About Open Referral

How is the Open Referral process being developed and reviewed? What is the role of the ‘Chief Organizing Officer’?

The Open Referral Initiative is an open source undertaking, which means that documentation and artifacts are freely accessible and adaptable by participants.

We approach this challenge in an agile way. Rather than try to figure everything out up front, we are instead working with stakeholders to identify specific steps that are worth taking in and of themselves that incrementally move us in the direction we want to go. We’ll do some things, learn from them, and do more things.

Through this process, we synthesize input and coordinate participation from a wide variety of participants; we give prerogative to the priorities expressed by our primary stakeholders (those who represent different types of end users: help seekers, service providers, researchers, and data administrators).

You can see our proposal for our governance model here. You can see our proposal for the process and structure of our Pilot Projects here.

Our Community Forum is the primary site of updates and occasional discussion. We also host regular Assemblies (see archived videochats here) and convene in semi-formal workshops.

The Chief Organizing Officer has the prerogative to set the Initiative’s tone and agenda, make proposals, promote voices, broker agreements and encourage creative solutions. It is essentially a facilitative position.

Shouldn’t we have a Yelp for Social Services? Why aren’t you trying to build that?

Lots of people are trying to build Yelp-type applications for social services. That’s not Open Referral’s role. There’s a range of reasons why:

First, information about human services is a lot more complex, variable, and sensitive than restaurant data – and unlike restaurateurs, many human service providers might not see the benefit of being listed in a Yelp for Social Services. This is a problem that simply doesn’t correspond with conventional supply-and-demand market dynamics that make Yelp possible.

Second, we want this information available in many channels and applications – including Yelp itself! Plus Google Places and Facebook! Yet even these wouldn’t meet the needs of every user in every situation. Resource directory data should be itself a public good, freely ‘remixable’ by anyone, not trapped within one company’s interface.

There are a range of other reasons why we don’t think this problem has one simple ‘Yelp for Social Services’ answer. Check out this talk for more insights, and email info@openreferral.org to discuss further.

How are decisions being made?

Inasmuch as this is an open source initiative, a simple rule of thumb is rough consensus and running code.

That said, because this is a complex problem (involving private and public sectors; spanning local, state, and federal boundaries, with many layers of technology that are rapidly changing) our approach to discovering solutions should also be complex. So the Open Referral Initiative entails various levels at which different kinds of decisions are being made by different kinds of participants. One way to describe this is ‘polycentricity’read more about what we mean by that here.

At its simplest, our structure includes two levels: 1) ‘pilot projects’ in which local stakeholders work together to answer the question of ‘How can we build a future in which community resource directory data is accessible, interoperable, reliable, and sustainably produced?’ and 2) a ‘Working Group’ that stewards the development of the Open Referral format that is used by the pilots, along with associated tools and materials, and the process itself.

(Each of these is more complex upon examination: the San Francisco Bay pilot has multiple county-level groups working semi-autonomously; we also have subdomain-specific working groups for particular kinds of services like legal services.)

These two levels intersect in three ways: in our Community forum, during regular Assemblies (video chats open to all participants — see an archive here), and during our semi-formal Workshops (multi-day in-person convenings — see this 2014 reportback here).

You can read more about the pilot projects here, and the working group and its governance process here. These proposals are subject to change (read here for changes made in the first cycle), as in the course of each development cycle they will be reviewed by the Working Group and interested members of the community, and subject to revision.


Who is funding the Open Referral Initiative?

There there are a number of different projects weaved together through the Open Referral Initiative — each with shared goals, but different funding sources.

The primary source of funding for the initial pilot phase was from the Knight Foundation.

In 2013, Code for America’s San Mateo fellowship formed the Ohana Project, which is an open resource directory platform that the San Mateo fellows produced for San Mateo’s Human Services Agency. (This 2013 fellowship was co-sponsored by the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation. The Ohana project was subsequently contracted for an additional year of development by San Mateo HSA.) Later that year, Ohana won the Knight Foundation’s Health Data Challenge. This Health Data Challenge funding supported the Ohana team’s work for one year, as they a) redeveloped their code into an open source directory platform which can be freely re-deployed by other communities, and b) participate in the Open Referral initiative, which will generate essential feedback to guide their redevelopment.

The Open Referral Initiative itself has been directly co-sponsored by the Ohana Project and Code for America. That co-sponsorship essentially funds the work of the ‘Chief Organizing Officer’ of Open Referral for this year.

The initiative has also raised funding for our local teams, primarily from local funders (in California, this includes Serving California, the Kapor Center, and the California Health Care Foundation; in DC, so far our funding has come from private donors).

Finally, in each of our pilot localities, we are supporting our lead stakeholders (i.e., health clinics, local I&Rs, etc) in their own fundraising efforts to build their internal capacity to participate in the project.

Email info@openreferral.org for more details.


What is the difference between Ohana and Open Referral? What is Open211?

Open Referral is both the name of this community of practice, and also the shorthand name of our format for community resource data (which is technically known as the Human Services Data Specification).

