What’s the problem?

Every community faces a similar challenge: there are many different kinds of health, human, and social services that are available to people in need, yet no one way that information about them is produced and shared. Instead, many organizations collect community resource directory data in redundant isolation from each other  — yielding fragmented silos. 

As a result, it’s hard to ‘see’ all the many different parts of our safety net. Many people never discover services that could help improve their lives. Service providers spend precious time verifying data rather than helping people. And without access to this information, decision-makers struggle to evaluate community health and program effectiveness. This yields underperforming systems that fail people and communities in tragic ways.

What’s the opportunity?

Government agencies are increasingly managing public information as open data, as the world wide web is expanding the use of data standards for civic information. These shifts toward standardized, open civic data make it easier  to share data across heterogeneous information systems; to develop and redeploy new technologies at lower cost; and generally to increase the value of data, and the capacities of the networks and communities that use it.

For example, Schema.org (a consortium of search engines that develop standards for web markup) has developed a ‘civic services’ schema to the World Wide Web Consortium (the W3C). This schema can enable information about organizations, the services they provide, and the location of those services, to be indexed and delivered in more effective ways by platforms like Google, Bing, Yelp, etc. 

Given this opportunity to make it easier for information about resources  to be discovered on the web, Open Referral convened a network of referral providers,  governments, funders, civic institutions, and technologists, and focused our efforts on a shared goal: let’s make it as easy as possible to publish, find, trust, and use resource directory information — in any number of ways. That entails the establishment of interoperability between emergent web platforms and conventional information-and-referral systems, and it also entails the development of new methods by which we can  sustain the production of resource directory data as open data — a public good.

To make the most of this opportunity, the Open Referral Initiative has developed a data exchange format that can enable many information systems to share the same data. The Alliance of Information and Referral Systems has formally endorsed our protocols as industry standards for interoperable resource data exchange. This means it’s finally possible to break open these silos. Now we have to make it easy.

What do we mean by ‘open data’?

Open means ‘free,’ as in ‘free speech.’ We are all entitled to it by fundamental right.

Open means accessible. We have “open access” to things like roads and libraries — these are public goods, and anyone is able to use them. Likewise for our computer technology: open data can be accessed and used not just in one system, but any capable system.

Open does NOT necessarily mean ‘anything goes.’ Books have to be returned to the library, and in good condition. Roads have speed limits. You can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. Etc.  

Open does NOT necessarily mean ‘free’ as in without cost. Some roads have tolls; all roads need to be maintained. For something to exist in an open state, a lot of energy and resources must go into keeping it so. Those resources must come from somewhere (and, in the case of resource directory data, we don’t assume they will automagically crowdsource themselves). 

‘Open’ can mean many things, but at its core, ‘open data’ entails:

Accessibility: open data is accessible as a “machine-readable” resource, meaning it can be ingested and displayed by computer programs, and presumably downloadable over the internet. (There can be reasonable reproduction costs associated with certain kinds of access to open data.)

Reuse and Redistribution: open data is provided under terms that permit reuse and redistribution, including the intermixing with other datasets (although open data can be licensed to prohibit changes or to require documentation of changes). There should be no discrimination against fields of endeavor or against persons or groups (although open data can be published with ‘dual licenses’ that specify different conditions for different uses). 

Openness entails a state of possibility.

When it comes to public information, data becomes more valuable when more people use it. (Conversely, resource data is less valuable when fewer people use it.) When it’s easy to access and use resource data by any means, it becomes easier for more people to do more things with the data, and as more people do more things with the data, feedback on the quality of the data increases, data about the use of the data can be collected and analyzed — and the maintainers of the data become more critical to the entire ecosystem. 

Open Referral’s core question is about how resource data can be sustainably maintained as an openly accessible public good.  

What do we mean by ‘referral’? What is ‘information and referral’?

Broadly speaking, people seek ‘referrals’ to resources that can help them meet their needs. Community resource data is comprised of information about health, human, and social services available to people in need — which organizations provide these services, and how they can be accessed. 

Some services are provided by non-profit organizations, and other civic or cultural groups. Others are provided by local, state, even federal governments. All of these entities share information about their resources in different ways.

‘Information and referral’ refers to the field in which information about services is aggregated in community resource directories, and delivered (via referral) to people seeking help. 

