Open Referral:
2019 Year in Review

Communities of Practice
Mending Our Safety Net


A letter from the founder        3

Voices from our Community        8

2019: Small Steps, Big Leaps        13

What lies ahead: growing our ecosystem        18

Acknowledgments        20

A letter from the founder

Dear friends:

As our community of practice grows, we hear all kinds of stories from people who are using Open Referral to develop new ways of collecting and sharing information about the health, human, and social services in their community. In this summary of our progress in 2019, we're sharing some of these stories from around our network.

Inside, we hear from community leaders who no longer need to spend precious time on redundant data entry in order to curate information about the resources that are available to their neighbors in need. Instead, they can now refocus those energies on research and collaboration with their partners.

Through Open Referral, we are enabling communities to gain control over information about their own resources.

We hear from a government official, using Open Referral to standardize data about different kinds of service providers, contracted by different agencies, into a common format to share with the public.

We hear from application developers developing innovative new tools – such as chatbots for people experiencing homelessness – who can now aim to scale through Open Referral’s network of resource referral partners.

And we hear from a Chief Information Officer of a civil legal service provider who now has data about her peer programs across the state. She is using that data to streamline their intake systems, making it easier for people to find help, and easier for providers to coordinate complex care.

To be frank, it’s hard to make open standards and data infrastructure sound exciting. That’s why I think it’s helpful to hear these stories about the real impact of our work.

Some of these stories come from self-directed members of our open network — people who picked up our tools and got directly to work. Some of these stories describe the fruits of years of formal partnership between Open Referral and the community-based leaders of our pilot projects.

It’s hard to make open standards and data infrastructure sound exciting. That’s why I think it’s helpful to hear these stories about the real impact of our work.

With support from companies like Microsoft, to partnerships with academic institutions like Indiana University's Ostrom Workshop on the Commons, Open Referral has assembled a rich network of expertise and capacities that can help our members’ communities untangle these age-old knots.

By enabling communities to gain control over information about their own resources, I believe we also make it possible to change the way those communities understand their needs and opportunities. That can, in turn, transform the way such resources are evaluated — and even allocated. Together, we can build a safety net that is not just visible, but also equitable.

Thank you for your support along the way.

Greg Bloom, Founder of the Open Referral Initiative

P.S. If you’ve been able to use Open Referral’s protocols, tools, and practices to solve problems, we want to hear your stories! If you would like assistance in the process of designing, implementing, and/or evaluating such change-making projects, we may be able to help. Please reach out to explore with us:

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 it may not be a priority for them to attract more customers.

There are many referral services — such as call centers, resource directories, and web apps — that collect directory information about health, human, and social services. Many attempts to build centralized ‘one stop shop’ solutions have come and gone — and new apps emerge all the time. Such well-intentioned efforts end up yielding more fragmentation and confusion. These directories are still trapped in silos that can’t ‘talk’ to each other.

As a result of this costly and ineffective status quo:

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

If the many different kinds of ‘community resource databases’ all recognized a common language, then resource data could be published once and used simultaneously in many ways.

Toward this end, Open Referral developed a data format that establishes interoperability across different technologies.

Open Referral’s format is now formally recognized by the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems as the industry standard for resource data exchange.

The plan: Local pilots to shift the global field

In Open Referral’s pilot projects, lead stakeholders — such as government champions, referral providers, community anchor institutions, etc — collaborate to build open data infrastructure.

The impact: Benefits cascading throughout
our safety net

As various institutions adopt Open Referral and build interoperable platforms, we anticipate the following outcomes:

Open Referral: A Graphic Summary

The status quo: Fragmented
and disconnected silos

Many referral providers collect directory information about health, human, and social services. However, these directories are all trapped in silos that can’t ‘talk’ to each other.

Our vision: Open infrastructure
supporting a healthy ecosystem

Open Referral helps develop interoperable resource directory infrastructure. We don’t sell a product; rather, we help communities find solutions that meet their own needs.

Voices from our Community

Atticus Rains, Data Coordinator VISTA
at Hunger Free America:

At Hunger Free America, we create printed guides to assist individuals in obtaining free food in New York City as well as operate the USDA National Hunger Hotline. Updating our guides was done primarily through phone calls and emails, which required a lot of manual work.

Our partnership with the USDA has now expanded to include managing the national database of food assistance resources. With our hunger-fighting efforts expanding nationwide, we realized that we needed to find a better way to keep our data organized and as accurate as possible. Managing the most comprehensive and accurate list of food assistance programs (including soup kitchens, food pantries, SNAP offices, farmers markets that accept EBT, etc.) poses a large challenge, particularly because the operation hours of these programs can change quite rapidly. Successfully managing this data requires innovative solutions.

