Open Referral
2018 Year in Review

Setting standards and transforming fields


A letter from the founder        4

A summary of our strategic framework        7

The challenge: A landscape of siloed directories        7

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

The plan: Local pilots to shift the global field        8

The impact: Benefits cascading throughout
our safety net

Open Referral: A Graphic Summary        9

2018: Advancing toward our goals        10

Making it happen through strategic partnerships        10

Formalizing Open Referral        11

Building open source tools in popular web platforms        12

Governments and funders publishing data about contractors and grantees        13

Co-creating applications with users        14

Pilot projects pursuing diverse paths toward a
common goal

How we can ensure reliability and sustainability        16

HYPOTHESIS 1: A ‘Data Utility’ can sustainably
produce open data

HYPOTHESIS 2: A ‘Data Federation’ can enable cost-effective cooperation        17

HYPOTHESIS 3: Funders can mandate providers
to update their own information

What lies ahead: growing our ecosystem        19

Acknowledgments        21

A letter from the founder
of Open Referral

Dear friends: Let’s take this moment to celebrate!  🎉

The launch of the Open Referral Initiative, back in 2014, marked the culmination of five years of learning about the challenges of community resource directories. I’d learned from listening to frustrated social workers, from flailing efforts to build this or that new resource directory, from many a fruitless hackathon — all of which had led me to understand that this
is a wicked problem with no easy solutions.

Five years later, in 2018, after much more learning, and many more experiments — some failures, and also finally some successes — Open Referral has accomplished our first primary objective. Our core product — the Human Services Data Specification (HSDS), a resource directory data exchange format — has been formally endorsed by the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems.

Our open data format has evolved into an open data standard. 

We have laid the foundation for a systemic
transformation of society’s safety net.

Governments and funders are now using Open Referral to publish standardized data about the services provided by
their contractors and grantees. Software vendors have adopted Open Referral as their default method of resource
data interoperability. And nonprofits — from Benetech to United Ways — are
using Open Referral to build information infrastructure that can ensure resource data will be accurate and accessible to people in need – wherever it’s needed.

Our journey is far from over. This major step forward only makes it possible for us to reach our true goal.

Now that Open Referral is established as a standard, we
can develop new business models that use it to sustainably produce reliable, freely-usable resource data. By o
pening resource data, we will reduce costs, improve information quality, enhance service discoverability and deliverability,
and yield healthier people and more resilient communities.

Five years on, we have only seen the first budding flowers of an open information ecosystem that will reshape the ways
we connect resources to people in need. And yet, that future
is becoming ever clearer.

Opening resource data will reduce costs, improve information quality, enhance service discoverability and deliverability,
and yield healthier people and more resilient communities.

In 2019, we will support our pilots in pursuit these goals.
We will prototype new tools and test new methods of sharing information.
We will build a safety net for the 21st century.

We’ll make this happen by working together. Please reach out to explore how we might work together in your community. 

Thank you for joining us on this journey.

Greg Bloom, Founder of the Open Referral Initiative

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
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.

2018: Advancing toward
our goals

This year, Open Referral accomplished our first primary objective: Our Human Service Data Specification (HSDS) and Human Service Data API (HSDA) protocols became industry standards for the interoperable exchange of resource data.

Meanwhile, pilot projects across the U.S. developed the components of an open source technology ecosystem.

Most importantly, we are testing new business models that can sustain the production of accurate, open resource data.

These advances are making it possible to transform the way that society connects resources to people in need.

In the next sections, we share more about the most exciting developments across Open Referral’s network in 2018.

Making it happen
through strategic partnerships

Open Referral is an open network: anyone can make use
of our specifications and tools — no permission necessary.

To support communities through this process, we have formed a consultancy — Open Referral Consulting Services — through which our leadership can aid or even lead the design and implementation of pilot projects.

You can learn about our partnership methodology here.
These partnership methods are open source, of course!
We may, however, be helpful to those who seek to design
and implement their own pilot projects.

Reach out to to discuss potential partnerships in your community.

Formalizing Open Referral

For our first few years, Open Referral was an informal network developing experimental methods of community resource data exchange. This year, our Initiative took steps to formalize itself, in accordance with the increasing scale of our work.

