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What Is the Real-Time Supply of Human Services?

 At Markets For Good, we explore a wide range of themes on the use and sharing of data, but not for the sake of discussion itself: Instead, we want to discover what’s going on and how to connect, align, and accelerate what’s working. Think of this as upgrading the information infrastructure in the social sector. With that in mind, we have seen that standards, protocols, and taxonomies, etc. comprise a theme (common language, methods, and categorizations) that has solid momentum, not only in discussion and needed advocacy, but also in practice.

Erine Gray, founder of Aunt Bertha, is a case-in-point as he walks us from the food pantry to an open taxonomy for classifying and counting human services. The idea? Making it much easier for people to find and use the services they need.

What if we knew the number of food pantries currently open – right this minute – in Tuscaloosa, AL? What if researchers could compare that figure with the number of food pantries in Bloomington, IN? (Both are similar-sized towns.)

To realize this vision, we need a clear understanding of what constitutes a food pantry. That can be more complicated than you think. But it’s vital.

At we focus on connecting people in need with government and charitable programs through the internet and mobile devices. We launched our service in Austin, TX in June 2011 and this year launched in every zip code in Texas (which covers roughly 1/12 of the American Population). Our goal is roll out our service to the whole country.

We quickly learned that to achieve our mission of making human services information accessible to everyone, we must agree on a common language so we know the simplest thing: how to count these programs.

Existing Taxonomies

Ever shopped for shoes on It’s pretty simple. You search by keyword or by shop by category. There are shoes for men, shoes for women. There are sneakers, high heels, boots, etc. That’s a taxonomy: a way of categorizing shoes.

At Aunt Bertha, we started looking for existing taxonomies that allow us to classify human service programs. We recently reviewed the AIRS/211 LA County taxonomy and it is perhaps the most thorough of those we found: but we feel it is deeply flawed for two reasons.

It is a hierarchical taxonomy: The problem with a hierarchical taxonomy is that you have to know the route: if you don’t, it may take you a while to get to where you want to go. If you’re looking for a food pantry for people with HIV or AIDS, you may need at least seven clicks to find that information. If hierarchical taxonomies are too rigid, they can make users feel as if they’re navigating a corn maze.

It costs money to use: According to the AIRS/211 LA County website, the taxonomy subscription fee is between $200 and $650 per year.

Let’s Do Something Different

When we were deciding how to classify our programs, we chose a different route:

We wanted to develop a taxonomy guided by two important principles: It should be multifaceted, and it should be open.

Let’s go back to our Zappos example. We’ve decided we want men’s boots. But we’re not sure which color or style.

Should we drill down (click through) every possible style of men’s boots until we find the one we want? What about color? Would we also list the colors under every category and style of boots? Of course not.

Zappos let’s you navigate to Men’s Shoes >> Boots, using a partially hierarchical taxonomy, yes, but also allowing you to add other facets including colors and styles. When you select those, magic happens: you get a list of all the boots that match the color and style you’re interested in.

Let’s translate that to human service programs.

If you’re looking for a food pantry, we think you should click Food >> Food Pantry. If there are quite a few of them in the list (as there are quite a few boots on Zappos), then we think you should be able to narrow them down based on your own situation. We call these “situational tags.”

If you want a food pantry that caters to people with HIV or AIDS that should be an attribute just like color or style is an attribute of our boot search. This allows you to narrow down your search in seconds.

Think about how this would apply to people in need that suffer from rare illnesses and are trying to find resources provided by charities and governments that help with those illnesses.

“OPEN. (This a no-brainer.)

In fact, we figured we’d get the ball rolling by releasing our draft taxonomy with a Creative Commons Attribution License. We want you to use it and to help us make it better. And we’re willing to do the work that it takes to help coordinate that effort.

If we agree to an open and free taxonomy to classify human service programs then we can finally begin to count the services that are available by location.

This is the first step to knowing the number of open food pantries – right now – in Tuscaloosa, AL.

Curator’s Note: Think on the scale of the entire social sector (for-profit, nonprofit, impact investors, public sector): Tell us what have you seen that is working in taxonomies and standardization, or just access to data.

Here’s another idea, for our private sector readers: It is clear that we are talking about Customer Service. What is working for you to make it easy for your customers to find and use the information they need? Let us know here in the comments. And, for all, if there is a particular initiative we should know about, you can also share it here or email me directly: Thank you!