HHS Technology Challenge calls for interoperability solutions using HSDS

The Administration for Community Living's Social Care Referrals Challenge

The U.S. Administration for Community Living provides funding and support to networks of state agencies and community-based organizations who serve elders and people with disabilities. ACL’s grantees include a vast array of services that help people cope with food insecurity and transportation issues, manage chronic disease, support employment and economic independence, reduce social isolation, and address other factors outside of the medical clinic that impact people’s health and support community living. 

ACL recognizes that this work is fundamentally collaborative. Vulnerable people require holistic support, which typically involves coordination among institutions; however, such institutions often struggle to work together, in part because their technologies can’t ‘speak’ to each other.

To address this need for interoperability among health, human, and social service providers, ACL has announced the Social Care Referrals Challenge: an opportunity to identify, test, and promote new methods for sharing data in the coordination of care across organizations and technologies, such as sharing information about resources and/or enabling ‘warm referrals’ across systems. The ACL invites participation in this challenge from state and community leaders in the aging and disability network, as well as health care systems, health plans, and health IT developers.

Last week, ACL updated the Challenge specifications with a range of new details – including a criteria that any proposals involving resource directory data should use Open Referral’s resource data exchange standards (the Human Service Data Specification and API protocols).

By using these industry standards for resource data exchange, applicants can not only save time and effort by leveraging an already-proven method for interoperability – they can also improve the likelihood that their proposed intervention, if successful, can be replicated and scaled. 

This Challenge will award up to $500,000 across three phases of competition. The deadline for Phase 1 is December 14, 2020. Six winners will receive funding to develop a demonstration project; three of these demonstrations will receive funding to support implementation; and one winner will be announced (and awarded with the final prize amount) in early 2022. Register now to view the entry form and resource dashboard.

Interested parties are also invited to join this informational webinar on October 15, 2-3 PM EST.


To get some creative juices flowing among prospective applicants, ACL invited me to suggest some scenarios that might meet the criteria for the Social Care Referrals Challenge.

I’ll focus here primarily on the Challenge’s call for interoperable use of resource directory information itself. Consider the following patterns:

1) An organization that maintains a resource directory can share its resource data with a third party – to use said data in a different information system – enabling searches, referrals, and/or analytics.

This scenario might be the simplest. One organization can publish its resource data for a different organization to consume – using HSDS as a bulk data exchange format, or perhaps via an HSD API – so that the third party organization can use the source’s data to serve help-seekers or service providers making referrals in new ways.

Examples of this kind of project include the Miami Open211 pilot and Link2Feed’s use of Ontario 2-1-1’s Open211 platform.

I’d encourage applicants crafting this kind of proposal to consider not just the technical specifications of your prospective demonstration, but also the value proposition(s) for all organizations involved: how can this exchange of resource data be mutually beneficial, not just for the organization that receives the data, but also for the organization that maintains and publishes the data? How would the data publisher benefit from their data being used in new ways? Strategic questions along these lines – along with a proposed method of seeking answers to them – will make for strong proposals.

2. Two (or more) organizations that maintain separate resource directories, with overlapping contents, can develop a method of sharing resource data with each other.

This scenario would use the HSDS exchange protocols to facilitate true data exchange: different resource directories can be ‘matched’ together, and their contents can then be compared, linked, resolved or simply federated. The value proposition, presumably, is that each respective party gets access to better data, at lower cost of maintenance, than it previously would have been able to manage on its own.

This is a high-value proposition, though it is both technically and operationally challenging. HSDS can make it substantially easier to match records from different systems – especially by normalizing organizations’ names, addresses, etc – but it won’t do all the work of interoperability; some resource data challenges (like service descriptions and categories) are subjective, and therefore may have valid stylistic differences, which won’t be easily resolvable by mechanical means. However, if different organizations are able to align their respective datasets around a shared core of factual data, it might then be easier to subsequently address tougher, higher-value kinds of collaboration. So I’d encourage applicants to specify which elements of resource data they aim to collaborate around in their initial demonstration project, alongside their bigger longer-term vision.

Precedents for this kind of collaboration include OpenCIOC in Ontario Canada, and Benetech Service Net in San Francisco.

3. A grantmaker, contracting agency, accrediting body or other network authority can establish an open, standardized “service register” of every service within its purview.

A ‘register’ is an official list. An ‘open data register’ is a machine-readable dataset that is comprised of every canonical record associated with the official list. (Learn more about Open Data Registers in the Open Data Institute’s report here.)

A ‘Service Register’ might be an appealing project for entities (like governments, health systems, foundations, etc) that grant, contract, accredit, or otherwise formally support particular types of service providers.

By establishing a service register – and, crucially, by implementing the policies and systems of monitoring and compliance that can keep it trustworthy – an institution can transform their list of associated services into foundational data infrastructure to be leveraged by an ecosystem of third parties. This not only establishes a ‘single source of truth’ that can save referral providers time and effort, but also opens up the opportunity for the Register to aggregate metadata and traffic data about third party’s use of the Register’s data. This makes possible new kinds of insights about community needs and program effectiveness to be gleaned from search traffic and clicks across an ecosystem of applications and programs.

Examples of this kind of initiative include the NYC HHS contractors open data set, and the Florida Legal Referral Hub.


There may, of course, be other kinds of opportunities to use HSDS for the purpose of interoperability among health, human, and social service systems. We should watch closely to see what kinds of ideas emerge from this Challenge!

I’ll be presenting about HSDS and these patterns on ACL’s informational webinar on October 15, 2-3 PM EST. I’d also be glad to directly discuss any prospective proposals you might be considering.

Good luck to all applicants! These efforts are now more important than ever.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *