Our History


Major Milestones:

Open Referral was instigated by the DC Open211 project, and its launch was co-sponsored by Code for America (CfA) in partnership with the Ohana project. It is now a community of practice with multiple pilot projects across the world.

DC Open211

Between 2008 and 2011, the DC Open211 project emerged from conversations with Bread for the City, DC’s Department of Human Services, and other local institutions that produce or wish to use community resource data. The stakeholders crafted a vision of a ‘DC Community Resource Platform, in which various organizations could share the same data for use in various interfaces. In 2013, in partnership with Code for DC, the organizations and volunteers of DC Open211 began merging various directories and sharing them via API prototypes, while exploring long-term integration with local and regional 2-1-1 systems. (This work continues today through the DC Community Resource Information Exchange initiative.)

Code for America and Ohana

Code for America is a non-profit that collaborates with local governments to foster and facilitate innovation, through open source solutions that leverage the power of open data. Code for America’s fellowship program embeds technologists in local governments to address specific challenges.

In 2013, Code for America’s fellows in San Mateo county worked with the San Mateo County Human Services Agency to enhance the value of its “Community Information Program.” This program produced a database that had been previously used only to print a community resource directory booklet. The San Mateo fellows developed an ‘Application Programming Interface’ (API) that enables this data to be accessed by an open set of applications. This API and associated software was named Ohana — Hawaiian for ‘family.’ At the end of 2013, the Knight Foundation awarded the Ohana team through its Health Data Challenge, which supported redevelopment of the Ohana API into an open source community resource data platform.

Google.org and Schema.org

In the summer of 2013, a Google.org team produced a “civic services schema” for inclusion in the Schema.org project. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) approved this schema, instantly making it a de facto standard that is recognized by the major search engines and web platforms.

Open Eligibility

The challenge of controlled vocabulary for service categorization is one of the major barriers to innovation in this field. In 2012, Aunt Bertha published Open Eligibility, an open source taxonomy of types of human services and situations. Open Eligibility has been adopted by various systems, including Ohana.

Publication of Towards a Community Data Commons

In 2013, Greg Bloom (instigator and facilitator of the DC Open211 project) published the essay ‘Towards a Community Data Commons’ in Code for America’s Beyond Transparency. The essay’s analysis and proposals ignited a broader conversation among stakeholders and practitioners.

Formation of Open Referral

In 2014, with co-sponsorship from Code for America, the Ohana team joined DC Open211 to initiate Open Referral, along with representatives of the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems, Google, various providers of service referral products, and experts on interoperability of human service informatics. Open Referral publicly launched in March of 2014. We hosted our first workshop in July of 2014.

Development of the Human Service Data Specification

In 2015, Open Referral published version 1.0 of the Human Service Data Specification (HSDS), an open format for the exchange of resource directory data. With contributions from stakeholders and subject matter experts from government, social service organizations, information-and-referral providers, and software vendors, HSDS became the default method of resource data exchange by organizations developing open source software and implementing system integrations across health and human service sectors.

Development of the Human Service Data API protocols

In 2017, Open Referral developed the first versions of the Human Service Data API suite (HSDA) – open protocols for real-time resource data exchange. HSDA was developed with support from the Digital Impact program at Stanford’s Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society, with sponsorship from the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems, and leadership from Kin Lane of API Evangelist.

Endorsement by the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems

In 2018, the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems formally recommended the use of HSDS and HSDA as industry standards for resource directory data exchange.

UK Government agencies recommend use of Open Referral

In 2019, the UK’s Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) and the Local Government Association each recommended Open Referral’s data specifications as industry standards. The Open Referral UK initiative kicks off.

First coordinated statewide resource referral platform, NCCARE360, uses Open Referral

In 2020, NCCARE360 leveraged Open Referral to become the first statewide resource referral platform, integrating 2-1-1 North Carolina’s resource directory information through both a public website and also through integration with social care coordination platforms such as Unite Us.

United Way Worldwide’s National 211 Data Platform adopts Open Referral

In 2021, United Way Worldwide announced that its National 2-1-1 Data Platform is using Open Referral’s protocols to aggregate resource data from multiple 2-1-1s across the country into a single aggregated source of resource data.


Read more about Open Referral in the initiative’s public documentation archive.