Open Referral’s 2016 Year In Review: open

An emerging ecosystem


2016 Year in Review:

An Emerging Ecosystem

p2) A Letter from Open Referral’s Founder

p3) A Summary of Our Strategic Framework

p6) Progress in 2016: the Wealth of our Networks

p10) What's ahead? 2017 and Beyond

p11) Thanks and Acknowledgments

A Letter from Open Referral’s Founder

Dear partners and friends,

We started Open Referral to address a systemic problem: it’s hard to find trustworthy information about the health, human, and social services available for people in need. 

When I first initiated this conversation among human service providers in Washington, DC — we observed a puzzling phenomenon: ever more community resource directories were emerging in our area, but they all appeared to be out-of-date, difficult to use, inaccessible to the public, or struggling to survive. We concluded that it shouldn’t be technologically hard for community resource referral systems to cooperate with each other — but it would take a movement to make it happen.

Today, our conversation has become exactly that: a movement. A network of hundreds of people, spanning sectors and countries, are working to solve this problem in their communities. Case managers in DC. Call center operators in Florida. Librarians in New York City. An E.R. physician in Boston. Website administrators in Illinois. Technologists in Oklahoma. The members of our network each have their own needs and objectives, but we all share a common goal: enabling resource data to flow through our communities, reliably and sustainably, to wherever it's needed.

In this report, you’ll read about various ways in which the members of our network are finding new solutions to this old problem. This has been a challenging year, but our labor has borne fruit. Together we’ve laid the foundation of a healthy information ecosystem in which comprehensive resource directory data is easy for all to share, find and use.

This is like the end of the beginning of our journey. Next year, we'll ramp up efforts on several fronts: we’ll improve our data format and associated tools; we’ll make it easier for anyone to participate in Open Referral; and we’ll demonstrate new business models through funded pilot projects.

To those who have joined us on this path: thank you for venturing forth into uncharted territory. For newcomers interested in getting involved: please reach out to discuss opportunities to act.

Onwards to our next chapter,

Greg Bloom, founder of Open Referral

A Summary of Our Strategic Framework

The Challenge: A landscape of siloed directories

It’s hard to see the safety net. Which agencies provide what services to whom? Where and how can people access them? These details are always in flux. Nonprofit and government agencies are often under-resourced and overwhelmed, and may not have the resources to promote themselves to more customers.

There are many ‘referral services’ — call centers, resource directories, and web applications — that collect directory information about health, human, and social services. However, these directories are all locked in fragmented and redundant silos. As a result of this costly and ineffective status quo:

The Opportunity: Enabling systems to ‘talk’ to each other

Many attempts to build centralized solutions have come and gone; new apps emerge all the time. These efforts may be well-intentioned, but they also create more fragmentation. However, if the many different kinds of ‘community resource databases’ could all recognize a common ‘language,’ then resource data could be published once and accessed simultaneously in many ways.

In collaboration with Code for America,, the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems and others, Open Referral has developed a data format that can establish interoperability between conventional systems, new systems, and the Web itself. Now we are demonstrating that this works.

The Plan: local pilots to shift the global market

In pilot projects, lead stakeholders — consisting of government champions, referral providers , and community anchor institutions — will collaborate to establish open interoperable resource data infrastructure, tested by specific implementations that yield tangible value to service providers and people in need. Through the pilot, stakeholders evaluate results and plan for long-term sustainability.

What Open Referral does:

Open Referral convenes and facilitates conversations within and across communities, aiming to help stakeholders discover viable, locally-appropriate solutions using a common language and open source software. Sometimes, we formally lead such work; other times, we simply cheer it onwards. One way or another, we foster an emerging ecosystem of tools, applications, and open data that people can use to promote access to information about critical services.

a) develops tools that make it easy to produce, validate, and publish standardized data,

b) organizes a community of practice,

c) identifies best practices and viable business models,

d) designs governance models, and

e) seeks opportunities to promote solutions at scale.

The Impacts: a cascade of benefits from interoperable, open resource data

As various institutions adopt open standards and open platforms, we expect the following outcomes:

How to Get Involved:

Open Referral is powered by the participation of people like you.

To get involved, email

Join our forum.

Request an invite 

to our Slack team.

Sign up for announcements from our Home Page.

Subscribe to our blog.

Comment on

our documentation.

Watch our

Github repository.

Sponsor our work, and/or our partners.

Start a pilot project in your community.

Email us.

The Status Quo: A Fragmented Landscape of Silos

Our Vision: Infrastructure supporting a healthy information ecosystem

Progress in 2016: the Wealth of our Networks

Health, human, and social services are inherently distributed systems — distributed across charitable and public sectors, and federal, state, and local jurisdictions — and information about these services is accordingly distributed. Today, this distribution still falls across a wasteful and ineffective landscape of silos. But we know it doesn’t need to be that way.

