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Purple Binder: Transforming How People find Community Services

Joseph Flesh is co-founder of Purple Binder, a startup that connects people with community resources to keep them healthy. Launched in 2012 by two computer scientists, the founders of Purple Binder had no prior experience in healthcare or human services. They’ve learned a few things since then and encounter new challenges daily. Joseph will be presenting on the main stage at Health Datapalooza 2014.

In an age when everything seems to be online, finding information about community services is hard. Though backed by billions of dollars of government and philanthropic funds, community services remain difficult for those in need to find and access. To address the issue, community organizations should publicly publish information about the services that they offer.

Let’s step back for a moment and define our terms. I’m going to use community services to refer to any kind of need-based care or assistance that a person might get in the community where they live. Examples include:

  • a food pantry

  • transportation to doctor’s appointments

  • durable medical equipment (e.g. oxygen tanks)

  • home health aide

  • substance abuse treatment

  • walking groups at the local park district

Right now, individuals who are looking for help face many fragmented, incomplete sources of information. Because community services change fast, out-of-date information is widespread, even among professionals like social workers. Generally, this information isn’t available through a Google search.

Purple Binder solves that problem -- we build one-stop portals for people to find community services. In the process of building these portals, we’ve gotten very good at creating detailed listings of the community services in a particular area. But I sometimes feel that the content we create should already exist. Shouldn’t funders of community services, like government and foundations, hold their grantees accountable for making their services accessible?

Federal and State Health Data: Uses & Improvements

To create detailed content on community services, we’ve used any and all available datasets as starting points -- everything from well-maintained datasets on HealthData.gov to a social worker’s Excel files from a shared drive. We’ve used datasets from federal and state government on hospice facilities, preschools, and durable medical equipment providers, among others.

Federal and state datasets are incredibly useful for identifying existing providers. But a lot of work is still required to create listings that are actionable for people seeking services. Our research team contacts each provider organization to find all the details necessary for someone to actually access a service.

Though existing datasets aren’t perfect, I can’t overstate how useful they are. In their current form, these government-released datasets save us hundreds of hours by readily identifying existing service providers.

Chicago: Adventures in the City Data Ecosystem

The City of Chicago’s Department of Family Support Services (DFSS) funds about $300 million annually in community services. But until recently, there was no way to find information on all of the services that they funded in Chicago’s communities.

DFSS has collaborated with Purple Binder to make the services they fund more accessible. Starting from a spreadsheet of grants data, Purple Binder contacted all DFSS grantees to publish information about the community services they offer. The resulting dataset is available online through the Chicago Service Finder app, and will also be released to the public through the Chicago Open Data Portal.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first example of a startup collaborating with local government to create a data ecosystem. Purple Binder doesn’t just consume data from the City of Chicago -- we’re also contributing back a new dataset of services.

DFSS grantees are incorporating the Chicago Service Finder into their work. “We get referrals from a number of partners all over the city,” said Mark Ishaug, CEO of Thresholds, a community mental health agency that receives some of its funding from DFSS. “This initiative will make it even easier for the social service community to match clients with the community services they need.”

I hope that more funders follow Chicago DFSS’s lead to make the services that they fund more accessible to the people they serve. Grantees should be required to publish clear, readable information about the services they offer and exactly how to access them.

Healthcare Reform and Community Services

One major use case for community service data is in the healthcare system as it emerges from the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Instead of caring for people who are already sick, healthcare systems are now incentivized to keep people healthy and out of the hospital in the first place. One way to do that is by connecting people with community services.

Chicago’s University of Illinois Health & Sciences System is ahead of the curve in preparing for this change in care. They’re creating intensive case management programs (with great names like PArTNER and EPIC) to match patients with community services.

Dr. Jerry Krishnan, Associate Vice President for Population Health Sciences, emphasizes that “Staying out of the hospital is valued by patients and their caregivers. The PArTNER program has the potential to greatly impact how hospitals improve patient experience and other outcomes using strategies tailored to the needs of the patients and caregivers they serve.”

Next Steps

The health data ecosystem has evolved immensely in recent times, allowing companies like mine to leverage open data in our solutions. Still, we have a ways to go in creating an ecosystem where actionable data on community services is readily available.

We’ll be presenting Purple Binder on Health Datapalooza’s main stage, June 2nd in Washington, DC. If you’re there, come find us! We’d love to meet healthcare providers and policymakers who want to make community services more accessible to the people they serve. We’re also interested in collaborating on open standards for human services data.