Endorsed by AIRS as an industry standard

The Alliance of Information and Referral Systems (AIRS) represents more than 1,000 referral providers, and sets standards for the information-and-referral sector (I&R). Leaders from AIRS have guided Open Referral’s development from the beginning. In late 2018, AIRS announced that it will incorporate Open Referral’s protocols into its standards, and recommended that resource referral vendors should adopt these as default methods of resource data exchange.

Adopted by market leaders such as iCarol

In early 2018, iCarol announced its deployment of the Human Service Data API protocols. iCarol serves more than half of
the resource referral call center market, so this single imple- mentation of standardized APIs represents a significant step toward interoperability for the entire field. iCarol users and institutions in their communities are currently exploring new forms of partnerships such as data sharing between 2-1-1 providers and health-focused care coordination platforms.

Fiscally sponsored by Aspiration

Open Referral began as an unincorporated community of practice. As our community evolves, we need to formalize our governance, and also raise funding to support our activities.
In 2018, we
became fiscally sponsored by Aspiration, a 501c3 organization that supports open source non-profit technology development. Aspiration has provided facilitation and mentorship for Open Referral and our partners for years,
and we are excited to bring this relationship to the next level!

Building open source tools
popular web platforms

A free content management system in Airtable

Airtable is a web-based content management system that looks like a spreadsheet. The Sahana Foundation used Open Referral to develop a customized Airtable template that anyone can use to manage a small-scale resource directory. The template comes with an Open Referral Application Programming Interface that can send data to external tools and websites. This Airtable is already used by organizations
to upgrade their resource directory management — at no cost.

A custom directory web app built in Laravel

Laravel is a popular open source web development framework. Sarapis built an open source web app that can ingest data from the Open Referral Airtable Template and display it via a web app with a familiar directory-style interface.

Integrations with Drupal and Wordpress

Urban Insight has developed freely-redeployable modules 
that enable any Open Referral-compliant dataset to be automatically published on any Wordpress or Drupal website.
 This functionality was first developed for Urban Insight's legal aid resource platform (DLAW), which is in use by over a dozen legal aid agencies across the country.

OpenAPI redeployable in Amazon Web Services

An Application Programming Interface (API) enables computer programs to access a database. Kin Lane, the API Evangelist, developed Open Referral’s API Protocols, and has since built a redeployable Open Referral API in Amazon Web Services. Next, the API Evangelist plans to replicate in other web platforms such Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud.

Governments and funders publishing data about contractors and grantees

New York City publishing open data on municipally-contracted HHS providers 

New York City Mayor's Office of Opportunity led a multi-year project to publish directory data about municipally-contracted providers of health, human, and social services. Extracted from NYC's centralized ‘HHS Accelerator’ system, the data has been structured in the HSDS format, and published on NYC’s open data portal. The resulting data establishes a canonical baseline of public information about services that receive city funding. This can evolve into resource data infrastructure, with potentially transformative repercussions for the field.

Skillful publishing open data on federally-funded job training programs

Led by Brighthive, with funding from the Markle Foundation, in pilot partnership with the state of Colorado’s Department
of Education,
the Skillful project leveraged the Human Service Data API protocols to produce the 'Eligible Training Provider API.' The ETP API serves standardized open data about every federally-funded workforce development training provider — for apps that connect people to training opportunities, to evaluation processes to assess the impact of such programs.

Florida Bar Foundation’s Legal Referral Hub

In partnership with Benetech and LegalServer, the Florida Legal Aid Resource Federation pilot (FLARF) developed a system that produces accurate open resource data about every legal aid provider that receives funding from the Florida Bar Foundation or the Legal Services Corporation. This model —
of funder-mandated, self-published resource directory data — can be replicated not just in other states, but also other service sectors.
Read the FLARF Phase One Final Report here.

Co-creating applications with users

This year, we saw projects use the Open Referral model
to support the development of human-centered web applications, through participatory research that
maintains focus on the experiences of service users.
In particular, multiple projects are focusing on the
needs and insights of people experiencing homelessness.

Streetlives NYC

Streetlives NYC is engaging in hands-on participatory action research with people experiencing homelessness in New York City. Their founding team discovered that service users often don’t trust information provided by ‘official’ sources. Instead, service users share by word of mouth a wealth of insights about where to go to get help (and what to avoid). The open source Streetlives NYC app will solicit those insights and share them within a community of trust that is accountable
to its users. These insights can, in turn, provide a powerful source of evidence about program effectiveness as well as needs that remain unmet.

