First Resort: Building social services resources at DC Public Library

[This is a guest post from Keith Porcaro of Social Impact Lab (SIMLab). SIMLab is partnering with the DC Public Library and the DC Open211 project on a project made possible by the Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund. You can find the original post here.]

Photo courtesy of the DC Public Library

Connecting people to information about community resources at the DC Public Library

Despite the wide range of social and legal services available in American cities, it’s not always easy for a person to find the right service provider (or, often, set of providers) who can help. Service providers, from lawyers to social workers to case managers, have deep expertise helping people solve problems, but sometimes it may not be obvious that someone should, say, call a lawyer in addition to a food pantry if they receive a letter that food stamp benefits have been cut off. A single story may require the help of multiple experts, and multiple services, in order to meet a person’s need.

Particularly for those on the wrong side of the digital divide, people often turn to the library for information on where to find help. The DC Public Library (DCPL) is working to better meet this need, by improving how it provides recommendations and resources on social services in the city, and equipping librarians with question-and-answer tools that can help draw out other services that a person might need. We’re excited to announce that—with support from the Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund and Open Referral Initiative—SIMLab is partnering with DCPL to help.

This project is, in some ways, new territory for us as well—it’s one of our first hands-on projects in the United States—and so, in close collaboration with the Library, we’ve been working hard over the past weeks to get a sense of the world we’re working in. We’ve interviewed front-line librarians to better understand the types of services people seek at the library, and the stories people tell when they do so. For this prototype, we wanted to narrow our focus to a subset of services, so we could explore more deeply within that subset and test our hypotheses and assumptions on a smaller scale. We’ve chosen to focus on on services for the elderly, a commonly requested service set at the library. The difficulty of finding elderly services is a microcosm of finding services generally: after all, most everyone gets old eventually, and many people are navigating the system for the first time, often in search of help for an aging parent, family member, or partner.

This spring, SIMLab and DCPL team members have spent time together exploring the elderly services available in DC. City agencies and service providers alike have generously shared their time and experience with us, helping us to learn about some of the intake, referral, and capacity challenges that their organizations face, as well as technology tools that are currently in development to help meet those challenges.

Working with DCPL to build paper prototypes to help people find social services in DC.

A photo posted by Keith Porcaro (@vigilantballoon) on


From here, we’re trying to bridge the gap between a person’s story of need and the help they are seeking, or might need to seek. With librarians and social workers, we’re helping to identify questions librarians can ask to help clarify and illuminate a person’s situation. So, a request that starts with “I need daytime care for my aging parent” might yield a collection of immediate and long-term resources, from case managers and agencies who can do complete assessments to wellness and activity programs available now. We aren’t turning the library into an intake center, but trying to use technology and research to help people navigate the natural peculiarities of a complex system (like the same service having different names, depending on the provider). We’re also helping DCPL think about how this tool might practically be deployed in a library branch, from the trainings librarians will need, to how to create a safe space where these questions can be asked, and ways to get anonymous feedback on the information provided. All the while, we’ll be focused on learning—what we’ve done well, what we can do better, what needs are yet to be met—and documenting and sharing that learning so that others can build on and replicate our work in other contexts.

From here, we’re trying to bridge the gap between a person’s story of need and the help they are seeking, or might need to seek. With librarians and social workers, we’re helping to identify questions librarians can ask to help clarify and illuminate a person’s situation. So, a request that starts with “I need daytime care for my aging parent” might yield a collection of immediate and long-term resources, from case managers and agencies who can do complete assessments to wellness and activity programs available now. We aren’t turning the library into an intake center, but trying to use technology and research to help people navigate the natural peculiarities of a complex system (like the same service having different names, depending on the provider). We’re also helping DCPL think about how this tool might practically be deployed in a library branch, from the trainings librarians will need, to how to create a safe space where these questions can be asked, and ways to get anonymous feedback on the information provided. All the while, we’ll be focused on learning—what we’ve done well, what we can do better, what needs are yet to be met—and documenting and sharing that learning so that others can build on and replicate our work in other contexts.

Although this is a prototype, we’re excited about exploring these dynamics over the long-term, and on finding creative ways to help organizations use technology and work together to solve tricky problems. We’re in early days yet, but watch this space and others for more on what we learn. We’re slowly exploring challenges in the United States that we might be able to help with, from getting feedback on service referrals to reaching offline and low-literacy communities. If you’ve got a project that you think SIMLab might be a fit for, reach out to us; we’d love to hear from you.

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