Introducing the Whatcom County Resource Information Collaborative

This post is brought to us by Kristi Slette, Secretariat of the Whatcom Resource Information Collaborative in Washington state. Welcome, Kristi!

Washington state’s Whatcom County – the north western most county in continental U.S. – is a resourceful community with many collaborative community-based organizations that serve residents in need.

For many years, the leadership and staff from many of these organizations have voiced a desire to improve the accessibility and reliability of information about resources available in our community. In the past, this desire sparked several attempts to develop a centralized resource directory – but in each instance, our vision was hampered by the complexities of this challenge. We all shared the same goal, but different organizations had different needs and interests; when it came time to address all of them in one single website, we struggled to move forward together.

Learning from the past

In 2019, a series of community assessments and strategic planning sessions once again surfaced the need for a resource directory as a priority for Whatcom County, and a coalition of human and social service organizations convened to address this challenge with fresh eyes. This time, we sought to learn from previous efforts.

Through extensive dialogues with three different groups – social service providers who had been involved in the previous resource access initiatives, the conveners of those initiatives, and managers of current resource directories in our area – we perceived a set of key themes: the importance of leadership, human capacity, and buy-in from the community.

Through this reflection, we recognized that technology – which had previously been our primary focus – is actually only part of the solution. Rather than just designing a new tool, our new initiative would need to focus on building the capacities and relationships that will be needed to ensure that any such system is adaptive, sustainable, and trustworthy.

Building capacity for collaboration

In 2021, having made it a priority to improve access to resources for families with young children, the Whatcom County Health Department provided some seed funding to support our new initiative to establish a resource directory information system for the county. This time, we resolved to build a system that would be collectively “owned” by our community as a whole. Continue reading

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Michigan 211’s new resource data infrastructure: providing social service information as a service

Since the onset of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, Michigan 211 has received an increasing number of requests for real-time access to our social service directory database from partners and collaborators across the state. We actively maintain over 40,000 service records offered throughout Michigan, verifying its accuracy on an ongoing basis – and carefully curating this information to connect community members to local services. When initiatives like one of Michigan’s new behavioral health services wanted to leverage our information to improve their ability to meet the needs of their callers, we wanted to ensure that this critical information can be available where and when they need it.

To address this emergent need, 211 made the strategic decision to develop a cloud-based service that securely provides direct access to our resource database for third-party partners – our “social service directory data service.” Toward this end, we partnered with Brightstreet Group as our technology consultants, and adopted Open Referral’s Human Service Data Specification as the technical blueprint for resource data service. 

By building this service on the foundation laid by Open Referral – from data exchange standards to an array of tools and strategic insights for new forms of resource data partnerships – we were able to focus our resources on meeting the unique needs of our partners and community at large. 

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Upgrading the Human Service Data Specifications: 2022 development cycle underway

As Open Referral’s network grows – involving more stakeholders in the development of interoperable resource directory information supply chains – our tools and practices must evolve in kind to support more complex needs.

So we are excited to share that Open Referral has initiated a new development cycle to upgrade the Human Service Data Specifications. This cycle has kicked off with a specific objective to address a significant issue: our specifications need to be adapted across diverse contexts, to support different conventions in different places, while preserving a core of interoperability across our ecosystem.

To support this workgroup’s efforts, we are seeking feedback from a broad array of stakeholders across our network. For instance, this Friday (July 22nd) from 11a-1p, we will host an open “fishbowl” discussion in which workgroup members will review proposals line-by-line, at which any members of our community are welcome to observe and discuss by chat – invitations available by request. We encourage interested parties to comment on the documents above, or discuss in our issues queue on Github, or reach out directly via [email protected]
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Progress Report 2021-22: Highlights from our Network

I’m excited to share Open Referral’s Progress Report for 2021-2022. You can download the report as a PDF here, and view the document online here. (All of our reports are accessible here.)

Unlike our usual Year in Review, this report really describes activity across a period of 18 months overall. This is 6 months later than planned, as the time I’d set aside to do our Year in Review for 2021 was interrupted by a Covid-19 infection. I’m fine (the delay of this report seems to have been the worst outcome of the experience for me) and I’m very grateful, not only for my own health but also for the network of people in our community who have helped make the past couple of years some of our most productive and exciting yet. Continue reading

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Tackling Data Dilemmas in Social Care Coordination: A Whitepaper on Community Information Exchange

Last year – with sponsorship from Robert Wood Johnson Foundations’ DASH program, and in partnership with the Regional Data Alliance at University of Missouri St Louis – I co-authored a whitepaper that aggregated research and recommendations from across the emerging field of “social care coordination.”