As we’ve been considering our strategy for this major new project, Open Referral has been really helpful by providing a technical blueprint for our data structure and our API, with a common language that other partners are already using. Having this specification saved me hundreds of hours of research and development. It could have eaten up my entire contract if I’d tried to design it from scratch.

Open Referral’s leadership has also been extremely helpful as we’ve thought through our approach to partnership development, so we can build our infrastructure in ways that align with the landscape and complements existing efforts to collect and distribute this information most efficiently.

Ian Mavero, Chief Technology Officer, Allegheny County Department of Human Services

We commonly hear that our community partners, and clients themselves, desire better access and meta information about human services. And we agree: community mental health specialists should have access to the same information about available services as our own agency’s case workers do.

While there are a few services that Department of Human Services employees provide directly, our organization is essentially a contracting agent. We collect funds from available sources (federal, state, local, private) and use it to fund and support the services that non-profits deliver to our communities. As such, we're responsible for managing these services we fund in dozens of different ways, for stakeholders of all kinds. As our funding models and strategies have changed over the years, our records became very complicated.

So we decided we needed a standardized way to structure this directory information in a way that could enable it to be shared across all offices, with our contracted partners, and even with the public at large. Our task now is to derive such human-centered information from the complexity of our records system. Open Referral provided us with a critical tool to pursue that simplification and standardization.

We are driven by the incredible potential that we see to enrich the many channels of information where people look for help — from Google, to our local 2-1-1 hotline, to our locally maintained BigBurgh, to care coordination platforms and so on. If we can provide them with a baseline of the same information, all kinds of improvements can become possible and we meet folks wherever they are looking for help.

C.G. Chen, Founder, Ample Labs

I had a close friend who experienced homelessness, and this motivated me to start Ample Labs in search of better tools for such situations. Our mission is to leverage technology like AI in order to help prevent homelessness and help people get back on their feet immediately. None of this technology can work, however, without reliable data.

Ample Labs is a tech nonprofit empowering those facing homelessness through technology. Our flagship product is called Chalmers, an AI-powered chatbot that works on desktop or mobile to make it easier to find social services like free meals, shelter, clothing banks and more. We’ve partnered with 211 Ontario to launch Chalmers in the City of Toronto and City of Barrie, leveraging the data they already maintain so that we can focus on this new, innovative user experience.

We at Ample Labs are excited about the fact that there is an open standard such as HSDS. There are so many organizations that already go to great lengths to collect this information, and HSDS makes it easy to leverage such data for new innovations and greater impact. We’ve found the data model and associated documentation to be very helpful, and we will start using HSDS for Chalmers in 2020. We’re proud to be backing this open standard.

Ilenia Sanchez-Bryson, Chief Information Officer, Legal Services of Greater Miami

As intake supervisor for our organization, I found that I was constantly struggling to keep my staff informed of other resources in the legal aid community to which we could refer our clients. We had no reliable way to receive updates from our partners when funding or priorities changed. There were several different service directories here or there, but they were all out of date. So we constantly had to reach out to other programs to confirm whether they still provided a particular service — which ate up time we just don’t have.

In 2016, we secured funding for a technology innovation project, along with several other legal aid providers in Florida, in partnership with Open Referral. As the User Group Lead on the project I worked closely with Open Referral’s leadership to build the Florida Legal Referral Hub — a tool that captures critical information about the programs offered by each of our peer providers, and shares all of that information back with every provider in the community.

This register of all legal aid programs is evolving into critical infrastructure for our state. We are currently integrating the ReferralHub into a new online intake system, so that if any user is not eligible for a given program, the intake system can offer them with accurate information about other legal aid programs that might meet their needs. It’s a gamechanger to have reliable information about all of our partner programs available as open data. It not only increases the efficiency and effectiveness of our intake process, but makes it easier for others to design, test and scale other innovative ways of helping people find help.

Susan Rivera, Executive Director, M.U.J.E.R.

As executive director of an organization serving some of the most vulnerable people in our community, I know how important it is to be able to coordinate with other providers who can help our clients. The need in our community outweighs available resources, so we have to work together.

For many years, we have been in coalition with other service providers here in South Dade, and part of that coalition work is maintenance of printed resource guides. This was laborious work to volunteer on: calling so many organizations, even making trips to visit them in person. And when we'd finally print up these directories, things would already be going out of date! Our time is too precious for this.

So this year, in partnership with Open Referral, we engaged our local 2-1-1, who was already maintaining almost all of this information themselves. We did some research to confirm that their resource database sufficiently covered resources in our community, and we worked with Open Referral to build a resource database website that is specific to our interests. Now we're saving all that time, and sharing better information with our community over the web.

