Annual Review wrap-up: the path ahead

OpenReferral_Logo_GreenWe’ve been reviewing the progress we’ve made in 2015. (Download a complete Year in Review report document here.) The first post in this series thanked a broad range of supporters. The second post reviewed our technological achievements. The third post summarized our pilot projects.

In this post, I look to the road ahead. What do we have yet to accomplish? How can we improve?

(This note is far from a final word on the matter — please share your own feedback in our community forum and/or directly via email. Thanks for your insights!)

In 2014, we formed a table and conducted research. In 2015, we initiated action. In 2016, we’ll put these ideas to the test, and learn from our work. Based on your feedback so far, here’s what that might look like:

Facilitating Communication Across Our Distributed Network

As the Open Referral network grows — from projects in just two cities in 2014, to as many as 10 cities in 2015 — it’s increasingly a challenge to keep track of who is doing what. (Fortunately, we are intimately familiar with the nature of such a challenge ;))

We should constantly strive to make it easy for people to tune in, get up to speed, and participate at whatever level and around whichever issue is most appropriate.

Over the past two years, we’ve used Google Groups for discussion and Google Hangouts for occasional video chats. Many of these conversations have been rich and engaging, yet occasionally people have asked for more.

One suggestion has been to start an Open Referral team on Slack, a popular new platform for team-oriented chat. We’ve started using it and are ready to open it up. Request an invite here.*

Another measure currently in-process is the establishment of a dedicated Github repository for the Open Referral Initiative.** Subscribe to this repo here. At the moment, there’s not much in there (only some notes and stuff from a previous meeting). But you can watch the space, and — if you’re interested in helping make our new home there — reach out to explore ways that you might help.

I’m sure there are yet other ways that we can improve the organization and content and circulation of information. (For instance, some have suggested migrating our forum from the basic Google Groups to the more sophisticated Discourse platform.)

Ultimately, of course, it’s not about the tools but rather the culture of the people who use them. Do you have good practices for effective video conferences, for example? We’d welcome additional suggestions for how to make it easy and fun to participate in the Open Referral community.


Evolving our data specification and associated tools

Our Human Services Data Specification (HSDS, aka ‘the Open Referral format’) went through many rounds of revision on its path to version 1.0, yet we know the work is far from finished. The specification will have to evolve over time, and it will have to be extended to meet the particular needs of specific subdomains.

However, a data specification and its community of users may not really benefit from rapid iteration. To give people the time and space to work with it and learn what else they might need, we chose to package the spec up imperfections and all, so that we could release it and step back for a while.

For now, we’re encouraging people to collect and share feedback about what’s working and what’s not. (We’re aggregating this feedback in our public file folder.) We’re also logging issues in Github to be addressed at a future date.

In the meantime, we’re encouraging people to adapt the spec to meet their needs — while making sure to document their changes and evaluate the outcomes — so that we can have a rich set of insights at hand when the time comes to re-ignite the specification development process. We’ll hear in the coming weeks from groups that have been doing just that, and later this year we’ll return to the table to chart a path towards version 2.0.

Focusing commitments on key pilot projects

Another challenge posed by the exciting growth of our network: as my time and the attention of our key advisors and partners are stretched in a practically unlimited number of directions.

So in 2016, I’m committing to focus on a much more limited set of projects.

I’ll remain accessible to anyone working in this field, but moving forward I’m going to spend the bulk of my time and attention on — in no more than three communities (ideally, fewer). I’m still sorting these commitments out. (If you’d like to propose a partnership — despite the caveat that we just might not be able to initiate something new this year — please be in touch.) Specifically, I’m looking to invest in…

Making it easier to verify the accuracy of directory data

While the HSDS and the Ohana Project have already demonstrated their value in various ways, we know that there’s a big part of this problem which we have yet to address:

It’s hard to maintain the accuracy of resource directory data. Perhaps too hard for any one institution to bear the burden alone.

In Open Referral, we believe that the best way to resolve this dilemma may be to enable distributed stakeholder to cooperate in the process of maintaining accurate resource directory data. In other words, we believe that the responsibilities (as well as the rights) of community resource directory data should be shared by members of a community.

To test this belief, we need to develop technologies and business models that establish many-to-many solutions for ensuring the accuracy of resource data. And I’ve started to lay out what that might look like: see this post for excerpts from a paper that I presented at a Data for Good symposium hosted by Bloomberg.


Establishing sustainability

Last but not least, there is the question of sustainability.

This all takes work. Open Referral has already helped a handful of organizations who are serving tens of thousands of people, and our ultimate success would benefit millions of people and transform entire sectors. Getting to that point, however, presents a collective action challenge.

Though Code for America, Civic Hall, and other institutions have generously helped us get started, it remains an open question as to how this work will be funded through the long path ahead.

This is just one dilemma among many that lurk in the land of the resource data problem — really, this sustainability dilemma lurks in most domains of civic technology — yet I believe it’s a resolvable one. We’ve already been able to help a range of institutions find less costly, more flexible ways to meet their community’s needs for resource directory information, and many more still stand to benefit from taking open, generative approaches to solving this complex problem. Given this potential value, some models for sustainable civic technology development are already emerging.

While we explore the potential viability of such models, Open Referral is seeking sponsorship to build technical leadership capacity — both for stewarding the development of our specification and for building the kind of data management infrastructure that we’ve learned is so necessary. For that, we need institutional leadership, with vision and a deep commitment to addressing the needs of low-income people and safety net service providers (as well as self-interest in, say, using resource data to make better decisions). If you or someone you know can help promote this work through such institutions, please be in touch.


If you can believe it, this is a brief summary of our feedback and projections for the future. We’d welcome additional feedback. Meanwhile, stay tuned for our next projects in the new year. And remember: we walk slowly, because we intend to go far.



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