Mending Holes in the Social Safety Net

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There are 1.3 million people in the Bay Area who are too poor to meet their basic needs. Many of these people rely on social services just to get by. For many of these individuals, social safety net programs are a critical lifeline that makes the difference between having a place to sleep, food to eat, or clothes to wear.

The social safety net is composed of government agencies, nonprofits, community groups, and many other organizations committed to helping people when they need it most. Over 130,000 of these organizations are human services agencies, each providing critical services – everything from counseling for domestic violence victims to medical services for veterans.

Each of these organizations also serves another important role: referring the people they serve to other social safety net programs that can provide additional or supplemental assistance. Referrals are a critical part of the safety net, and entire organizations, such as those under the 2-1-1 umbrella, are dedicated to connecting (or referring) people to the local resources they need.

Every piece of referral data – such as the location of a service, eligibility, and hours of operation – represents a fiber in the social safety net. Individual organizations and 2-1-1s across the country spend hundreds of hours each year updating their referral data. California alone has 55 registered information and referral organizations, each maintaining a proprietary social service referral directory, each piece a fiber in the net.

Benetech Service Net, a data collaboration platform that makes it easier to share and maintain information on local services, partners with many social service referral providers to aggregate and analyze data that has previously been siloed in proprietary directories. The project, which is still underway, is conducting the first analysis of aggregate data from multiple social service referral agencies across the region.

While still early in the process, two initial and interrelated observations stand out:

Data Duplication Wastes Time and Money  

Many of the directories contain duplicate information on the same social services. Each organization spends time and resources entering and updating the information. Benetech estimates that it can cost as much as $140 for a referral agency to update information about a single service. If ten organizations are independently managing information about the same service and are updating that information twice a year, that’s $2,800 to maintain one fiber in the social safety net. Expand that $2,800 to thousands of fibers, and the money spent becomes increasingly significant.

Benetech Service Net seeks to improve this process through a collaborative data management infrastructure. If one agency updates information on a service, all agencies on the platform benefit. Referral agencies spend less money on duplicative data collection and management. Instead, they can focus more resources on providing people with the right information. Additionally, referral agencies and service providers can be more efficient with the data they specialize in as others will contribute supplementary data using the collaboration infrastructure.

Poor Data Quality Hinders Impact

Many of the directories have incomplete data on social service providers. For example, one organization may have the name and location for a shelter but it doesn’t indicate that the shelter requires a photo id. Such incomplete data leads to service providers turning away people at their doors because they don’t meet eligibility requirements.

Above and beyond incomplete data, many organizations may completely lack information on a social service provider. How can a referral agency ensure it is providing the best referral if it doesn’t have information on all providers? Even if agencies do have data for each and every service provider, that data may be out of date. Both incomplete data and gaps in data represent a giant hole in the social safety net.

Luckily, referral databases become much more robust when data is aggregated from various referral services and agencies. That’s exactly what Benetech Service Net is designed to achieve, whether it’s making incomplete data whole or filling data gaps. Every piece of accurate, up-to-date data makes the social safety net stronger while allowing service providers to dedicate more resources to helping the people they serve.

As cuts to local and national social safety net programs loom, agencies and social service referral providers must come together to share their most important resource: data. Meanwhile, we need funders to support Benetech Service Net so the insights detailed above, along with many others, lead to a better social service referral system that serves more people, better. Collaboration is the key, and we look forward to collaborating with more partners and funders to ensure the social safety net programs can catch anyone who falls.

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