Sunlight Foundation on local governments and the opening of social service data

Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services has long been known as one of the most innovative government agencies of its kind: their data infrastructure famously enables sharing of client information across a complex array of programs and powers analytic capabilities. As Ian Mavero started his role as their Chief Technology Officer, he took on the department’s next strategic priority: further improving the Department of Human Services’ (DHS) flow of information about, well, human services.

“When it comes to information about residents — and activities of our programs — our data infrastructure is really impressive,” says Ian Mavero. “When it comes to information about our services, we have a single database that contains information about all of the providers with whom we contract and their associated facilities and services… But we commonly hear that our community partners and clients themselves, desire better access to information about these services. And we agree: community mental health specialists should have access to the same information about available services as our own agency’s case workers do.”

In order to share information about services more broadly and effectively, Mavero realized that Allegheny DHS’s IT would need to take another step forward — not with fancy new technology, just with more deliberate practices of structuring and sharing this existing data.

“We needed a standardized way to structure this directory information in a way that could enable it to be shared across all offices, with our contracted partners, and even with the public at large.” Continue reading

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Making Complexity Friendly

Last year, SIMLab completed a project [discussed previously on this blog] with DC Public Library (DCPL) to find out how the library could deliver and maintain good information on social services in DC. Funded by the Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund, this project sparked a prolonged investigation into how the American social safety net is constructed. What follows is a rundown of what we did. Continue reading

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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.]

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. Continue reading

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A look inside the DC Open211 project

Over at Code for DC’s blog, the DC Open211 team reports back from the kickoff of the ‘Rebuilding Re-entry’ social lab.

At this event, a number of groups explored the various challenges facing people who return from prison — and one of the most prominent themes was the difficulty of finding reliable information about services that can help them get back on their feet. Of all the resource directories produced in the DC metro area, participants even identified three that are produced specifically for formerly incarcerated people, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, yet all siloed!

Over the course of the weekend, the DC Open211 team took a number of steps toward a world where this information is easier to find and use. You can read through the whole post, but one piece in particular is worth highlighting here: Continue reading

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Developing a Visual Vocabulary for Open Referral

This may seem obvious, but it bears repeating: the community resource directory data problem is complex, and complex things can be hard to understand.

During my work as lead organizer of the DC Open211 project, I’ve seen that there are so many people out there who want to find better ways to produce and share this information. However, to really make a difference, we need to be able to work together — and in order to work together, we need to share some common understanding of what we’re working with!

So we’ve developed a set of icons to convey the key elements of this complex topic in ways that can be understood at a glance.

Check it out:

Download a PDF here, and EPS files here. Continue reading

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