Our Human Services Data Initiative

New York City has over 8 million residents and over ten thousand 501(c)(3) nonprofits providing a vast variety of services to the public. After Sandy, the need for these “human services” has expanded dramatically.
Services Directory Data Standard Other Standards

Problem

If you dial “211” almost anywhere in America, you will be connected to a representative at an information and referral system that can give you information about nonprofit services in your area. When you dial 211 in New York City, you are connected to 311, the number for non-emergency City government services. 311 will only provide you with information about government services and does not provide information about or referrals to services run by nonprofit organizations. If you identify yourself as a survivor of Sandy, they will instruct you to call Catholic Charities’ Disaster Case Management hotline, which doesn’t have the capacity to perform the role of a comprehensive 211 call center.

Without a city-wide 211 system, organizations in NYC have taken it upon themselves to aggregate and organize Sandy-relates services information for their own staff and clients. Dozens of resource directories have been compiled and circulated by Long-term Recovery Organization (LTRO) members, relief organizations, neighbourhood groups and government agencies. Without data standards and consistent information sharing, these groups are performing redundant work and none have the capacity to develop a single, comprehensive resource. The need for a comprehensive resource is becoming increasingly urgent as many post-Sandy Disaster Case Management (DCM) programs will likely lose funding by 2015. As these programs wrap-up, knowledge held by individual disaster case managers about the services available to affected people will be lost.

We’re working with a variety of partners to develop a comprehensive repository of services information by building:

  • data standards that enable the Sandy relief community to collaboratively manage human services information
  • software that makes human services information as accessible and useful as possible online, offline and on mobile devices
  • coordination that ensures this project is locally sustainable and sharing information with similar projects around the country

Data

We’ve assembled a group of people with expertise in New York City-based social services, disaster relief and recovery, and knowledge management systems to develop a set of data standards that establish how human services information can be most effectively organized. These standards address four key topics: the data schema, taxonomies, formats and licensing. You can learn more about data standards in our knowledge base.

The group also ensures that the data standard can be adapted to meet the changing needs of the communities who use them. We are in the process of establishing a mechanism through which community members can propose modifications to the standard and have those changes implemented quickly.

Software

We are planning a three phase roll out of software that will ultimately result in a software system that can:

  • filter the services information by:
    • what it provides (type)
    • who it’s for (audience)
    • where it’s provided (area)
    • the entity that provides it (organization).
  • enable people to add and update services information
  • provide experts with curatorial tools that will help ensure that crowd-sourced information is accurate
  • publish the information so it is accessible via smart phone, tablet, online and to software systems via an open application programming interface (API)
  • make it easy for people to print some or all of the information on good old fashioned paper
  • integrate services information with preparedness information in our information management systems (IMS)

Phase 1: Google Spreadsheets and Fusion Tables

We converted service information from the “Disaster Recovery Resources” PDF produced by staff members of a certain federal disaster management organization into a Google Spreadsheet formatted to align with Open Referral data specifications.

After we got all the services in our spreadsheet, we converted it into a Google Fusion table which we used to turn the spreadsheet into a printable PDF using card views (example).  Fusion tables also allowed us to create a very basic online directory case managers and the general public could use to search through available services (example).

Phase 2: Ohana Prototype

After soliciting and incorporating feedback from our users (both data managers and consumers) about our data specifications, we imported the services data into our own deployment of the Ohana platform. Ohana was developed by Code for America Fellows as a lightweight directory system for managing and displaying human services information. An early version of this software is in use in San Mateo County and the Open Referral project is facilitating adoption of the Ohana software and it’s data standards in San Francisco and Washington DC.

Phase 3: Sahana Eden and Ohana Version 1.0

Ohana presents a fantastic solution for aggregating, organizing, viewing and sharing human services information, but it isn’t designed to manage information for disaster preparedness, such as facility, volunteer management and work order management functionalities. Our Eden IMS provides tremendous amount of functionality for emergency management use cases, and by integrating human services information into it, we’ll be able to offer a full spectrum IMS solution to NYC’s disaster relief and community resilience organizations.

Depending on resource availability, we may also add a feature into Eden and/or Ohana that would allow people to fill-in their “audience” information to view a list of all services for which they might be eligible. We could also develop feature that allow people to track the services they have applied for, their progress and identify next steps people can take to access the service.

Coordination

While our primary goal is to help organize information in NYC related to Sandy, we recognize two things: that people experience these same issues throughout the United States and that NYC needs a permanent 211 solution. This means that it’s critical, for the longevity and success of the project, for our standards to comply with and help inform existing open standards for human services information. For these reasons, NYC:Prepared is an active participant in the Open Referral initiative.

“The Open Referral initiative is developing common standards and open platforms for the sharing of community resource directory data — i.e., information about the health, human and social services that are available to people in need.”

This initiative bring together experts in data management, software development, information and server services to establish free/libre/open-source standards that anyone can access. Members include people working at government organizations, national data standards groups, and software focused organizations such as Code for America and Google.org. By aligning our project with Open Referral, we can help ensure that there are high quality data standards for disaster related human services and that our project can be built upon to create a general 211 resource for New York City.

Who We Are

NYC:Prepared is a coalition of technologists and local leaders working together to co-create world-class disaster relief and community resilience software solutions for New York City. All of our software is free/libre/open-source (FLO), and all of our techniques are documented and freely available. We believe that everyone should have the information they need to create robust and resilient communities.

Our group is composed of people who are passionate about open civic data. We believe that by providing high quality FLO software and information services, we will be able to overcome the obstacles usually associated with civic data sharing, such as inadequate data sharing tools, inconsistent data quality due to a lack of curation and concerns about the ownership of the data by a single organization or group.

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