About Open Referral

What is Open Referral?

The Open Referral Initiative is a network of people and organizations working to promote the accessibility of information about health, human, and social services — i.e. community resource directory data. The Open Referral community is primarily assembled in our Forum. We also use a Slack team for chat.

Open Referral’s primary product is the Human Service Data Specifications (HSDS, AKA ‘the Open Referral format’) – a set of data exchange protocols that enables resource directory data to be shared among heterogeneous information systems. These artifacts are freely accessible and adaptable by anyone (in accordance with our stated principles and values).

Open Referral’s ecosystem also includes a range of open source tools and web applications that facilitate the flow of resource directory information. See examples of these tools and apps here

The Open Referral Initiative does have a 501c3 fiscal sponsor: Aspiration. Aspiration receives any charitable/philanthropic funding that is granted to Open Referral, and holds the (open source) license to our intellectual property.

Our leadership also has an LLC – Open Referral Consulting Services – that is available to provide consulting support for strategically related projects. Learn more about our consulting work here.

Who leads the Open Referral Initiative?

The founder and lead organizer of Open Referral is Greg Bloom. Bloom oversees the management of this website (hi!) and the associated communications channels, and also coordinates core Open Referral activities. You can see Greg’s story here. Greg’s leadership in this project emerged from his work on the DC Open211 project, and which was first described Towards a Community Data Commons, an essay published in Code for America’s 2013 book Beyond Transparency.

During cycles of technical development of our core protocols, Greg deputizes technical leadership (such as the Open Data Services Cooperative) —  empowering these technical specialists to develop proposals that are subjected to review by the community.

Beyond these responsibilities, Greg’s powers are facilitative – he is here to ask questions, seek clarification, make connections, and help share information among members of our network. 

Various tasks in this network are taken on at various times by members who feel motivated to lead in particular directions. Would you like to help with a particular objective? Reach out to [email protected] 

How are decisions made?

Learn more here in our project documentation. Our governance model is structured around three activities: 1) a semi-regular Assembly (ie video call) open to all participants [see an archive of these videos here], where announcements are shared and feedback is received; 2) convenings of diverse stakeholders in Open Referral workshops, where we deliberate on difficult issues and set priorities; and 3) ad hoc ‘workgroups’ consisting of leaders with a varied set of perspectives and experiences, which develop proposals for review and approval by the community at large. 

Of all the feedback received from many different contributors, we assign priority to the perspectives of the lead stakeholders of our pilot projects. This feedback is submitted to Open Referral’s deputized technical leads, who ultimately make proposals, implement decisions, and document outcomes about our specifications. Through this process, stakeholders, workgroup members, or technical leads can also propose methods for future review and decision-making – subject to consent of the group.

We develop proposals through a kind of ‘advice process’: before we do things, we ask for advice from those who will be impacted by a given decision, as well as those who are experts on the relevant subject. We synthesize their input and circulate among a wide variety of participants, giving prerogative to our primary stakeholders (i.e. help seekers, service providers, researchers, and database administrators). These processes happen both at the ‘global’ level of Open Referral overall, and at the local level of pilot projects that implement these data exchange protocols — with decisions made at the most locally appropriate level. (One way to describe this is ‘polycentricity’read more about what we mean by that here.)

 When it comes to making decisions for the Initiative as a whole, our simple rule of thumb is rough consensus and running code. We do things that 1) demonstrably work, and which 2) none of our community members find to be outright objectionable.

How is Open Referral’s work sustained?

As an open network, much of Open Referral’s activity is driven by voluntary contributions from participants (individuals and organizations) who share our vision, use our specs and tools, and contribute back to the community. 

We also recognize that, often, people need to get paid in order to reliably get things done.

Occasionally, Open Referral receives grants and other charitable contributions – or we partner with organizations who do – to fund our core operations. These grants are received and managed by Aspiration, our 501c3 fiscal sponsor. 

