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Why This Blog?

The human service sector has chronic problems with managing information. This blog is about solving them. That may seem unfathomably abstract, so let’s unpack it a bit.

Human service organizations run on information—or at least they try to. They collect data about social problems and needs, about potential and actual clients, about services provided and outcomes achieved. In an ideal world, they would collect high quality data smoothly and efficiently. Then from the data they would create richly useful information that would drive decision-making at every level.

If only it were that easy. In the real world, managing human service information is more often a messy, laborious and painful struggle. Through much of the sector, there is a background buzz of uncomprehending frustration as stakeholders stand around wondering why—with so much effort going into data collection—they still do not have the information they need.

This blog starts from a simple premise: managing human service information is difficult because there are many voices at the table and they speak different languages.

Who has a stake in human service information? There are different roles. There are agency executives and program managers and front-line service providers. There are measurers of performance and program evaluators and social scientists. There are funders. And there are technologists who design and implement information systems. They are seated in different system locations: government agencies, nonprofit service providers, philanthropic foundations, professional associations, consulting firms and software development companies. And they have different areas of substantive focus: child welfare, homelessness, substance abuse, domestic violence, job training… the list goes on.

Each group of stakeholders has its own worldview and its own vocabulary. Each has its own agenda for collecting data and producing information. Interests overlap in some respects but clash in others. With perspectives so fragmented, building information systems and formulating information policy is fraught with complexity and risk.

But even in the face of so much fragmentation, this is an extraordinarily exciting time of innovation toward greater coherence. There is a steadily growing sense that in order for human service programs to fulfill their mission, they must be understood as parts within larger wholes—and they must learn to operate that way.

The sector has come alive with ambitious experiments in that direction. Protocols to exchange client-level data now make it possible to mesh services across organizational boundaries. Standardized performance indicators have been proposed so that the work of comparable programs can be measured in comparable ways. Evidence-based interventions try to pin down a successful response to a defined problem and then replicate it faithfully and widely.

These are all attempts to integrate human service efforts into a tighter and more coherent whole. In order for them to succeed, though, the sector needs to develop a more unified approach to information across all the groups that are at the table.

The purpose of this blog is to lift up problems and explore solutions. Its main focus is on issues that occur at the boundaries between different stakeholder groups. Its name, Human Service Informatics, points to the hope that the sector might eventually develop a rigorous discipline for managing its information.

© Copyright 2013 Derek Coursen