May 10, 2011

What’s the 211? The Social Service Directory Problem.

Bread for the City provides a lot of services -- but we can’t do everything. People often come to us in search of services that we don’t actually provide. Sometimes, they were sent our way with incorrect information transmitted not just by word of mouth but other non-profits and even government agencies.

Our community does have many resources to offer people in need. But it’s often hard to know where to look.

So, at considerable cost of staff time and energy, Bread for the City has developed our own internal directory of the many resources available to DC residents in need. It demands continual upkeep, and we devote substantial staff time to it. The amount of external requests that we receive for this resource guide suggests that we’ve done a good job in its development. Yet there have almost certainly been instances in which we’ve sent our own clients off with incorrect information. The problem is simply too big for us to solve alone.

The problem, of course, is age-old. But we believe that, what with modern information technology, a better solution is due.

Indeed, some comprehensive directory initiatives have popped up in jurisdictions where the government has tried to gather all of the information about available resources into one repository. The DC government itself has made some attempts to solve the problem before, by way of the Answers, Please! / 211 initiatives. But our impression of that program -- which seems to be shared by other service providers -- is that there was little effort made to update and expand the information. Furthermore, this government initiative didn’t meaningfully engage with the community of service providers. As a result, the Answers, Please! directory was not especially useful -- and it quickly became outdated.

There was some movement during the previous administration to reignite this effort. But though a prototype was developed, we’re told that the Fenty administration didn’t manage to bring the project to fruition. We believe that the Gray administration could revive this project, in what could be a quick and effective "win.” (We’ll even offer them, pro bono, a tagline: "Many Resources, One City.”)

That said, though this initially seems like it could best be spearheaded by the government, we’ve also seen quite a few attempts from the private sector.

In fact, Bread for the City has been actively involved in the development of two of the more notable recent initiatives -- both the DC Food Finder (a free-and-low-cost food resource locator that we helped build as part of the Healthy and Affordable Food for All Coalition) and the BRIDGE Project (an initiative of of students and faculty of The George Washington University's Human Services Program, whom Bread for the City advised throughout the course of the project’s development).

Each of these platforms, however, face serious challenges of sustainability and scalability. It’s simply difficult to manage so much information, so much of which changes often.

We believe that we can find better solutions. We’ve even dreamt here on this blog before about such wild ideas as a "Yelp for Social Services.” Let’s strive for such solutions by fostering an open dialogue involving the public sector, the non-profit sector, and dedicated technologists. There is no better time to try than now, as government and nonprofit resources are stretched to the breaking point even while demand for services is increasing. We are unlikely to make it work all in one fell swoop, but a spirit of openness and collaboration could put us all on a path to a future in which all the information about the resources in our city is readily available and accountable.

So tell us: what would you want in such a community resource portal?

Next, we’ll gather in person to talk about these challenges and opportunities. Join us, Susie Cambria, the BRIDGE Project, and others for a conversation here at Bread for the City (1525 7th St NW, 20001) on Monday May 23rd from 4:00-5:30pm. RSVP with me at gbloom [at] breadforthecity [dot] org.


Jessica said...

Thank you for bringing this issue to light and beginning a conversation in the community. A resource network like this would not only provide much needed up to date information about services to those that wish to access them, but it could also transform the work of nonprofits and government agencies in the future by providing them with data about assets and needs. It the distant future it might even serve as a platform to hold service agencies accountable to the communities that they serve. I look forward to joining the conversation.

Jess Q

Merin said...

What if you partnered with a local university department and housed it with one of their graduate departments? A constant influx of students (most of whom don't have as many commitments as existing case work and nonprofit staff) might help to keep it updated, and it could also serve as a connector between the academic community, which is really good at compiling information, and the nonprofit sector, which actually provides the services.