In Open Referral, we assume that, since these information problems are distributed by nature, their solutions should be distributable. (The great Wendell Berry calls this “solving for pattern.”) That is to say: we know so many people and organizations who possess tremendously valuable resources and creativity — so the best strategies will promote and align those resources as part of a greater whole.

So we began by developing a standardized ‘machine language’ that anyone can use to share data among different information systems. This year, at least a dozen organizations  around the country — who themselves work with hundreds or even thousands more organizations — have used the Human Services Data Specification to enable interoperability among the information systems in their communities. In turn, these early adopters are helping us improve this language and expand the range of its possible uses.

We’re also supporting the development and redeployment of open source technology that works with this format. Open Referral's ecosystem now includes freely-reusable websites, apps, and authoring tools that anyone can adapt to their particular context. We've helped organizations across the country adopt, adapt, and share such tools — saving precious time and money, and enabling others to benefit from their innovation. 

Now we’re helping discover and scale viable business models that can sustain the production of open resource directory data. Many questions have yet to be answered about how resource directory data can be provisioned reliable and sustainably as an open public resource. Through Open Referral’s pilot projects, we’re supporting referral providers, philanthropies, governments and other civic institutions through the hard, collaborative work of designing new institutional arrangements that can reliably promote access to this information for all.

Read below for some highlights from projects across our network.

Our Technology: Open Source, Interoperable, and Modular

The Open Referral format and associated tools have been adopted by a range of software vendors, referral providers, and civic institutions throughout  and beyond the information-and-referral field.

The Human Services Data Specification 

Version 1.0 of the Human Services Data Specification debuted in early 2015. Since then, we have promoted its use across the field. This year, a range of implementations yielded promising results and positive feedback.


Illinois Legal Aid Online used the HSDS to rebuild their online legal resource directory.  They reported back that Open Referral “enabled us to increase the complexity of our information while simplifying the experience for our users. 

Ontario 2-1-1 hailed their adoption of the HSDS as “a significant step towards Ontario’s goal of implementing an ‘open data’ repository. Having aggregated data from dozens of geographically and institutionally diverse organizations, Ontario 211 is using HSDS to serve consolidated, interoperable data back to their entire province. Alongside this step forward, Ontario’s Community Information Online Consortium also adopted HSDS and open sourced their referral software.Logo-211-Ontario.gif


Building from our Miami Open211 pilot, the Open Data Services Cooperative have assumed technical stewardship of HSDS. At,  our new documentation site, they have consolidated our materials into a ‘single source of truth,’ making it easier to navigate and add feedback. We also added sample datapackages, a contributors’ guide, and Creative Commons licensing information.

With helpful suggestions from these and other pilots, we’re now upgrading our data schema.

Through the first quarter of 2017, we will propose improvements to our data schema — bringing HSDS from version 1.0 to 1.1 — while charting a course to version 2.0. Please offer suggestions, ask questions, and share feedback — in Github, on our documentation site, or in our forum.

Open Source Tools and Open Data Publishing

Open Referral’s first partnership was with Code for America, who adapted their Ohana API and Ohana Web Search to serve as our ‘reference implementations’ — in other words, free, open source software that publishes resource data in a machine-readable format and a mobile-friendly website, respectively. Ohana has since been redeployed at least half a dozen times, by companies, governments, and volunteer groups — several of whom have helpfully contributed improvements back to our codebase.

This year, organizations around the country developed entirely new tools that work with Ohana or the Open Referral format itself, making it easier to share and use open resource data in various ways.

Friendly is a lightweight logic engine for questionnaire applications. Developed by SIMLab — through partnership with the DC Public Library and the DC Open211 project, and with funding from the Knight Foundation — Friendly enables relatively non-technical users to construct strings of questions and conditional logic that can be used in an open set of screening tools — from web services to custom documents — like IfThisThenThat for social services. Friendly is in ‘alpha’ prototype mode. Contact Keith Porcaro at SIMLab to learn about implementation


HelpSteps is a mobile resource locator application. Developed by the Boston Children’s Hospital to be a ‘portable’ version of their website, the Helpsteps mobile app is available for download on the iOS and Android app stores, and its open source code is available on Github. Helpsteps was built upon the Ohana API, but can be redeployed on any Open Referral-compatible API — and has recently been redeployed and adapted by Asemio, in partnership with Oklahoma 2-1-1.


iCarol’s HSDS export and Open Referral API makes open resource data available at scale. iCarol is the market leader for referral call-center management software, and their adoption of Open Referral means that standardized resource data can be made available in as many as half of all communities across North America, as well as dozens of communities in the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. iCarol has since debuted a new public resource directory website for all of their clients, using a new Open Referral-compliant API.

Our Pilot Projects: Locally-Driven Collaborations

Open Referral helps communities find locally-appropriate solutions while engaging them in a global community of practice. Through our pilot projects, stakeholders collaborate in action-based research to improve the flow of resource data through their community. Pilots take different paths toward the same goal, using a common vocabulary and sharing insights along the way.

