DC Open211: the technology

[Warning! Things are about to get nerdy ūüėČ ]

The first thing to know about the DC Open211¬†initiative is that we’re not trying to build one big¬†database, not trying to get everyone to use one application. Rather, we’re trying to establish community resource directory data as an interoperable resource, shared between different kinds of systems. This way, there doesn’t have to be one ‘home’ for information about community resources. The data can just flow.

There are three important layers of technology involved in this initiative. There’s the ‘data model,’ the ‘platforms,’ and the applications. All of these layers have already been developed. We just need to¬†adapt them to fit the needs of the people who will use them.

The data model

Essentially, the Open Referral Initiative (of which DC Open211 is a pilot project) is developing a new data standard for structuring and sharing service directory information. Our work is important because there are two existing data standards that will be bridged by this new standard.

The first standard is held by 2-1-1 (and the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems). It’s designed for exchanging data between calling center systems, but it’s not really accessible on the web and/or to community organizations like Bread for the City. See it here.

The other standard¬†has been developed by Schema.org and published through the W3C as part of the language of the World Wide Web. This standard is called the ‘civic services schema,’ and it is designed by Google.org, to be read by web crawlers and served up as structured information by search engines. Any service directory data structured according¬†this schema will be easier to read by all the main web engines, and easier to connect to various kinds of searches, and easier to present as clear, actionable information.

The Open Referral data model is designed to easily move data between various kinds of information systems¬†and¬†publish on the web so that it’s as easy as possible to find in various ways.

The Platforms

Once data is formatted in a standard way, it can be shared automatically between different kinds of information systems. No uploading and downloading, just one computer program talking to another. This happens through “Application Programming Interfaces” (APIs) and it is how websites are able to present information from other websites (for example, this is how websites let you see¬†which of your friends ‘liked’ a given page on Facebook).

The Open Referral initiative is using the Ohana API (developed by Code for America) as an easy-to-deploy system to publish data in the Open Referral format. Bread for the City, for instance, can transform its resource directory data into the Open Referral format, and load its resource directory data into the Ohana API — so that any application that knows what to look for will be able to get it.

We are also working with iCarol, a vendor for¬†2-1-1 services such as the DC government’s, to ensure that DC government’s data is made available in the same language through iCarol’s API.

The Applications

Once data is available in a common format through open platforms, now it’s easy to build applications that can get and deliver the data to people in very specific contexts.

For instance, Bread for the City uses Salesforce for its case management operations. By letting¬†Salesforce¬†‘read from’ the Ohana API,¬†information about services will be available to Bread for the City’s social workers as they’re working with clients.

The same data will also¬†be available through other applications, like the DC Service Connect search application that we’ve already launched.

In other communities, we’re already seeing new applications make unexpected uses of the Ohana platform and the Open Referral model.

By collaborating to produce¬†standardized data in open platforms, we can solve this critical problem! Please support our work. Make a donation to Bread for the City (DC Open211’s fiscal sponsor) today.