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Open Referral

Right now we have a problem: when it comes to legal resources for people in need, lots of useful information is scattered across many different websites, databases, and even printed flyers and booklets. When valuable information is too hard to find or too cumbersome to use,  everyone suffers — people seeking help, people trying to help people find help, and people who want to make better decisions about meeting the needs of their communities.
One solution is to adopt  open data standards. For example, the Open Referral Initiative has developed a standardized way to publish resource data (i.e. directory information about health, human, and social services such as legal clinics) so that the same data can be shared between websites, case management systems, and even search platforms like Google and Yelp.  
Data standards are predictable, broadly applicable ways to structure and share data — and when data standards are adopted, they can help make things easier for everyone. An open data standard is one which is freely available for anyone to use, without being trapped into proprietary software — and even one that people can help shape over time.
Below you can see two examples of open data standards being put to use. Here you can see has tagged its data in accordance with the W3C web standards — so that Google (and other search engines) can parse it and immediately display much of the information you care about. Below you can also see the same thing when you search for a movie and it shows various locations and showtimes with links to easily purchase tickets. On the right there is lots of extra information like reviews, runtime, rating and a trailer.

Here’s what’s happened in these examples: these websites (, Wikipedia, IMDB, etc) have ‘marked up’ their content so that ‘web crawlers’ can effectively index their information in precise ways. That enables  Google to ‘know’ what different kinds of data represent, and then display that data in a special way. This enables search results to show the user ‘rich content,’ which is translated from raw data with standardized tags.
Consider the opportunity for referral services like hotlines. Currently if a hotline wants to have a good base of resources to refer people to it’s going to require a significant investment. Aside from the initial setup cost, maintaining the information takes a lot of time. New resources are created, old ones go out of date, and the best way to keep track of all this information is to call an organization and ask.
This is where Open Referral comes in. By enabling organizations like the referral hotlines to structure their resource data in a standardized way, Open Referral can make it easier for such data to be updated once and shared simultaneously in many different websites and tools. It may be that a referral provider still needs to make calls to direct service providers, so that they can update their records — but now that data can be shared across many different websites and information systems. That can make it a lot easier for many more people to always have  current, clear data at their fingertips.
The challenge is adoption. We would need  a critical mass of people to put their data in this format for the promise of this data standard to be fully realized.
However, Open Referral has already garnered adoption in cities like Boston and Chicago and elsewhere. Meanwhile, there are a number of tools (like free, open source web sites and mobile apps) that can already be used with data that is in this format. Check out the Ohana Web Search, Zendesk’s Link website, and Helpsteps mobile app — all of these are freely redeployable and work with resource directory data that is in the Open Referral format.  
As handy as it would be if people went in and changed their sites to use this more realistically it will probably be something that is written into the contract when a site is being built or overhauled. It’s akin to changing the foundation on a of a house, while not impossible to do it’s a pain. Plus  if you know you are going to knock it down and rebuild in a year or two you probably should just wait and incorporate it into the new design. The one thing I want everyone who reads this to do is take a good hard look at your upcoming projects and see if Open Referral is something you can incorporate in.
For more information on Open Referral you can visit their website or watch this presentation given by Greg Bloom, the lead organizer of Open Referral.