June 22, 2010

Social Services In the Information Age

Information is power -- but with the vast array of services and resources available to people in need in the District of Columbia, it's a real challenge to be able to figure out what is available and how to access it. Bread for the City staff spend significant time and energy maintaining our internal resource manual, and we aren’t alone—there are many other directories of service resources.

And how accurate is any individual resource? I decided to test this out by looking up Bread for the City itself in various resource directories.

First, I looked up Bread for the City itself in the BRIDGE resource, which we posted about a few months ago. BRIDGE (Bridging Resources In DC to Guide and Educate) is a resource assembled by GW students, and is both slim and chock-full of information. But though a printed page is sometimes easier and more accessible than the internet, it's also limiting in how the information is presented. For instance, Bread for the City is listed under "Comprehensive Service Provider" -- but if someone was trying to find a food pantry and looked under "Food/Grocery Services", they wouldn't find us. (A well-indexed online resource wouldn't face this problem.)

And a print resource also faces the challenge of time -- indeed, by the time the BRIDGE resource was published, the information was already more than 6 months old. Much of that information is already changing.

I also tried online resources. DC's 211 Answers Please can be found online, or people can call (202)463-6211 to get connected with various service agencies. When I looked online under "Clothing Resources", I found correct information about Bread for the City's Clothing Room in our SE office. Also, there's accurate information about our Medical department.

However, Bread for the City's entry under "Food" is a different story: 211 Answers only mentions our services in our Southeast Center, and not Northwest. It gives the wrong hours. When I look at the legal section, it also gives the wrong hours for the legal walk-ins, and has the wrong name for the director. As for the Social Services, the phone number was wrong, the hours were wrong, and it gave inaccurate details about the services provided.

While we’re working on updating them with our correct information, I should also note that it is also very difficult to find the Social Services resource section itself when looking around on 211's website. This website (and hotline) is not a reliable point of reference.

By comparison, I was pleasantly surprised when I looked up Bread for the City’s address on the DC Food Finder. The information is accurate, it links to Bread for the City’s website, and mentions the other services that we provide. It makes the requirements for the food program clear. I feel quite comfortable with the thought of consumers finding out about our food program through this website. That said, it is limited only to food-related concerns; typically, if someone is having trouble affording food, they'll also need other kinds of help.

Although the verifying of information can be an annoyance for service providers, we have the luxury of being able to investigate and gather complete and accurate information. However, for clients, it can be a huge burden to have incorrect information, as they could have to spend precious resources to contact and/or travel to different providers.

It seems to me that the biggest problem with all of these resources is fragmentation. It is extremely difficult for any one person or even group of people to maintain an accurate and up-to-date database. We at Bread for the City spend time as staff, interns, and volunteers trying to update our own resource lists so that it is as current as possible. But still I wonder: could there be a better way? Is it the government's responsibility? Or can we find ways to try to solve this problem ourselves?

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