Miami Open211: Funded by the Children's Trust of South Florida, and developed in partnership with Code for Miami and the Open Data Services Cooperative, Miami Open211 is catalyzing the evolution of Switchboard of Miami's 35 year-old information-and-referral call-center model into an open platform. This project is experimenting with the hypothesis that referral providers can become sustainable by opening their resource data and generating revenue around services related to its use.

Ontario Open211: The major information-and-referral technology providers in Ontario have all adopted Open Referral as their means of establishing interoperability and accessibility for resource data across Canada’s most populous province. See blog posts from Ontario 211 and the Community Information Online Consortium. Parties in Ontario are currently seeking funding to deepen these activities and expand them across the country.

Civic Legal Services: With a first move from LegalServer, one of the primary software vendors in the field, followed soon after with adoption by Illinois Legal Aid Online, the field of civil legal services is rallying around Open Referral as a means of standardizing and sharing directory information about services in their field. We recently announced a new project, funded by the Legal Services Corporation and the Florida Bar Foundation, to develop a legal resource directory federation with every civil legal service provider in Florida. This project will be coordinated across multiple states including Washington state, and Idaho — beginning in January 2017 and running throughout 2018.

Oklahoma Open211: Oklahoma Open211 is an initiative of the Tulsa Community Foundation, 501Tech, Asemio, and 2-1-1 Oklahoma Heartline. As a first step in a broader process of community engagement and infrastructure development, Asemio has redeployed the Ohana API and the Helpsteps mobile app to create a mobile-friendly version of Oklahoma 2-1-1's website.  

What's ahead? 2017 and Beyond

Now that we've demonstrated the broad demand for interoperability and open data in this field, Open Referral must address challenges of scale and sustainability. Some big questions have yet to be answered. For example, how can resource data from multiple sources be coherently synthesized into a common pool of knowledge? And since this information remains costly to maintain, how can it be sustainably made available to all? In 2017, our pilot projects will seek to answer these questions. Here are previews of some highlights:

Evolving our data specifications — HSDS 1.1 and the Roadmap to 2.0: In partnership with the Open Data Service Cooperative, we're putting our learning into action by developing an improved version of HSDS, and charting a path toward the next phase of its evolution. 

Developing a standardized API specification: As Ohana is redeployed and adapted, and more organizations develop their own Open Referral-compatible APIs, we must ensure interoperability across this growing field. Funded by the Markets for Good program at Stanford’s Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society, our new 2017 project will bring together the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems with civic technologists and stakeholders from across the country to develop a standardized Open Referral OpenAPI spec.

Implementing Open Referral for Legal Services: starting in Florida, and in coordination with parallel implementations across the country, we'll help legal service providers publish information about their own services in the Open Referral format — and we'll develop tools to aggregate and verify this information before subsequently republishing it as open data. This experiment considers our challenge from a ‘peer production’ perspective: how might direct service providers cooperate in the sharing of information about their own services?

Demonstrating Viable Open Data Business Model: building upon Miami Open211 and other pilots, our research and experimentation will seek to answer the question: how can an organization recoup the cost of maintaining information by making that information freely available to all?

Establishing a Resource Directory Federation through NYC Open Referral: Civic Hall Labs will lead the NYC Open Referral initiative, through which we will develop multi-stakeholder infrastructure and an associated resource directory federation for referral providers in New York City.

Would you like to be involved with these pilots, or start your own? Reach out to us at

Thanks and Acknowledgments

Open Referral is made possible by a broad network of support.

A heartfelt thank you to all of our partners, advisors, funders and allies!

Civic Hall Labs and the Personal Democracy Forum

Benetech Labs

Devin Balkind at Sarapis

Digital Humanitarian Network

Gunner and Willow at Aspiration

Eugene Eric Kim at Faster Than Twenty

Christine Prefontaine at Facilitating Change

James Vasile at Open Tech Strategies

Sean McDonald of FrontlineSMS

Tim Davies and the Open Data Services Cooperative

Andrew Nicklin at Johns Hopkins’ Center for Government Excellence

Lucy Bernholz at Stanford University’s Digital Civil

Society Lab

Clive Jones and the Alliance of Information and

Referral Systems

Phil Ashlock, Chief Architect at Data.Gov & U.S. Data


Richard Bookman, University of Miami School of

The Children’s Trust of South Florida

Jewish Community Services of South Florida

Catherine Penrod

Dan O’Neill and the Smart Chicago Collaborative

Derek Eder at DataMade

The Shuttleworth Foundation

MediaLab Prado

Illinois Legal Aid Online


Social Impact Lab


Purple Binder


The Boston Children’s Hospital and Helpsteps

Community Information Online Consortium

Ontario 2-1-1 and Andrew Benson

Kate Lambacher and CIOC


The Legal Services Corporation

The Florida Bar Foundation


Learn more at: