Thursday, May 19, 2011

DC's history of information sharing

In the late 1990s, a group of advocates, social services providers and bridge builders came together to combine multiple printed resource directories into one online and by phone uber directory of social services.   The reason for the effort was to think about the most useful way to combine the information and get it to the people and organizations needing it.

The need for a central, coordinated and online social services database was clear:   The partners had on the order of 25 printed directories from the public and private sectors.   Some information was duplicated across directories and all was outdated as soon as the directory was printed.

The plan early on was to create an on-line database of government, nonprofit and for-profit services that was by design accessible to residents and providers.   To ensure resident access, the working group planned to roll out community-placed kiosks in libraries, near Metro stations and in other high traffic areas such as grocery stores.   The web-based database would virtually eliminate printing costs, avoid dated information and, at least theoretically, offer the broadest possible access.   Adding a 24-hour telephone component assured access.

As a result of some technical, funding and information ownership issues that could not be resolved, the entirety of the group’s work was given to the DC government in 1998/1999.   The result was Answers, Please!.   All those needing information needed to do was call (202) 463-6211 and request information.   The way the database was created allowed callers to ask for information by Ward, zip code, age group, and service type.   For example, a parent could call Answers, Please! and ask for a list of martial arts classes for 9 year olds in Ward 5.   From the beginning, the service was a 24/7 resource and referral system.

On October 5, 2004, Mayor Anthony Williams announced that the District would join the national 211 movement with a new and improved way to access Answers, Please!   The press release describes the change:

News Release for Immediate Release
October 5, 2004
Mayor Announces Dial 211 for DC Social Services Information

(Washington, DC) Mayor Anthony A. Williams announced today that District residents can now dial 211 to receive social services information and referrals through the Department of Human Services' (DHS) Answers, Please! telephone social services information and referral call center. The DC Public Service Commission approved DHS's application to operate a model 211 social services information and referral call center last year, making the District the first jurisdiction in the Washington Metropolitan region ready to activate and launch the three-digit 211 dial code number to call for social services information and referrals.

"Many DC residents don't know where to call to find help they may need in a crisis," said Mayor Williams. "Now our citizens can simply dial 211 to get food and medical care and to find out about government agencies and nonprofit, community-based organizations with helpful programs and services."

The Federal Communications Commission designated 211 as the national abbreviated dialing code for free access to health and human services information and referral. Established 211 call center systems are already in place in many regions of the United States.

According to DHS Director Yvonne Gilchrist, the Department's Answers, Please! social services information and referrals call center is seasoned in handling calls from District residents in desperate circumstances.

"Answers, Please! has been operating since 1999 handling calls from residents grappling with poverty, substance abuse, physical abuse, mental illness, homelessness, and other major crises. District residents previously needed to dial a typical seven-digit number to reach Answers, Please. Today they can just quickly dial 211," said Yvonne Gilchrist. "We are grateful to the DC Public Service Commission, the DC Office of the People's Counsel, and to Verizon for helping us to implement Dial 211 for Answers, Please!

A summer 2004 newsletter (PDF) from the Department of Human Services also reported the change in their first edition of DHS Outreach.

Answers, Please! was housed in the Department of Human Services until 2008 when it moved to the Office of Unified Communications.

In February 2007, DC’s 211 was integrated with the 211 systems in close-in Maryland and northern Virginia under the direction of the Nonprofit Roundtable.   This system, known as the National Capital Region 2-1-1 Combined Database, was funded by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security's Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI).   The project was convened and directed by The Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington.

The combined database is comprised of data contributed by the following organizations:

  • District of Columbia Department of Human Services 2-1-1 Answers, Please!
  • United Way of Central Maryland
  • Northern Virginia Regional Commission
  • 2-1-1 VIRGINIA, a public-private partnership between the Virginia Department of Social Services, the Virginia Alliance of Information and Referral Systems, and six regional nonprofits, including CrisisLink.

The District has not done the best job of updating the information in Answers, Please! or upgrading the technology as is explained in the recent Beyond Bread post What’s the 211? The Social Service Directory Problem.   In fact, the biggest fear of the original working group has come true – the information is terribly outdated and there is little to no effort to regularly and systematically update each and every record AND there is little effort to add providers to the database.

A new working group believes that the District can, once again, set the trend in information sharing.   More information about this new effort will be on this blog and Beyond Bread as time goes on.

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