Having a specific directory for services in deep South Dade is so important for our efforts to create a thriving healthy village. This is our town, these are our resources. It’s about a sense of ownership. And it goes beyond individual services. This helps us see each other, discuss our challenges, and find ways to work together. By collaborating on this directory, we set the stage for other kinds of collaboration with our peers to emerge — and, hopefully, to bring more services to our communities.

2019: Small Steps, Big Leaps

This year, Open Referral supported a range of pilot projects in different communities, developing various approaches to sustainable and effective sharing of resource directory information. These pilots produced open source tools and materials that can be re-used in other communities – making it easier for others to follow in our footsteps, and even find their own paths toward impact. Here are some highlights:

Building infrastructural tools 

Airtable CMS

Airtable is a web-based data management system, and the Open Referral Airtable implementation offers a ready-made resource directory database.[1] It's easy to load compliant data into an Open Referral Airtable, easy to work with it within the Airtable (for resource data entry and verification) and also easy to get the data out! Best of all, Airtable is free for anyone to use, with various premium upgrades available for scaling and evolving this CMS system. A range of community organizations and governments are using this Airtable to manage their resource data, and our DC pilot published an open source manual for resource data management.


It's now much easier to transform any given resource directory into Open Referral's format, the Human Service Data Specification. The Open Referral transformer tool enables streamlined mapping of data fields from any given directory of organizations, services, and locations into the HSDS schema – and it outputs this transformed data bundled together by a JSON datapackage, for frictionless importing of this standardized data into other tools.[2]


So you've got data that you think is standardized, and you want to load it into an application ... the HSDS Validator is a quick way to test that your data is formatted properly. The Validator will check your data source against the HSDS schema, and respond with indicators of compliance or errors. This module offers helpful assistance for any project that needs to reliably move data from one system to another![3]

Developer portal

Once you've deployed your standardized Human Service Data API, you're going to want to help third parties figure out how to make use of it. The Open Referral Developer Portal provides documentation and authenticated access to an Open Referral API. Built as a reference implementation for our demonstration deployments, it's also open source technology itself: anyone can redeploy and adapt this portal to provide guidance for developers accessing your database.[4]

ORServices Laravel CMS

Laravel is an open source web application framework, and the ORServices Laravel implementation (developed by Sarapis) offers a freely-redeployable instance of an HSDS-compliant Laravel CMS with a user-facing resource locator website. This software has already been adapted to receive resource data from an Open Referral Airtable, and to publish data via a standardized API.[5] 

Promoting standardization at home and abroad 

In 2018, the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems formally endorsed the Human Service Data Specification and API protocols as industry standards for resource data exchange. This year, movement to adopt these standards has spread even farther. Here are a few highlights from new fields in which Open Referral is being used to standardize and promote resource data sharing.

UK adoption

The United Kingdom's Ministry for Community Housing And Local Government commissioned a report about the challenge of resource directory maintenance – and the report recommended that the UK government should adopt Open Referral! In short order, the English Local Government Association, along with a range of software vendors, moved to align around the Human Service Data Specification as a common standard for service directory data exchange.[6] Stay tuned for more news from the UK!

Food pantries - Link2Feed

Link2Feed provides software to food banks and their pantry partners, with a mission to make it easier to manage – and understand, in order to eventually improve – the flow of resources to people in need. This year, Link2Feed partnered with the Feed Ontario food network, and Ontario 2-1-1, to enable 2-1-1's resource data to be accessed within Link2Feed's pantry intake workflow, so that workers at the pantry could refer their clients to other helpful services.[7] This partnership leveraged Open Referral, which means Link2Feed can replicate it anywhere that standardized data is available – and their clients consist of dozens of food banks across the U.S.

Local government adoption

The Sunlight Foundation reported on a wave of government agencies that are using Open Referral to publish standardized resource data about the services that they provide and fund.[8] In 2018, New York City started using HSDS to publish standardized data about their contractors; in 2019, we saw similar projects from the Department of Human Services in the District of Columbia, as well as the Department of Human Services in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

Developing new models for sustainability and governance

In 2019, the Ostrom Workshop on the Commons at Indiana University invited Open Referral’s founder, Greg Bloom, to be a visiting scholar in their Data Governance Program. Through this partnership, Greg is developing a set of institutional models that are being tested by various pilot projects across Open Referral’s network. Together, we seek to answer the question: if resource information should be freely available as open data, how might we sustain its maintenance?

Data Utility

A ‘Data Utility’ model provides comprehensive, machine-readable resource data as a public service, freely available for use by many third-parties. The Utility can generate sustaining revenue from premium services and value-adding features offered on top of its basic free service. The Miami Open211 project is testing this model.[9]

Authoritative Registry

A Register is an official list. A funder (or institutional authority) can require all providers in its purview (grantees, contractors, members, etc) to keep their service information up-to-date in a Service Register. Assuming reliable monitoring and feedback mechanisms are established to ensure accuracy, an open data register can serve as the canonical source of resource directory information for a given set of services. The Florida Legal Aid Resource Federation, in partnership with the Florida Bar Foundation, is using Open Referral to pilot a register of all legal aid providers in Florida.[10] Several government agencies are also developing registers of their service contractors.

