This month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Edwin Chan, Senior Executive Analyst at San Mateo County Human Services Agency. Chan works in community and public affairs efforts for the department and also oversees special projects for the director. He managed a project with Code for America in 2013 to create SMC-Connect, an online directory for county human services. Today, he also oversees the county’s participation in Benetech’s Service Net Bay Area pilot program.
Can you tell me about San Mateo Human Services Agency and the work that you do?
We are San Mateo County’s social services department. Our biggest responsibility is overseeing the public assistance eligibility program. Anyone in the county who wants to apply for benefits, such as MediCal, CalFresh, or CalWorks, applies through our office. Additionally, we oversee child welfare, which includes Child Protective Services, foster care, and adoption. We have a veteran’s resources program to help connect our county veterans to the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs and ensure they have the support they need to thrive. Our other service branches offer employment services to connect clients with employment skills to get them back in the job market, and we also oversees the county’s homeless services program.
How does the department use software to manage all of these programs? How does it help you accomplish your goals?
We use software across all of our programs. For example, we use CalWIN for our eligibility determination and we leverage the business intelligence software to help us get a clearer view of our cases. We also use software for data collection and to assess different service delivery models. For example, our homeless services team uses the data to figure out what the needs are of people experiencing homelessness in the county and identify trends so we can build services that better meet the needs of the populations we are serving.
In addition to software that helps our team internally, we have SMC-Connect which is a searchable, online directory of health and human services from the county.
Can you tell me a little more about your collaboration with Code for America to develop SMC-Connect?
This directory was developed by a cohort of Code for America fellows to address hunger in the county. After assessing the problem, they recognized that there are so many different resources in the county, but not everyone knows how to find them. At that time, the county library had a very old database, but it wasn’t open source, so we weren’t able to update it or use it, and it was very expensive for the county to maintain. The Code for America fellows made a mobile-optimized, open API platform with search options that made it easier to navigate. The result was a platform that was easy for county residents to use and for our employees to update.
This project was also how we got involved in Benetech’s Service Net initiative. The original intention for SMC-Connect was for the users to update their own information. As circumstances changed, they would update their entries, but it was difficult to keep employees across all agencies informed about how to update the platform, so ultimately, people would just come to me to make all of the updates, which was unsustainable. Our goal for joining the Service Net pilot program is to explore how we can collaborate with other organizations with similar resource databases to share information and better serve our county residents. We hope that by connecting with others who are doing similar work we can learn from one another.
How is the pilot going?
We are one of six organizations using Benetech Service Net to share the data that we have on social and human services available in the Bay Area. We’ve benefited from increased access to information on local services through the pilot. We are most familiar with the providers within our department, and Service Net allows us to see beyond it. For some of the entries on service providers, fellow pilot partners collected information that I had not thought to include in our directory, and now we are able to share that information with anyone who interacts with SMC-Connect.
In the long run, I’m hopeful that this will make it easier for all of the partner organizations to maintain our databases and help people in the community. The software framework is there, and since it is a pilot program, we’re providing feedback to help improve the platform and make it easier to use.
What advice do you have for other counties or government agencies interested in starting a software project to increase their positive impact on the community?
Often, when people aren’t familiar with tech, it makes them nervous, but they shouldn’t let a lack of familiarity with tech prevent them from exploring that option. There’s a whole realm of possibilities out there to build software for government services, and agencies can find the person with technical expertise to support it.
For example, our Dad’s Workgroup had the idea to build a mobile app to engage at-risk fathers. We saw it as an opportunity to meet them where they are. We know they are already using their phones, and we can provide them with information to help them be better parents. At first, people were skeptical of the idea. None of us knew how to build an app, but we found people with expertise to help us get the project off the ground. The app launched in 2016 and has lots of helpful features, such as a San Mateo County playground locator and events calendar, as well as jobs postings, resources, and information on accessing benefits.
In general, being in the Bay Area, there are many opportunities to collaborate with people who have technical expertise to improve processes for county residents and share information better. There is still a lot of room for the government to grow and leverage technology. So if you have an idea, take the leap! Even if you don’t know exactly how to make the technology happen, there are a lot of experts out there who can help guide you.
“Spotlight on Software for Social Good” is a series where we shine a light on different projects and thought leaders in the software for social good space. At Benetech, we know that the social sector must embrace the power of software and data to realize positive, lasting impact at scale. Each post will share insights from community members putting software and data to work for social change. Read our previous spotlights.