He sports a royal blue MEC bubble vest, a slick black backpack, slim fit dark wash Levi’s and a trendy bike helmet. He reminds me of John, a Slovakian regular at Malcom’s, my bike guy’s, custom bike shop. He rolls his joint slowly and carefully, like performing a ritual in a secret sacred place.

“I’ll wait right there for you Sandra.” Broad shoulders form the base of the face that appears in front of me. I notice the deep defined wrinkles that gently hold years of stories, the thick grey and brown mustache that signals military strength and that even though Patrick was seated across from me, I had to look up to make eye contact.

We exchange smiles.

“Ah, Zebra’s. I’ve seen these guys before,” he shares.

Another uncommon common.

“Oh ya, nice. Where about?” I welcome the conversation.

“When I lived in Africa. South Africa. It’s a beautiful place.”

Patrick spins around the globe and tells me about all the places he has traveled to. Thailand, the Netherlands, and the UK.  I listen.

Lydia returns, grabs her scissors and printouts and resettles further down the table.

“Hello,” Daniela pulls the chair beside me and replaces pictures of wildlife with a blank legal sized sheet of paper and a pen.

I feel happy to see her.

“Hi there. I was just telling your friend about how I’ve seen the world,” he brings her in.

“That’s great,” she says politely. “Maybe we can ask you some questions about how you got here. Would you mind that?”

“I can tell you all you want to know. I’ve got time,” he chuckles.

Daniela draws a long arrow down the middle of the page while she confirms that Patrick was waiting to see Sandra about potential housing options.

“So, where do live right now?” she jumps in.

“Right now? Well, right now I am at the Good Sheppard. I have it good there. Real good. A bed. A place to sleep. No roaches or bed bugs. No crack. You know? Just the basics. What else do you need?”

“How long have you been out on the streets?” she looks for a point in time to add to her arrow.

“Oh. 30 years. I use to be out in BC, at the Victoria House. I still go out there sometimes, but I moved here when I met Paul. Jumped in his truck and lived in his sound room for a while. I am a musician you see. Paul needed a guy and we got along, so here I am.”

A brief pause makes me wander the room again. I see the pool player straddling a cue while he talks to Sarah. The man with the coffee rests his head on his arm. “John” the trendy cyclist was gone. A crowd with more art supplies had gathered around Lydia. People were still yelling in the stairwell and a man who dressed the part of a security guard was pacing close by. More people filled the room and made it hard to stare at anyone.

“I am an optimist you see. Always looking to what’s good in a situation. I lived in a house for a little bit. But the landlord tried to get me in trouble, you see. Told on me. He said I was double dipping. I wasn’t doing that you see. I lost some money then and had to move out. They took away $150. It’s hard to find a decent landlord. I mean it’s nice to have your own kitchen and stuff, but you always get some guys who are no good, you see. I don’t like to be around crack heads. Too much fighting, you see. Now I have about $900. I can find a place for $600. That’s good enough for me, you see. I just need the simple things. I know where to eat. I am the King of Kensington. Everyone knows me around there. I am a musician, you see.” Daniela scribbles as Patrick rolls through sporadic parts of his story. The corner of my eye tugs on my attention. I feel conflicted and want to listen to Patrick, but I turn. A young couple stands beside our table and look around. The woman wears a hijab. Her arms are tightly crossed and tucked in under her chest as though she was trying to contain a sharp cramp in her belly. Fear? Maybe. Hope? Maybe. The man with her approaches the security guard.

“Do you work here?” he asks.

The guard nods.

“Have you seen Benny around here? You know, Ben, Benny? The young guy. He comes around here sometimes.”

“No. Haven’t seen him in a while.”

“Ok, thank you sir,” the couple glance at each other and walk toward the exit door.

Daniela asks Patrick about Paul.

“Paul knows me better than my family, you see. We have the same love for music. I met him when I was at Kool-aid. At Victoria House. That was a good time. He was busking, and we stayed together there. I was the Chair, you see. He gets me. My family doesn’t get me. They don’t understand.”

“Who’s in your family?”

“Oh, my family? I’ve got kids, you see. Two daughters. They’re older now. One is a…is a paramedic in Calgary. The other is a lawyer. Still in BC. They’re great. I still see them. I go down to Calgary every year, you see. To visit. My girls are proud of me, you see. They respect me.”

“When did you see them last?” I join the conversation.

“Well, we got separated when they were babies, you see.” My pen drops out of my hands. I feel sad. For two little girls. For a mother. For Patrick. I bend over to pick up the pen and swallow my sadness.

“Maybe we can talk a little more about what you are doing to find housing now? Like what have you done over the last week?” Daniela focuses.

“Me? I am saving money, you see. That’s why I am here. I need to talk to Sandra. I know her from music.”

“What do you play?” curiosity takes over.

“Oh, I don’t play, you see. I listen. I have a great ear for sound.  That’s why Paul and I are so good. Sandra will have some ideas for me. Just waiting to see her. Sometimes, it’s about who you know.”

Lydia squeezes through all the people and chairs and rushes to the stairwell. The sound of metal banging like pots in a busy kitchen battle the yelling. I start to look for the security guard but get stopped by Sandra who squats at our table.

“Sorry Patrick. Today is a tough day. I gotta take someone to court and have a couple other appointments. We’re short staffed today. Can we do Monday?”

“We can do whatever day you want to do. I got time.” He responds. “I am just entertaining these lovely ladies.”

“Alright, how’s 9 am on Monday for you?”

“9 am? Are you open at 9 am?” Patrick seems confused.

“Yeah, we’re open.”

