The Sahana Software Foundation makes high quality, open source information management systems for emergency preparedness, response, recovery and resilience. We were recently awarded a microgrant by Open Referral (using funding from Stanford’s Digital Impact program, with fiscal sponsorship from the Alliance of Information and Referral Services) to develop and deploy an open source system for managing community resource data in the popular AirTable platform and making it accessible via Open Referral’s Human Services Data API.
We know that many, if not most, of the community resource directories out there in the world aren’t managed with a database at all. Instead, many people use spreadsheets, Word documents, post-it notes, etc. And we know that this labor of information maintenance could be made much more efficient, and this work could be made much more impactful, if such information was being managed through structured data systems that have interoperable APIs. But many people who maintain resource directories themselves may know very little about this — and it would require them to adopting new technologies and new behaviors — so we know we need more than just to tell them about Open Referral and encourage them to adopt it. We need to make it easy and effective for them to do so.
Fortunately, AirTable offers us just the thing: an easy-to-use, replicable database — with a familiar spreadsheet-style interface — that comes with simple, functional APIs that can automatically turn its contents into Open Referral compliant data.
We’ve been a fan of AirTable for a few years now. It’s as easy to use as a spreadsheet, free for small databases, produces simple csv files, and has an auto-generated API that developers love. We chose to leverage AirTable by creating an Open Referral template that organizations could copy and use to create their own services directory. That would get the data in an API accessible format that could be converted to true Open Referral API format.
Kin Lane, the API Evangelist and technical lead on the Human Services Data API (HSDA), generously offered to then create an API facade (a php script and API documentation that turns the AirTable API into HSDA). Thanks to Kin’s work, we could now turn any Open Referral AirTable into an ‘open platform’ for people to manage and share resource data.
For a previous project and partnership with Sarapis, we had built a tool that extracts and displays AirTable data through a familiar directory-style interface. People understand the value of directory websites, so we modified that tool to accommodate Open Referral style data, and viola — we could now offer participating organizations awesome, free directory software that their clients could use to find relevant services.
We’ve been offering trainings and field-testing this product through hands-on engagement with several local resource directory maintainers, including the managers of Connections resource directory produced by the Correctional Services department at the New York Public Library. Connections is the city’s most popular nonprofit services directory for formerly incarcerated people — and it’s dataset has previously been managed in technically unsustainable ways.
The NYPL team is now converting their printed directory into an Open Referral AirTable dataset that will be easier to navigate and edit, easier to power an online database of Connections resources, and even accessible via API for other kinds of data exchange.
Want to fund our efforts? Make a tax-deductible donation to Sahana and add a comment that says “Open Referral” so we know how to allocate it.
Thanks for reading!