Rather than trying to build the perfect application to serve this data, we believe that a truly effective solution must instead make service directory data openly available (i.e. accessible without cost for re-use and repurposing) to an ecosystem of applications and stakeholders.
We can do this by making the directory openly available via an Application Programming Interface (API) that enables external programs to access the data. This will make it easier for anyone to develop a solution specifically to meet their community’s particular needs. By distributing the challenge of keeping this information up to date, we can steward this system as a commons — a resource shared by our community.
What we've done so far
Data: Through a cross-sector, multi-stakeholder collaboration, we have merged multiple community resource directories into one comprehensive database that includes all of the non-profit agencies and public services in DC. (This database is hosted on the Open Data DC catalog -- you can access it here.)
Platform: We've made this data available in the cloud, accessible via an 'Application Programming Interface' (API) first developed by Code for America's Ohana Project in San Mateo County, California. You can see our API here.
Application: We've deployed a simple web page (cloned from Code for America's SMC Connect, and dubbed 'DC Service Connect') to demonstrate the potential for open data to be easily accessed by any software designed to recognize it. You can see that page here. (And see its code on Github here.) Note: we are not encouraging anyone to actually use this web page or its data — it needs a lot of work. We just want to demonstrate the potential.
1) Organize the common data pool. Currently, our consolidated directory lacks an established order for its entries (almost all information-and-referral systems currently use the 211/AIRS taxonomy, which is proprietary, so it cannot be used in an open environment). One next step may be to use OpenEligibility.org, an open source taxonomy of health and human services. This open taxonomy (or some future version of it) could be a common language through which different applications could recognize the same "map" of the local service domain.
2) Establish cooperative agreements and tools to manage the data over time. This step could potentially entail the formation of a “data coop”: a membership organization offering premium services to all local entities for a fee or a commitment of time for data management. See this recent example of a "data coop" organization.
3) Demo through a variety of applications, such as our current site DC Service Connect; or service-oriented software designed for case managers and social workers like Aunt Bertha; a LocalWiki that serves the structured data alongside unstructured space for users to contribute tacit knowledge; etc.
4) Engage users in participation, through an accompanying set of social programs, anchored in various community spaces and designed for various levels of skills and purposes. For instance: resource mapping projects in social service agencies and civic associations; digital literacy training through "wiki parties" at libraries; and “hackathons" that can bring users, developers, and social workers together to build tools that access the common data pool.
By sharing an open, common directory of DC’s community resources, we can greatly improve access to critical services; in the long run, we can also enhance our collective capacity to understand and make decisions about how resources are allocated in our communities.
The DC Community Resource Data group includes community organizations and civic technologists and other people who want to improve the quality of life in DC. You should join us! We are looking for community leaders, health and social workers, data geeks, and anyone who wants to learn about how these things work and how we can make them better. Join our Google group email list here. Join the Code for DC Meetup here.