ShelterTech’s Ask Darcel

In San Francisco, the ShelterTech initiative sprang from the efforts of founder Darcel Jackson, who discovered it was hard to find and trust information about resources during a time in which he experienced homelessness himself. The Ask Darcel app was built to share information about community resources from a range of sources, including a mix of volunteers and people experiencing homelessness who actively curate its contents. ShelterTech now contracts
with the city of San Francisco to provide resource directory information through housing-related programs, and is
using Open Referral to upgrade their database while aligning with the broader information-and-referral landscape in the region.

Pilot projects pursuing diverse paths toward a common goal

The Open Referral Initiative includes more than a dozen pilot projects in various stages across the U.S., Canada, and beyond. Below are examples of some of our most promising pilots.

Benetech’s Service Net

The Service Net initiative, launched by Benetech in the San Francisco Bay Area, is working in partnership with a range of referral providers to develop resource data collaboration tools. Open Referral helped convene, design and facilitate the launch of this pilot. In 2019, a set of referral providers are committed to testing prototypes that enable them to compare records shared across resource databases, and collaborate on the verification and sharing of this information. Benetech will develop these tools as open source software that can be replicated in other communities.

Miami Open211

The Miami Open211 pilot launched in 2016 with support from the Children’s Trust of Miami-Dade, and in partnership with Jewish Community Services of South Florida. In 2018, Miami Open211 explored new business models for 2-1-1 as a provider of resource directory ‘data-as-a-service’ — such as white- labeled hyperlocal websites and integration with case management and contract management systems. Miami Open211 will test several of these hypothetical business models in 2019.

How we can ensure reliability and sustainability

Open Referral's core values are accessibility, interoperability, reliability, and sustainability.

Together, we have made great progress towards a future in which resource directory data is accessible and interoperable. 

Yet we also must find answers to an outstanding question:
If resource data is to be reliably-updated and freely-usable
by anyone, who should be responsible for its maintenance?

It’s a hard question without easy answers.

In an average city, hundreds of organizations provide more than a thousand services — and it takes a person somewhere between a half hour and five hours to thoroughly update a single resource data record. This adds up to a lot of labor. 

How can it be sustained?

In 2018, we had pilot projects actively seeking answers to this question in all kinds of ways. Three promising hypothetical answers have emerged, and are outlined below.

Data Utility’ can sustainably produce open data

A ‘Data Utility
’ is a single organization — such as a conventional information-and-referral provider —
that provides a maintained supply of freely-reusable machine-readable data.
Our hypothesis is that a data
utility can recover the costs of maintenance through
paid for premium services and value-adding functionality

In this model, one ‘infomediary’ stewards open resource directory data (available to third parties via a common Application Programming Interface) as a public service.
Most organizations that wish to use this open data will pay
for guaranteed levels of service regarding data quality and reliability — and some will even want additional functionality that the
data utility’ can provide for an additional fee.

To test this hypothesis, we seek answers to questions such as: What do users need? How much will it cost?

Open Referral is testing this Data Utility model through
the Miami Open211 pilot, among others. Our market analysis suggests that a range of organizations which currently maintain duplicative, even competitive databases would instead contract with the Data Utility in order to have guarantees such as API uptime, frequency of updates, etc.

Data Federation’ can enable cost-effective cooperation

A ‘Data Federation’ is a network of organizations that cooperate in the maintenance of resource data. Our hypothesis is that Data Federation members will find it
less costly and more effective to share the burden of data maintenance, rather than managing it themselves.

This Data Federation hypothesis assumes that cooperation can be effective even among organizations that — in some contexts — compete with each other for resources. Through ‘pre-competitive’ data management, organizations can redistribute labor that was previously redundant, and
instead invest their limited resources in activities that
they are uniquely positioned to provide, in accordance with their particular business model and community context.

To accomplish data federation, we must address significant, intersecting technical and institutional design challenges.
A ‘federated publishing platform’ could facilitate the flow of updates, corrections, verifications, etc, among multiple members; this is a solvable technical problem, though
we have open questions about what kinds of institutional arrangements and incentives would enable sustainability.

This hypothesis is being tested by Benetech, in the Service
Net pilot in the San Francisco Bay Area

Funders can mandate providers
to update their own information

Funders and contracting agencies are uniquely positioned to ensure that accurate resource directory data is published into the public domain. Our third hypothesis is that open resource data can be reliably produced when funders require their grantees and contractors to provide it — assuming there are easy-to-use tools for self-publishing, and also feedback loops for monitoring compliance.