Data Collaborative

In a Resource Data Collaborative, multiple referral providers can collaborate on resource data maintenance by sharing updates across a cooperative network. In such a Data Collaborative, members distribute their labor to receive higher quality data at lower cost. This model is being tested by Benetech’s Service Net initiative, piloted in San Francisco.

Data Federation

The models articulated above are not either-or options; in fact, for most communities the right solution will probably entail some combinations thereof. A Data Federation can establish such a network of partnerships as a formal institution. In a Federation, individual members agree to a set of rules and responsibilities that bind them as a collective body.  

Data Trust

A ‘trust’ is a legal instrument for stewarding assets. A ‘data trust’ can be a tool for managing operational and fiduciary responsibilities pertaining to a set of data assets. As identifed by the DC Community Resource Information Exchange initiative, a ‘resource data trust’ could be a governance mechanism through which a data federation — or any other kind of partnership – can design and enforce terms that ensure resource data is produced and used in accordance with public interests.[11]

What lies ahead: growing our ecosystem

Open Referral is starting to take on new challenges at greater
scales. From expanding the scope of our data specifications, to building new capacities for governance and technology development, here's a look ahead at what's to come in 2020.

Expand our standards to support multilateral data exchange. Resource data comes from different sources — that’s just how the world works. So when shared among multiple parties, how can we ensure that open resource data is uniquely identified, coherently classified, and reliably verified? We need protocols for distributed data management. Open Referral’s next chapter will engage questions about collaboration on data quality — like accuracy indicators, feedback loops, verification, etc.

Building tools to support adoption. The cost of publishing open data is nonzero, as are the costs of early adoption.
Open Referral will continue to develop tools that facilitate data maintenance, transformation, and publication — as well as implementation guides (like visual aids and documentation).

Establish interoperability with search engines via Through partnership with North Florida Legal Services and the Stanford Legal Design Lab — funded by the Legal Services Corporation's Technology Innovation Grant — we are translating HSDS into the web markup specifications of, so resource data can be easily indexed by search engines like Google. This will improve service discoverability right where people start looking: from the search bar.

Address the eligibility criteria problem. From public benefits, to legal aid and beyond, complicated eligibility criteria pose challenges for getting the right information about the right resources to the right people. Many groups perform the painstaking, redundant labor of translating policy documents into machine-readable code. There can be a better way. Reach out to if you’re interested in exploring new solutions to the eligibility criteria problem.

Learning from our pilots. A range of experiments are ready
for new kinds of evaluation in 2020. We have several opportunities  to test our hypotheses regarding open data production — validating or honing our assumptions along the way — and share lessons learned.

Fundraising. Open Referral will ramp up efforts to raise funds in support of all of the above activities. We seek opportunities to both build our partners’ capacities and also to establish core leadership capacities that can support the entire ecosystem.

Open Referral works through partnerships.
Let’s explore what’s possible.

each out to
Together, we will transform these systems!


More people and organizations made our work in 2019 possible than we could reasonably fit on a page. We appreciate and thank the hundreds of leaders and experts across our network who guide this work.

Our team

Greg Bloom

Ariadne Brazo

Devin Balkind, Sarapis

Shelby Switzer, CivicUnrest 

Christine Prefontaine, Loup.Design


Clive Jones & Dave Erlandson, the Alliance of Information & Referral Systems

Atticus Rains, Hunger Free America

Aditya Srinivasan, Code for DC

John Higgins, Benetech

Kate Lambacher, CIOC

Benj Kamm, Health Leads

Neil McKechnie, formerly of iCarol

Andrew Benson, Expound

IV Ashton, LegalServer

Marcella Cruz & Grace Morales, Miami 211

Abhijeet Chavan, formerly of Urban Insight

Rasmus Storjohann, PeaceGeeks

Everett Pompeii,


Zach Berke, Exygy

Phil Ashlock, Open311 & Data.Gov

Richard Bookman, University of Miami

Willow Brugh, @willowbl00

Rebecca Fishman-Lipsey
& the
Radical Partners

Allen Gunn, Aspiration

Eugene Eric Kim, Faster Than Twenty

Melanie Lavelle & Daniel Beeby,
Benefit Kitchen

Nancy Lublin, Crisis Text Line

Sean McDonald, Digital Public

Andrew Nicklin, Johns Hopkins
Center for Gov Ex

Brendan O’Brien, QRI

Angie Raymond, Indiana University

James Vasile & Karl Fogel,
Open Tech Strategies

John Wilbanks, Sage Biometrics