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Open Referral Initiative: A Standard for the Safety Net

Information about health, human, and social services is an essential element of our public infrastructure. It is literally what one needs to ‘see’ the safety net. It should be reliable and easy to find, in all kinds of ways.

But there’s no one way to keep track of all these services, so lots of different organizations produce their own directories with much of the same information, formatted differently — yielding a wasteful and fragmented landscape of silos.

We’ve written more about why this is such a ‘wicked problem,’ both on this blog and in Beyond Transparency. Over the past few months, the Open Referral initiative has been gearing up to tackle this problem. We’re going to make it easier to compile, share, and find information about health, human, and social services.

Open Referral working group

In Open Referral, our plan has two parts.

First, we’re developing a common model for structuring community resource data — a format that’s designed to be both easy to use and also interoperable among different kinds of information systems.

Second, we’re supporting diverse groups of local stakeholders as they use this model to break down silos and ‘unleash the data’ about services in their community.

Those stakeholders include community anchor institutions like the super-innovative DC-area non-profit, Bread for the City, as well as major hospitals throughout the Bay Area — working alongside government champions like the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, well-established referral service providers like the United Way of the Bay Area, and innovative entrepreneurs like Purple Binder and Healthify. In partnership with CfA alumni in the Ohana Project, along with other civic technologists, we’re all experimenting with ways to enable this data to flow between systems, so that it improves in quality through greater user feedback, and increases in value through an ecosystem of applications that serve the same data in different ways to meet a diverse array of user needs.

Today, we’re excited to share two important milestones in this campaign.

First, we’re publishing a report that summarizes our inaugural Open Referral workshop, which we hosted last month in Oakland. This report captures the varying perspectives of people who grapple with this problem every day, and provides a glimpse of the path ahead which we’re charting together. (Many thanks to the California HealthCare Foundation, Kapor Center for Social Impact, and Serving California for making this workshop possible.)

Second, we’re opening a public ‘Request for Comment’ period on the ‘alpha’ draft of the Open Referral data model (see it here in Google Docs, and here in Github).

Now things get exciting. And you may have a role to play!

We’ve designated a team of domain experts who will review the comments submitted by people like you. At the end of the Request for Comment period (in three weeks) we will ‘set’ this model for development, testing, and evaluation.

Please sign up to participate in the public comment period. Subscribe to our mailing list to stay updated, or join our Google group to get even more involved.


Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.