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W3C Group Launches Forum for Human Service Data Standards

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There’s a growing recognition that for the human services to be effective, autonomous programs must learn to operate in concert, as though they were parts within a single whole. Making that happen will mean rewiring the sector to share more information across organizational borders. That, in turn, depends on developing strong data standards.

There are already important efforts to build standards for specific purposes. For example, the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) has developed its domain for children, youth and family services; the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems (AIRS) has its exchange standard for community resource data. And there are others.

What’s not clear, though, is where and how the biggest conversation will happen: Where can stakeholders of all kinds stand back, look at all these emerging efforts, and work together to mesh them, eventually, into one overall system of interlocking human service data standards?

Enter the W3C Human Services Community Group. Under the aegis of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the main international standards body for the Web, this new forum aspires to offer a broader conversation space than has existed so far. It’s meant to bring together different substantive areas of human service work; to bridge the gap between government and nonprofit service providers; and to support diverse stakeholder purposes—such as exchange of data for operational workflow and collection of data for performance measurement, evaluation and policy research. The group is intended to be international, promoting conversation in the space between national systems; and since it is open to public participation, it will be able to incorporate perspectives from unaffiliated community data efforts.

As a broad conversation space, the W3C group can support existing standards in a lot of ways. It can affirm, inherit, refer to and build upon the vocabularies and structures that have already been created. It can also serve as a staging ground for creating new vocabularies and structures that could then be incorporated into existing standards.

Eric Jahn, one of the originators of the new group, envisions that it will eventually spawn many sub-groups to address different angles of human service data. For example, sub-groups could work on developing generalizable models expressed in Unified Modeling Language (UML) or as Entity-Relationship Diagrams (ERDs); could review and improve taxonomies and ontologies used in specific areas of human service practice; and could clarify and tightly define human service terms that are problematic because of ambiguity or idiosyncrasies of usage.

Jahn is already spearheading the creation of a sub-group on creating Linked Open Vocabularies (LOV) for the human services. He recently produced a paper for the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems (AIRS) entitled Making Information and Referral Resource Data More Accessible that explains how LOV could be used to create linkages between independent silos of community resource data, thereby forming a federated system of information and referral that would be searchable from a single gateway.

You can participate in the conversations at W3C Human Services Community Group by first creating an account at W3C and then joining the group.

—Derek Coursen

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