Ohana is both the name of the Code for America fellowship team that developed a ‘first draft’ of this model, and also the name of an API (Application Programming Interface) that the Ohana team developed in San Mateo county. The Ohana API was subsequently redeveloped by the Ohana team, based on feedback from the Open Referral community, to serve as a ‘reference implementation’ of the Open Referral model. [See the Ohana API on Github here.]

Open211 is a name that has been used by various groups and organizations over the years. 2-1-1 Ontario has an ‘Open211’ API (the first of its kind, to our knowledge). In 2011, a Code for America fellowship team built an Open211 app (it did not achieve adoption, but we learned valuable lessons from it). One of the first pilot projects for Open Referral is a group of organizations and technologists in DC who describe themselves as ‘DC Open211.’ But it is more of a concept than a formal affiliation.


Is Ohana or Open Referral trying to build a national database?

Nope. We recognize that this is a local problem that should entail local solutions. That’s why we’re trying to develop a viable standard that can support local communities as they seek such solutions.

Are you ‘scraping’ data?

No. The Ohana project is primarily working with data provided by the San Mateo County Human Services Agency, and developing open source software for other communities. The Open Referral initiative is working with data freely contributed by its stakeholders, which includes 2-1-1 systems across the country.

However, we also don’t find validity in claims that community resource data should be treated like private property. It is public information, and organizations that do business with it should be sustaining themselves through services that add value to it, rather than by trading it as a commodity.

We do recognize that there are some community resource directory projects out there that are scraping 2-1-1s data. (Some of these projects are non-profit, or all-volunteer, or even for-profit.) Scraping this data from websites is usually technically easy, and it’s more or less legally okay too.

We disapprove of this, mostly because it makes it harder to have constructive conversations about the real problem — which is that this data is not currently “open” for machine-readable re-use.

We also believe that if community resource directory data were openly accessible in a machine-readable format, ‘scraping’ would be pointless. Instead, people would use such data from its source, in ways that could presumably benefit the source.

That may at first seem counter-intuitive. But there are business models for open data — and we believe that information-and-referral providers will benefit by discovering and adopting them. Meanwhile, we have not seen any viable long-term strategies involving the production of resource data that is not open.


If you’re going to build a new system, who will maintain the data?

This is the ultimate question! Finding answers to it is actually our primary objective.

Please note that Open Referral is not developing one particular product.

Rather than building one new system that we try to get everyone to use, Open Referral’s objective is to enable systems (both pre-existing and emerging) to talk to each other. In other words, our stakeholders are the organizations and people who already spend resources maintaining resource data.

In the long term , our work is about making it possible to find new answers to this question. However, in the short term, our question is ‘who is currently maintaining resource directory data, and how can we help them?’

Aren’t calling centers important for people who might not use a computer, etc?

Of course they are!

We think it’s important for this information to be accessible to a whole ecosystem of services, and for the foreseeable future, calling centers will be an essential component of a healthy ecosystem. That’s why it’s important for us to develop standards and open that can be shared throughout that ecosystem, so that there are a variety of ways to meet people’s needs.

Aren’t there already standards for service directory information?

There are existing standards among certified information-and-referral systems, but these are not designed for the open exchange of data among any system.

As a result, various organizations and institutions must all independently invest in data production and technology development. This entails many missed opportunities to share infrastructure, reuse code and data, and achieve substantial cost savings.

That said, the work of developing a ‘universal data exchange schema’ does not entail starting from scratch. Rather, it entails aligning with that which already exists.

For the first phase of Open Referral, we have identified a core set of existing standards with which our format (technically known as the Human Services Data Specification) aim to be interoperable (i.e. data can be coherently translated between these formats).

Specifically, these include:

What about the issue of taxonomy?

Open Referral recognizes the existence of a diverse array of taxonomies that are used to describe types of services, organizations, and people for whom services are available. Given that such categories are inherently subjective, whereas Open Referral’s format is describing only factual data, we do not prescribe a specific taxonomy. Instead, our data format specifies a way to include any taxonomy in open data, and our API protocols offer methods for supporting multiple taxonomies for use in the same data set.

Several prominent taxonomies are prohibited from public use by intellectual property claims. This poses barriers to the accessibility of community resource data. We are committed to seek solutions that can sustainably and responsibly remove barriers to the widespread use of these important classification tools.

What makes you think you know the right solution?

Well, we don’t yet know the right solution! We’re just not going to wait around any longer for it to be figured out. This is a wicked problem that requires a lot of different people working together to learn about possible solutions. So we’re taking action.

There is one thing we do believe: the best solutions to social problems tend to emerge from the insight and creativity of those who directly experience those problems. So our prerogative is to promote the perspectives and involvement of the true stakeholders — people who have experience seeking help from services, service providers themselves, data administrators at community-based organizations, community health researchers, etc. They’re the ones who will be best able to recognize what viable solutions really look like.

