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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Deep Dive into version 1.0

Earlier this month, we published version 1.0 of the Human Service Data Specification (HSDS). Let’s take a deeper dive into it.

What is the Human Service Data Specification (HSDS)?

The HSDS is a format for data exchange, specifically designed to enable the publication of machine-readable data about health, human, and social services that are available to people in need.

HSDS is essentially an interlingua — in other words, it’s a common language that can be used by anyone to enable community resource directories to ’talk’ to each other.

 

Why did we develop the HSDS?

We believe that development of an open, standardized format is a necessary step in a process of reducing the costs of producing directory data, increasing the quality of such data, and promoting its re-use in valuable ways. Continue reading

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Toward Seamless Information & Referral: A Polycentric Experiment

By Derek Coursen, Adjunct Faculty, NYU Wagner School of Public Service

Multiple levels of government and a myriad of nonprofit organizations offer an ever-changing array of specialized services to people who need them. But who directs traffic through all that complexity?

The work of connecting people to services is known as information and referral. It’s a basic part of what human service organizations do: help their clients find further resources elsewhere. But it’s also a professionalized function in its own right. Throughout the U.S. and Canada there are several thousand information and referral (I&R) providers at 211 and 311 call centers, United Ways, community organizations, libraries and hospitals. They maintain and serve up community resource directories: collections of records on which organizations offer which services. Their work is essential to making an extremely decentralized human service sector operate smoothly.

Unfortunately, information and referral is currently a landscape of silos. In most localities there are several I&R providers. But instead of sharing records, each one maintains its own separate collection. That makes it harder for clients to find the services they need. It also adds to cost, as all of the I&R providers have to create and update records about the same services. Continue reading

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