Our leadership sometimes offers consulting support to our partners through an an LLC – under Open Referral Consulting Services. These services vary depending on the needs of our partners, from advisory support to workshop facilitation to project design and implementation; one way or another, our partnerships involve facilitation of standardized resource data exchanges and the development of public information infrastructure. 

We also help local stakeholders develop their own fundraising efforts to build capacity for development and implementation of local strategies.

Do you have questions about our budgeting, or ideas about how to build more capacity for our work? Reach out to [email protected]

How do you balance the interests of a consulting service with the prerogatives of leadership in this community?

We are committed to working on projects that are aligned with the values of Open Referral, and which are strategically relevant to our mission. We prioritize partnerships that yield open source outputs that can be re-used by any members of our network. We also clearly indicate when we are working in formal partnership with an organization, and promote transparency to whatever extent possible and appropriate.

Read more about our approach to partnership development here.

What is the difference between Open211 and Open Referral?

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). 

Open211 is a name that has been used by various groups and organizations in various contexts over the years. Some 2-1-1 providers have ‘Open211’ APIs, some groups have built themselves Open211 apps, but we are not necessarily affiliated with them. Sometimes, Open Referral supports local 2-1-1s in projects that they’ve described as “Open211,” but Open Referral claims no ownership thereof. 

Who do I contact if I need help with this project?

You can contact Greg Bloom (@greggish | [email protected]), the founder and lead organizer of Open Referral. Alternatively, you can reach out to our network via our Community Forum or Slack channel .

What if I need help collecting this data in the first place?

Open Referral is working to build tools that can help people produce and verify accurate resource directory data. For the most part, we don’t host these tools ourselves – but we can help you deploy, customize, and leverage them to achieve your goals.

For instance, you might be able to quickly get set up with a free resource database by deploying the Open Referral Airtable template. You might also deploy one of the open source content management systems in our ecosystem (like ORServices). We also have helped communities develop open source policies and procedures (like the DC Community Resource Information Exchange’s style guide and verification process documents) which you are free to copy and adapt. 

If you’re interested in deploying or helping to develop such tools, we want to hear from you! Please reach out to our network via our Community Forum or  Slack channel to discuss.

If I maintain a community resource directory — or if I partner with an organization that does — how would I get started?

You can start by testing the viability of our format for your context. That may entail mapping your database’s schema to the Human Services Data Specification.

Once you’ve mapped your schema to ours, analyze the gaps. (You can ask questions or submit suggestions for improvements to our schema in our Issues Queue. Read more in our Contributors Guide.)

Then you can write a script to transform your data into this open format. We can likely help you with this process. 

Finally, you can publish your now-standardized resource data and work with others in your community to help them use it in new, beneficial ways. If helpful for this purpose, you can deploy an open source resource database (like ORServices), load your transformed data in, and start building new tools that can help people in your community use this data in new ways.

If you have questions about how this work in your community, please reach out to [email protected]

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 Open Referral’s specifications and tools to exchange resource directory data among institutions — and in return, their feedback is prioritized in shaping the iteration of our data model, tools, and processes. One way or another, the goals of pilot projects typically involve short-term demonstration of the feasibility and value of  standardized, open resource  data exchange, and also development of strategies for long-term sustainability thereof.


How can my community become a pilot project?

Pilot projects usually start with a champion. This is likely someone who is motivated to rally other stakeholders in a community around an effort to solve this problem. We expect such a champion might emerge from a local government, a community anchor institution, a local referral provider, etc. 

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.

Are you interested in getting started in your community? Reach out to [email protected]

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 our Github repo, join our Slack or technical section of our forum. 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 that’s already underway, you might be able to help start one yourself. Start by asking people who work in human services in your area about how directory information is currently managed in your community, and how you might help… 

Information-and-referral providers…

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 powerful way to help may be to find and build relationships with a group of people who have all of the above experiences. If you can form a team in your community consisting of some combination of civic technologists, service providers, with support from local government and/or funders, we will help you launch a pilot Open Referral project!