Open Referral has tested this hypothesis in the Florida Legal Aid Resource Federation project. Every legal aid provider that receives funding from the Florida Bar Foundation and/or the Legal Services Corporation now has a form — deployed within their own case management software — through which
they enter their service directory information, which is subsequently published as open data in the Open Referral format, and shared for use among their peers and by other legal aid referral tools. We also produced an open source prototype of this form, so this model can be replicated in other states and eventually across other sectors.
View final report »

What lies ahead: growing our ecosystem

As Open Referral matures into a standard, stewarded by formal organization, we face new challenges at a greater
scale. From expanding the scope of our data specifications, to building new kinds of capacity for governance and technology development, here's a look ahead at what's to come in 2019.

Expand our standards to support multilateral data exchange. Now that Open Referral has standardized a resource data vocabulary, we face the challenges of a world in which such data comes from distributed sources. How can we ensure that open resource data is uniquely identified, coherently classified, and reliably verified, when shared among multiple parties? Open Referral’s next chapter will engage questions relating
to concerns such as quality assurance — like accuracy indicators, feedback loops, verification processes, etc.

Building tools to support adoption. The cost of publishing open data is nonzero, as are the costs of early adoption.
Open Referral can reduce these costs by developing tools to aid adoption — both mechanical (like
the Open Referral data validator, the Open Referral developer portal, toolkits for data extract-transform-load and software development, etc) and instructional (like visual aids and documentation). In 2019, Open Referral will build capacity to develop such resources.

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 will translate HSDS into the web markup formats articulated by, which can be easily indexed by search engines like Google. This step can help improve service discoverability right
where most people start looking: from the search bar.

Address the eligibility criteria problem. From public benefits, to affordable housing, to legal aid and beyond, complicated eligibility criteria pose a challenge both for people trying
to access resources and for people trying to share resource information. Many groups perform the painstaking, redundant labor of translating policy documents into machine-readable code. Open Referral has deferred engagement with this problem so far, but it’s an issue that demands action. 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 evaluation in 2019. From Miami Open211 to the Legal Aid Resource Federation pilot, we have several opportunities
to test our hypotheses regarding open data production — validating or honing our assumptions along the way —
and share lessons learned.

Scaling our governance into a sustainable institutional model. Open Referral's development to date has been network
driven through decision-making processes that are relatively informal. With fiscal sponsorship from Aspiration, we now have the opportunity to develop a more structured approach. In 2019, we will explore methods of intellectual property governance and core capacity-building strategies.

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 2018 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

Kin Lane, the API Evangelist

The Open Data Services Cooperative

Devin Balkind, Sarapis


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

John Higgins, Benetech

Kate Lambacher, CIOC

Benj Kamm, Health Leads

Shelby Switzer & Ariadne Brazo, Healthify

Neil McKechnie, formerly of iCarol

Andrew Benson, Expound

Zach Berke, Exygy

David Spriggs & Amodha Ratnayeke, Infoxchange, AskIzzy

IV Ashton, LegalServer

Daniel Devries, Marcella Cruz & Grace Morales, Miami 211 Helpline

Abhijeet Chavan, formerly of Urban Insight

Rasmus Storjohann, PeaceGeeks

Martha Norrick & Oonagh Jordan,
New York City Mayor’s Office
of Economic Opportunity

Taylor Justice & Eshed Doni, Unite Us


Phil Ashlock, Open311 & Data.Gov

Brian Behlendorf

Lucy Bernholz, Stanford PACS

Richard Bookman, University of Miami

Willow Brugh, @willowbl00

Anh Bui, Benetech Labs

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

Christine Prefontaine, Loup.Design

Andrew Nicklin, Johns Hopkins
Center for Gov Ex

Andrew Rasiej & Micah Sifry, Civic Hall

James Vasile & Karl Fogel,
Open Tech Strategies

John Wilbanks, Sage Biometrics


Hypothesis icons from The Noun Project. ‘Data Utility’ is by Five by Five, ‘Data Federation’  is by Petai Jantrapoon, and ‘Funders Can Mandate’ by Yu luck.

This report was laid out using Roboto Slab and Roboto Condensed, designed by Christian Robertson and available free via Google Fonts. Roboto has a dual nature: A mechanical skeleton with geometric forms, combined with friendly and open curves.