In 2013, San Mateo County’s Human Services Agency faced a number of challenges. First, because CalFresh eligibility is based on the Federal Poverty Level — which doesn’t take into account the very high cost of living in San Mateo County — about 28 percent of families are not eligible for government aid, yet they are struggling to make ends meet. Second, only half of those who are actually eligible for CalFresh food services are enrolled due to language barriers, social stigma, lack of awareness, and a cumbersome application process. These low levels of engagement put the County’s HSA department at risk of losing future funding for the program.

It’s for this reason that San Mateo County’s Human Services Agency (HSA) and the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation teamed up with Code for America fellows Anselm Bradford, Moncef Belyamani and Sophia Parafina to determine the best course of action.

Led by city contacts Beverly Johnson (Agency Director), Edwin Chan (Executive Analyst) and Al David (Director of Administrative and Information Services), the fellows embarked on their research in early February. The team hosted a Hack Hunger event, volunteered at the Ecumenical Hunger Program (EHP), and interviewed 90 people from 32 organizations to better understand the HSA and food security community’s pain points. What’s more, in order to better understand the client perspective, the team took the CalFresh Challenge where they spent a week eating on a little more than five dollars a day. Hungry but inspired, they came up with a number of ideas.

As their primary project, the fellows concentrated on upgrading and modernizing the Peninsula Library System’s Community Information Program (CIP) database. While the list of health and human service agencies in this database are important, for the past 30 years it has been buried behind an obscure search interface, lost in the library’s computers and printed just once a year as a handbook for NGOs and police officers. The fellows saw an opportunity to develop an open source platform that would allow easy access and reuse of the data through a read-write API.

Named after the Hawaiian word for family, the Ohana API provides any city or county with an open-source framework for opening up a dataset of community-based organizations, and keeping the information up to date. The API can also fuel economic development as it allows anyone to build applications on top of the data. As an example of what can be created using the API, Anselm, Moncef, and Sophia developed SMC-Connect, an open-source website that allows the residents of San Mateo County to easily find the services they are eligible for.

To provide more relevant and targeted search results, the fellows hosted two Edit-a-thons (similar to the Write-a-thons held in Oakland and Honolulu) where the community came together to update the data. They’ll also continue to reach out to third party developers to encourage additional Ohana-based applications.