Open Referral was instigated by the DC Open211 project, and has been 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.
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 loading them into the new Ohana API, while exploring long-term integration with local and regional 2-1-1 systems.
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.
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.