Ohana API - an open source web API for connecting people to community health and human services.

Ever wonder what health services are in your community? If you are having trouble paying for food, finding affordable health care, or homeless, getting help is critical. Ohana API connects communities to the health and human services they need.

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The Ohana API, is an open source platform of health and human services for San Mateo County, CA, under development as part of the 2013 Fellowship at Code for America (a San Francisco-based nonprofit that matches teams of technologists with city and county government agencies across the country). The project is under development over the course of the 10.5 month Fellowship and the goal is to have it in a re-deployable state by November to other communities. 

For background, the project fits in with a categories of systems called Information & Referral (I&R) systems. 2-1-1 is perhaps the most widely known of these system and is a national movement to provide an easy to remember phone number for connecting people with community services, particularly those in urgent need of free and reduced cost meals, shelter, and personal items. Many of the 2-1-1 systems in the US are run by the United Way and have database systems that are accredited by The Alliance of Information and Referral Systems (AIRS). While this ensures consistency between the systems; unfortunately, it means a new system can cost nearly $10,000 for accreditation and access to a taxonomy of human service terms used by 2-1-1. The cost of implementation often means the health and human services data are kept in a data silo and are not accessible in a machine readable format. The siloing of the data prevents information from being easily used by third-party applications or even search engines, such as Google. 

The Ohana API is an open-source platform that exposes the data it contains through a web API, which means third-party applications can query the database and display results. For instance, a web search interface, a smart phone application, or a sms-based texting interface could query the same data set to deliver information. It is important to note that the Ohana API is not a replacement for 2-1-1, but complementary to it, as a 2-1-1 telephone system can make use of the open data architecture by harvesting data contributions from the community of providers.

Built on industry standard web frameworks and software, Ohana API is maintainable and draws from the world wide pool of open source developers. Software requirements and installation instructions are available at github.com

An important feature of Ohana API is that it is a writeable platform. This means that data can be maintained by service providers through an administrative web site. One example of using the API to update the data is the SMC HSA Writeathon site. Built in a day, it is used for tagging and updating information to improve searches using local community knowledge. The ability to update information by either a trusted maintainer or through crowd sourced methods is an important differentiator among open data platforms that only offer read only access, as it can accommodate different methods of data management.

The API documentation describes how to query the API for information. For example, this query returns data about places that provide eyeglasses and eye care in San Mateo county. What you will see is a page of data about locations providing eye care. Raw data is not immediately useful to users; it is what you can do with that data that makes a difference. Here is the same eyeglases query viewed through the smc-connect.org web site built for San Mateo County. Selecting a result shows the richness of the data providing full contact information, hours of operation, accessibility options, a map, public transit available as well as eligibility requirements and associated fees.

Instead, of making multiple searches on public search engines, Ohana API enables the public, community based organizations, and benefits analysts find the health and human services information they need.

Additional Information

1. Video posted above.

2. Revisions to your entry based on community feedback and questions, and whatever else you may want to add since submitting your application.

Since our application we have received feedback from interested parties as well as San Mateo County.  Additional features  such as the ability to fine tune results, data translators and other types of applications are under consideration and will be prioritized as time and funding permit. On that note, as the result of  an article in APIEvangelist.com, the Ohana API project added a new contributor to the project. Mark Silverberg has contributed a SMS interface to Ohana API! Screen shots of the application are included above.

3. Answers to the following questions [four sentences max each]:

Who is working on the project? Who are your partners?

Moncef Belyamani, Anselm Bradford, and Sophia Parafina are 2013 Code for America Fellows that built the Ohana API and smc-connect.org application. We built the Ohana API in conjunction with San Mateo County Health and Human Services, Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, and with the assistance of many community based organizations. Going forward, we are working with Google.org, representatives from the 211 and AIRS community, as well as commercial providers on creating an open human services data specification that can be used by the community as a generic data transfer format.

How do you know there is demand for this project?

We performed field research in San Mateo County where we observed community based organizations using outdated and limited paper copies of the data. Our interviews with clients also showed that they needed a way to find services beyond word of mouth. Finally, we are part of a group of organizations that include google.org, AIRS/211, and interested cities that are working towards developing a data standard to make the information available.

How is your project different from what already exists?

Searching for services when in need can be frustrating; search engines provide lots of information but the results are not targeted for your community. The Ohana API is a platform that enables local targeted information. It’s also a community platform, that means organizations can maintain their information rather than rely on a third-party to maintain their information. Finally,  since the Ohana API is open source and uses open data, communities their own directories with very little cost.

How will the data or information you use or create be made open?

At its core, the Ohana API is a directory of open data for community services. The API wraps the data and provides a means for the software developer community to access the underlying data in a standardized manner.  In addition to the software, the Ohana API team is working with a national group of interested parties to develop a human services data specification for data interchange. This will allow data interchange among 211 providers and other providers of human services data to share data freely.

What will you make or do in this project?

The first goal is to build the Ohana API into an easy-to-install package that includes documentation and code samples for websites, widgets, and mobile clients. The second goal is to develop a human services data interchange standard that the Ohana API can consume and export; to do this, we will need to work with data stakeholders (such as 211 and 311), community based organizations and local governments to get acceptance. Finally, the third goal is to foster a community of users that can sustain the project development. To do this, we need to promote both the human services data interchange standard and the Ohana API through public outreach, training and support to local government and community based organizations.

How can others learn from/build on what you do?

All the code for the Ohana API and the text for the Human Services Data Specification are on GitHub and are available for download, comment, and changes; moreover, we plan to provide support for installation and deployment. Through Code for America’s government partnership program we are reaching out to human services data stakeholders to build the standard iteratively and collaboratively with organizations throughout the US. In addition, we would hold workshops for converting and using the human services data format in conjunction with deploying and using the Ohana API.  

How much do you think it will cost?

We estimate the cost at $500,000 over 24 months. The basic budget breakdown is available.

How would you use News Challenge funds?

First package the Ohana API into an installer that can be easily installed by community partners. Second, we would perform outreach through Code for America’s network of partner cities, as well as taking advantage of key health and community conferences to speak and promote Ohana API; this also includes pursuing the Human Data Services standards work we have begun. Third, we would provide support for communities implementing Ohana API in the form of answering implementation questions, development expertise, and application support. Fourth and finally, we are building a developer community around Ohana API, in order to provide more software and applications for communities beyond what our team can do.

Describe your project in one sentence.

Open source web API directory that connects people in need to community health and human resources using open data.

Who is the audience for this project? How does it meet their needs?

The audience is twofold: (1) asking for help is often wrapped in shame, Ohana API allows people in need of services (food, housing, medical services, help paying utilities, legal aid, etc.) to find the help they need confidentially and with a degree of assurance that help is there when and where they need it through apps built using the API’s data to discover services. (2) Case workers at community-based organizations and benefits analysts at government agencies that provide health and human services can update their service information in the API and refer clients to services in the community that they don’t themselves provide.

What does success look like?

Success is communities deploying Ohana API into local directories that serve their populations; it also includes having an ecosystem of developers building tools, custom websites and applications to connect communities with health and human services. The elements needed to achieve success are: an easily deployable Ohana API installation package; detailed documentation for users and developers; sample web clients, smart phone applications, voice and SMS applications and online and phone support.

Your Location

San Francisco, California, USA


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As a developer, the Ohana API and Ruby library have been fun to work with. I hope they get the funding, support, and press they deserve!

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