As we say elsewhere in this document: “For the purposes of Open Referral, the concept of ‘open data’ is itself open to some degree of interpretation. Essentially, we are asking: how should this data be open?”


Who are the Open Referral Initiative’s ‘users’?

We’ve identified four primary types of use that are relevant to this domain. Read more here for full personas and user stories.

  • Seeking help (service users, clients, etc)
  • Providing help (service providers, i.e. anyone helping someone find information about services)
  • Administering data (anyone engaged in working with community resource data and the technical systems that use it)
  • Research (anyone trying to analyze resource data to better understand the allocation of resources in a community).

Through these distinct perspectives, we set the parameters of our research, design, and evaluation. Our format (and the associated tools) should meet all of their needs.

Obviously, ‘help seekers’ are the ultimate stakeholders, and we should consider our work first and foremost from their perspective. Aside from this premise, we do not prioritize one stakeholder’s needs above another.

However, we do have a particular tactical analysis that guides our work:

We believe that the most immediate and urgent objective is to improve the ability for all kinds of service providers to make effective referrals with accurate information. One of our core hypotheses is that if/when an ‘open system’ meets the needs of the service providers in its community, those service providers will play a critical role in maintaining the accuracy of its information.

Yet we also recognize that an increasingly common ‘use case’ is an individual searching the web themselves. Surely we want more of those self-performed searches to be effective. So, an open platform must achieve sustainability such that its information is readily findable through direct web searches.

(Of course, even given success on both of those counts, we still assume there would remain a need for trained referral specialists — especially for complex situations, edge cases, etc.)

Finally, when it comes to actually adopting and using open data standards and platforms, we recognize that the most operational type of use is data administration. In other words, our format and tools must be readily usable by anyone who updates this information and manages the technology that stores and delivers it.

As adoption of open data standards makes it easier to solve the problems of maintaining resource directory information, we anticipate that it will become a lot easier for the many different types of service providers to allocate their resources as effectively as possible toward delivering and acting upon this information.

What is a pilot project?

Open Referral is led by local pilot projects in which stakeholders take action towards establishing accessible, interoperable and reliable community resource directory data.  Pilots commit to using the Open Referral data model to exchange resource directory data among institutions — and in return, their feedback is prioritized in shaping the iteration of that model. The goals of pilot projects include demonstrating short-term value of standardized/open data exchange, while developing a plan for long-term sustainability. [Learn more.]


How can my community become a pilot project?

The formation of a pilot project probably starts with a champion who has credibility in the community and the drive to convene others around an effort to solve this problem. We expect this champion to emerge from either local government, a community anchor institution or a local referral provider.

A fully-formed pilot project should include some combination of government, community anchor, and referral provider. It should have investment, and ideally active engagement, from local funding institutions that invest in safety net services. And a pilot should establish capacity for coordination that stands among these different institutional stakeholders — enabling each organization to identify and address its own needs, while facilitating a conversation about the collective interests in the community.

Interested in getting started in your community? Reach out to info@openreferral.org

How can I help?

This is an open source initiative, by which we mean that anyone can freely participate in it and even adapt any of our content for their own purposes. There are lots of ways that you might be able to get involved. For example…

Programmers, data scientists, and other technical people…

Check out the Github repos for the Open Referral format and the Ohana API; read through our project documentation. Ask questions — if we don’t know the answers, help us figure them out!

If you live in the area of one of our pilot projects, you can be very helpful indeed. If you don’t live nearby a pilot project, you might be able to help start one yourself. Attend a local Code for America brigade, or some other civic technology network activity, and ask around to see if anyone else is already working on projects involving resource data.

Information-and-referral practitioners…

Read through our data specification, ask any questions that come to mind — and if we don’t know the answers, help us figure them out. Make suggestions for ways to improve the spec.

Even more importantly, identify your own needs: what do you want to see happen? In a world where community resource directory data could flow among systems, where would you want to see if flow? It can be quite valuable to simply scope out an actionable ‘use case’ (some specific action that would benefit some specific set of users).

“I work in health, human, and/or social services.”

You may be one of our most important kinds of participants. Our work only succeeds if it can help you better serve your clients. You can help us identify, scope, and implement a ‘use case,’ in which we facilitate an open data exchange that can improve the deliverability of your services and/or services in your community. Help us get there.

“I don’t code, I’m just a citizen and I want to help!”

There is LOTS of work to be done by people who don’t code! First, read through our documentation, and ask us questions about anything that’s unclear. Then, for example, you might start learning about how information about services gets collected in your community. Talk to the people who are already producing resource directories; see if they’re interested in finding new ways to produce and/or use this information. If so, write a summary of how they do their work and what they say that they need.

NOTE: The most significant way to help may be to find people who have some of the above experiences, and start talking with each other. Together, you might be able to form a team in your community consisting of some combination of civic technologists, service providers, with support from local government and/or funders. If that looks like it’s happening, we will help you launch a pilot Open Referral project! Contact info@openreferral.org for more information.