This paper provides a strategic framework in which to understand Open Referral’s work in the context of human service directory data infrastructure and governance, and it also offers a broader view of the related but very different challenges of sharing information about people through coordination among service providers.

The whitepaper is available in PDF here – as well as in this ‘live’ version upon which we invite readers to share feedback. Having received significant positive feedback from experts in the field of healthcare informatics, I’m excited to share it here with the Open Referral community.
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Improving access to legal aid by improving search results with schema.org

Despite the vast amounts of information on the Web, finding reliable information about legal services through internet searches is harder than many expect. Basic searches — for needs like assistance with evictions, help with public benefits, or protection from domestic violence — often turn bewildering as results on Google, among other search engines, typically seem unhelpful and untrustworthy.

Every U.S. state has legal aid organizations to help people who can’t afford private law firms. But these organizations rarely have the capacity to specialize in Search Engine Optimization that can compete with private firms and even scammy operations that tend to dominate search results.

Search results don’t have to be as hit-or-miss as they are today. One promising method of improving search results is by adding specialized tags – i.e. “web markup” – to legal aid websites that help web engines better identify and index their information.

Schema.org – which represents a coalition of the major web platforms – produces such web markup for smarter search results. With schema.org’s standardized vocabulary, websites can ‘mark up’ otherwise unstructured text into structured data that can be semantically ‘understood’ by search engines.

When Open Referral first began, we worked in collaboration with the team that developed the first version of the ‘Civic Services schema’ at schema.org. We were particularly motivated by their vision of a future in which anyone could use colloquial language in their searches and easily get reliable, richly detailed results. Finally, through partnership with legal aid providers in Florida and around the country, we now have our first glimpse of that future. Continue reading

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Evolving the DC Community Resource Information Exchange’s Inventory Capabilities

In the District of Columbia, we’re developing a new approach to the very old problem of resource directory information management. Years ago we shared the story of the first phase of our work here on this blog, and we’re now excited to share results from our second phase. 

The DC Community Resource Information Exchange initiative (DC CoRIE) is an initiative to develop infrastructure and capacities to support coordination of care across health and social service sectors in the District of Columbia. Led through partnership among government agencies, community organizations, and technology providers – including the DC Department of Health Care Finance, the DC Primary Care Association and its DC-PACT coalition, and CRISP DC – DC CoRIE seeks to enable exchange of information about resources, and about people, across diverse organizational contexts and technology systems, in promotion of equitable health outcomes. 

One of DC CoRIE’s primary goals is to establish a sustainable supply of comprehensive, reliable information about the resources available to people in need. In 2019, we discussed this goal with a group of people who already maintain resource directories, and named the central challenge of this problem: resource directory information requires significant effort to reliably maintain, and at the same time, people want to use it not just in one “centralized” system but across an ecosystem of distributed contexts and technologies. In order to pursue this vision of a healthy information ecosystem, we resolved that our work should leverage the assets that are already in our community. (See the report from our participatory deliberation process here). Together, we identified three objectives for this phase: 

  1. Prototype resource directory information system that is designed for interoperability – such that the contents of the CRI could be accessed by any third party system.
  2. Develop a collaborative network of data stewards who will support this system by sharing data management responsibilities.
  3. Demonstrate the potential for this system to serve as a canonical source of open data about local human services.

In 2021, we accomplished each of these objectives – and we are now initiating our next phase, through which we will formalize this framework. Check out our final report for this phase here.

Below, we’ll provide more context for our project’s objectives and the path ahead.

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UK Government endorses Open Referral UK

Welcome back to our blog Mike Thacker of Porism Limited. Porism is a technical partner of the Local Government Association (LGA), a membership organisation of English local authorities which owns the Improvement and Development Agency for local government (IDeA). Porism also works with iStandUK, a local government standards body that promotes efficiency, transformation, and transparency of local public services in the UK. 

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On March 16th 2022 the UK Government Data Standards Authority Steering Board formally endorsed Open Referral UK (ORUK).

Endorsement means that UK central government departments should apply the standard in future for interchanging open data describing services. Though this does not amount to a mandate for use of the standard by local governments and “arms-length bodies” such as the National Health Service (NHS), it does build upon the Local Government Association’s early adoption as reported here in 2019 – and the NHS has already established requirements in its Health Systems Support Framework that Social Prescribing systems must (after a grace period allowed for adoption) be able to read from Open Referral UK compliant data feeds. These developments build upon a significant uptake of adoption in our sector among initiatives like LOOP, and encourage further alignment among related institutions.

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