Governments should have a role in opening social service data

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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.”

Open, interoperable data as a new way forward

The way Mavero sees it, governments can and should play a stronger role as publishers of standardized data about the services that they provide and fund. Sunlight’s work to support cities in publishing and applying open data has provided a model for fundamental government transparency. But many governments still struggle to use data-sharing and collaboration to address longer term issues like access to social services.

“This is hard work,” he says, “but aside from more effectively sharing this information within our different departments, we are driven by the incredible potential that we see to enrich the many channels of information where people look for help — from Google, to our local 2-1-1 hotline to our locally maintained BigBurgh, to new websites like Aunt Bertha. If we can provide them with a baseline of the same information, all kinds of improvements can become possible and we meet folks wherever they are looking for help.” 

This line of thinking led Mavero and Allegheny DHS to find, and begin to adopt, Open Referral’s standards for resource directory data exchange.

Open Referral launched In 2014, with co-sponsorship from Code for America, to pursue a new approach: promoting sustainability, reliability, and accessibility of resource directory information systems, through the pursuit of interoperability. Five years on, these Open Referral formats — the Human Service Data Specification and API protocols — have been formally endorsed by the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems as industry standards for the exchange of resource data

Why is this such a hard problem?

Information about the health, human, and social services available to people in need is still typically shared using the oldest of communication technologies: word of mouth. If someone wants to figure out where to go, they’d best find someone who knows.

To make matters worse, this information is deceptively complex and constantly changing. Because service providers are often understaffed and insufficiently funded, their capacity to offer particular services can change often and with little notice. And providers under disparate contracts from multiple levels of government have varying intake requirements or criteria for eligibility. So it’s often hard for staff or clients to find up-to-date data on available services. 

As a result, resource directory information tends to be scattered among flyers on bulletin boards to PDFs with arbitrary fields, and often consists of nothing but a list of organization names and phone numbers. 

Ironically, this problem seems to have gotten worse in the modern Internet era. It’s easier than ever before to start up a new resource directory. But the fundamental challenges of data maintenance haven’t changed, and problem-solving around social services requires significant subject matter knowledge and appreciation of the data sensitivities and nuance. If anything, more resource directories means more requests for information being channeled to already stressed organizations. 

Governments in the lead

Governments can provide some relief to service providers by becoming canonical sources of data about available social services. The first step that governments can take is publishing standardized open data about the services they provide and/or fund. 

Before Allegheny County DHS’s recent initiative, the Mayor’s Office in New York City was the very first to take this step: in 2018, the NYC Office of Opportunity extracted and published the first tranche of data from its health-and-human-service contracting system (HHS Accelerator), then transformed into the Open Referral format and published to the open data portal.

The District of Columbia’s Department of Human Services is also using Open Referral to develop a directory of services for people experiencing homelessness. These services comprise the Continuum of Care, which is the city’s network of public and private agencies. 

Maintaining a governed inventory of our services allows us to provide more reliable information to our clients experiencing homelessness and the partners who serve them,” said Laura Zeilinger, who is the Director of the D.C. Department of Human Services and former Executive Director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. “By standardizing provider, organization, and programmatic data – we can improve our chances of delivering the right solutions to the right clients at the right time.” 

Spreading strategies across communities

By prioritizing the creation and publication of standardized, machine-readable resource data, governments can transform the service landscape into a coherent, adaptive ecosystem — enabling non-profits and other intermediaries (the organizations that actually help people find and access services) to more effectively serve their communities, and to better understand where needs remain unmet. 

Importantly, if governments can approach data governance reforms to social service ecosystems with the intention to enable open dialogue and collaboration, they can generate new insights and solutions alongside providers who are so critical to caring for residents in need. 

That transformation is underway now. Check out Open Referral’s blog to learn more about these and other implementations happening across the country and internationally. To explore how you might connect with an Open Referral pilot project – or to launch one in your community – reach out to