The Alliance of Information and Referral Systems (AIRS) is an accrediting agency that certifies ‘information and referral’ providers throughout North America. AIRS promotes official standards for ‘information and referral’ services, ranging from operational standards to data standards. AIRS has colleaborated with the Open Referral Initiative from its inception, and in 2018 AIRS formally endorsed our protocols as industry standards for interoperable resource data exchange. 

What do we mean by ‘standards’? And why should we care?

By standards, we refer to common ways of doing things. In the case of data standards, that means an agreed-upon set of terms and relationships that define and structure information, so that it can be readily transferred between systems. 

With such common agreements, different technologies can ‘speak’ to each other — making it easier to integrate systems, and develop, redeploy, and scale new tools. 

For resource directory information providers, the development of standards means that resource data can be published once and accessed simultaneously in many ways. That’s how the internet became the World Wide Web. 

Standardizing data across places and institutions also makes it easier to analyze and evaluate data, which makes it easier to understand patterns and trends — including, in the case of community resource data, the health of communities and the effectiveness of our safety net.

Furthermore, the process of developing standards helps to bring stakeholders together. By building a community among users, producers, and service providers, we can accelerate the process of learning and innovation towards our shared vision of helping people and improving the health of communities.

With increasing adoption of open standards for resource directory data, we anticipate: 

  • Decreased cost of data production (as data produced once can circulate through many systems)
  • Improved quality of data (as more use generates more user feedback)
  • Improved findability of data through web search and an ecosystem of tools and applications; Decreased cost and improved quality of new and redeployed tools (websites, applications, etc).
  • Improved quality of referral services (as patterns of resource allocation shift from maintaining data to delivering data)
  • Meaningful use of resource data for research purposes, such as community health assessment, and policy-making and resource allocation.
  • Healthier people and more resilient communities. 

What do we mean by ‘open platforms’? What’s an API?

A ‘platform’ is an ambiguous term that could mean a lot of different things — here we use it to refer to a system that connects producers and consumers, enabling them to conduct their own activities using external systems (which can be ‘built on’ the platform). 

An API is an “application programming interface” which provides instructions for computer programs to interact with a database. For example, you can get a forecast from the National Weather Service by going to Weather.Gov. But the NWS also offers a web service (i.e. an API) that allows external applications to access the NWS database in real-time. This enables developers to build applications that connect to the NWS ‘platform’ in order to seamlessly provide public weather data to skiiers, photographers, rainbow chasers, etc. (To learn more about this example, see this segment from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight about the National Weather Service and the importance of open platforms for public information.)

Platforms enable their data to be accessed and used in all kinds of ways, many of which would not or could not be provided by those who operate the platform themselves.

By ‘open platform,’ we specifically mean three things: 

– A system that facilitates the management, publication, and access of open data

– A system powered by technology that is freely available through open licenses

– A system in which interoperability and integration are the primary design objectives

Why can’t you just get organizations to update their information themselves?

There are a number of factors that limit the reliability of organizations as sources of information about their own services:

Organizations might not designate the responsibility for managing all of this information to any single person. A single organization might offer many services through various programs at multiple locations. And these are often stressed environments with limited technical capacity and overburdened staff.  It can be hard for organizations to keep track of all of their own services!

Organizations sometimes submit information about services that is vague or not entirely accurate. When updating their own records, organizations’ staff sometimes submit information that is composed to promote their organization in general, yet not precisely describe the information about services that is needed. This tends to yield information that is not useful to someone who is looking for a service. 

Organizations are asked to update their information so many times in so many different community resource directories that they get confused or frustrated. 

Keeping this information up to date just isn’t a high priority when organizations already have more clients coming through its doors than they can handle.

As a result, we assume that organizations’ self-reported updates should be considered one input among many in the effort to produce and maintain accurate data about services.

Why don’t government or funders require this data as a condition of funding?

Government and funders do require various kinds of data about their grantees, but it’s generally non-standardized and not specifically about services themselves. 

We anticipate that, as Open Referral becomes adopted by more institutions, governments and funders may begin mandating this information as a condition of funding. (But it doesn’t seem feasible to attempt to make that happen before a format has been demonstrated as viable and gaining adoption!)