You Can Help Us Strengthen the Social Safety Net!

Tech entrepreneurs can change the world through their philanthropy. They will achieve the greatest bang for their philanthropic buck by prioritizing the better use of community-driven software and data. That was my message in a recent interview, which you can read on the Benetech blog series, The Impact.

Today, I’m writing to provide the first in a series of specific ideas on how philanthropic tech entrepreneurs can do good by doing what they do best: using software and data to create massive value.

What if every person in need had access to the help they needed?

Every day in every community, there are people who need help. From a single mom facing eviction to a vet struggling with PTSD, to a domestic violence survivor fighting for custody of her kids. A web of complex needs exists, but information about the various services that address those needs—services that form the social safety net—is difficult to find. Compared to the data I have at my fingertips about businesses (how many sandwich shops are there within five miles that are currently open?), the social safety net is effectively invisible to the people who urgently need help.

If we can make it easier for people in need, or the agencies trying to help them, to find accurate information on social services, we’ll have delivered amazing impact.

Many referral services such as call centers and web applications collect directory information about health, legal, and social services, but the data is locked in fragmented and redundant silos. New referral services keep proliferating—all struggling to keep their data about available services up to date. Resource-strapped agencies have a hard time updating their websites, not to mention a dozen other places where their information shows up.  The effort to build the proprietary “One List to Rule Them All” is doomed to failure. 

The consequences of this costly and ineffective status quo are daunting:
  • People in need have trouble discovering and accessing services that can help them.
  • Service providers struggle to help clients meet complex needs.
  • Referral providers have difficulty referring people effectively.
  • Decision makers cannot gauge program effectiveness.
  • Innovators struggle to build and scale useful technologies to serve these needs.

This is a systems-change challenge: how to get hundreds or thousands of agencies to cooperate to greatly improve their ability to serve the most vulnerable people in their community.

The answer is open infrastructure. We need to make it as easy as possible to share accurate social service directory information with everybody who needs it.  The Benetech Open Referral project approaches this problem in a new way, by enabling many different systems to access the same data, and incentivizing the stakeholders to collaborate.

By successfully coordinating data among multiple stakeholders, Benetech’s Open Referral project can generate tools and practices that yield transformative change by weaving a stronger social safety net. Here are a few of the benefits:
  • Better access to services for people in need.
  • Decrease in data maintenance costs and increase in data quality.
  • Acceleration of innovation for new tools, apps, and projects.
  • Meaningful use of data in research, analysis, and decision-making.
We need major philanthropic funding to take this effort to the next level, beyond pilots in California and Florida, to make this kind of information readily available in every community. The safety net is too important to remain invisible!


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