“Oh, I usually go to the library, you see. Cause you don’t open till 11. But I can come here. I’ll get my coffee too, you see,” he winks.

“Would it be ok, if I joined you?” Daniela seizes the opportunity.

“Sure. Why don’t we all meet here on Monday at 9 am then? Thanks Patrick,” Sandra walks away.

“Alright, we’ll let you go now Patrick. Thanks so much. Nisha, do you have any questions?” Daniela turns to me.

I have lots of questions. Questions are all I have.

“I think I am ok for now. Thanks Patrick,” I feel exhausted.

“Good chatting with you ladies. See you Monday,” we leave Patrick behind.

“Hey Daniela, who’s your friend?” a native man calls out from the arts and crafts table.

“Oh, this is Nisha. Nisha this is Pete.”

“Hi Pete.”

“Hi, where are you from? Are you Persian?” he asks.

“No, I am Indian.”

“Hehe, so am I,” we laugh and walk away.


Pulling OUT Data

Daniela and I grab lunch and sit down to make sense of Patrick’s story. Sarah does the same for the story she just heard.


  1. Pull OUT “salient” information from the narrative that might be a valuable data point for Grounded, the qualitative research database for policy makers that the InWithForward team was prototyping.
  2. Write it on one side of a cue card.
  3. Flip it over and tag it with something on the other side. Something that identifies insights, themes and alerts.

Seems simple at first, but Daniela and I take a while to get started. I wonder if I am still processing being IN the Meeting Place or if I am struggling with analyzing someone’s story. It is their story. Their Truth.

What about my questions? How did Patrick find his daughters again? Did he find them? Has he seen them recently? Why did he lose his house? Where does he get his meds from? How did he know to get meds? What happened in that stairwell? Where is Ben? Benny? Is the cyclist married?

“I am wondering about his daughters,” I snap OUT of it and grab a cue card.

“Yeah, what about them?” Daniela welcomes my thoughts.

“Well, he said he got separated from them at birth and then he kept talking about how he sees them and they don’t get him. It doesn’t make sense.”

Two daughters. Flip. #family. #social support.

Daniela writes. I hold on to a blank cue card.

Double dipping. Flip. #landlord. #financial literacy. #income. #broken system.

Paul. Sound Room. Flip. #social support.

Kool-Aid. Victoria House. Chair. Flip. #purpose. #community.

King of Kensington. Flip #purpose.

Saving money. Flip. #income. #financial literacy.

We keep going, unsure we’re getting anywhere. Daniela reveals that sometimes it’s hard for her to decipher what is really going on with this population. I assume she means street-involved adults with mental health conditions.  We glance at Sarah who is frantically writing on cue cards. I am struck by how Patrick’s story reveals a tension between the quality of life and the cost of living. His persistence on accepting the basics as “good enough” and doing the math on what it will take to attain it.  When did that happen? When did he “accept”? What is it about his “good enough” that doesn’t equate to “good enough” in another form? A job, a traditional family, a healthy lifestyle, and a home that didn’t send him OUT from 7 am to 4 pm.

We nudge Sarah and tell her we’re done. The three of us move to a bigger space, roll out brown craft paper across the boardroom table and lay down our cards. Sarah immediately picks up a card and reads it under her breadth.

“How is this a data point?” she questions.

“Which one is that?” Daniela peeks. It was one about bed bugs, crack heads and a decent landlord. Flip. #housing. We begin to go into the details of Patrick’s story.

“We all know that though,” Sarah argues. “How does this change anything?”

She’s right. What is a “salient” data point?

“Here’s one of mine,” Sarah offers.

“Attended three Resume Writing Courses. Flip. #alert #realwork…. It’s F*#@ing ridiculous that we are still offering the same kind of resources to folks like this. How many Resume Courses is John going to go to? He’s had three jobs for years, but doesn’t tell anyone. He just goes to these courses to make sure he looks like he’s looking for work and the agencies keep offering them cause they keep getting money to.”

She’s right again. She names it “performing for the system.”

“I guess, Patrick’s data point on “double dipping” might fit along the same line?” I say. We keep going and start sorting, narrowing and labeling the cards into themes.

Social Support.




“This reminds me of Seddon’s work on Failure Demand,” Sarah says. “I use to hate his work, but I can see it here.”

Wikipedia states Seddon describes Failure Demand as a ‘demand caused by a failure to do something or do something right for the customer,’ which “represents a common waste in service organizations”.

I briefly think about Failure Demand and the public service.

“I feel like we need to define what a data point is some more,” Daniela stops me.

Our conversation travels through challenging questions and considerations for Grounded.  We talk about what qualitative data might look like for policy makers. How do you strike the balance between the “truth” of someone’s story and making sense of what is going on from a systems perspective? Whose interests are valued most? How is value assigned? How do you remain objective, show the state of a problem and yet be real about where the story breaks down or where a policy maker could have changed the course of a problem before it became a problem? The what if’s.

Grounded seems like it is just as much about selling insights and interventions as it is about “salient” data. So how does that translate in the policy development world, where policy makers are seen to be “advisors,” and research spans from jurisdictional scans to “expert” panels. Lived experience is far and few between. Grounded would need to be a “legitimate” source that is built on an existing and already valued perspective. There is that value again. Whose interests are valued most? How is value assigned? And why?

A perspective that allows policy advisors to support yet remain neutral in their “advice”. Grounded would need to be endorsed by key partners and leveraged by stakeholders that together make up the social services system. What about those that interact with the system? I feel conflicted, confused and exhausted.

How do we pull OUT data that meets the needs of policy makers without a bias that changes, molds and shapes the story that Patrick told us?


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