“Being in prison was tough. But coming back — it’s like, that was tougher.”
People coming home from prison are growing in numbers and they face serious disadvantages. They haven’t simply lost time. Those who "re-enter" society (often known as “returning citizens”) struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, a lack of technological skills, social stigma, and even significant barriers to employment and services.
Given the complexity of these structural challenges, this month's Rebuilding Re-Entry Hackathon (the first of its kind, organized by Laurin and Teresa Hodge of Mission: Launch) was described as the initiation of a “social justice laboratory”—a space for people with different backgrounds and perspectives to work together with a shared purpose. The event was led by people who have personal experience with the prison system and the challenges of re-entry, and about half a dozen “civic hacking teams” explored different aspects of this social dilemma.
Of the many issues discussed by attendees, we heard a common refrain: it’s hard for people returning from prison to find services that can help them get back on their feet.
There are many different directories of resources for people in need—in fact, participants at the event could identify three that are compiled specifically for returning citizens in the DC metro area—but they are all produced in silos, by organizations with limited resources, in formats that can be difficult to navigate.
For example, the DC Public Defender Service (PDS) attended the event, and brought with them copies of their giant resource guide for returning citizens who are trying to get back on their feet. It’s one of the most detailed directories in the DC area, but it’s only available as a book or a PDF. PDS recognizes that, although these books can be invaluable to people who may lack access to the internet, or even computer skills, this information could be made more valuable.
It’s precisely this kind of challenge that the DC Open211 project aims to tackle. The mission of Open211 is to make information about health, human, and social services easier to find, use, and evaluate. And in collaboration with returning citizens and hackers over the course of this weekend, we took a number of significant steps forward:
Our first step: build a website.
In a project led by Ann Millspaugh, Aaron Schumacher, and Elaine Ayo, the DC Open211 team "pulled" data from an online resource directory that can be difficult to navigate. They transformed this data into a more usable format, and loaded it into a lightweight open source search interface called "Buscando" (which was created by Aliya Rahman of Code for Progress and volunteers at the Tech Lady Hackathon earlier this year to connect immigrant youth to services in Maryland).
The result is a clean site that enables basic searches for different kinds of services relevant to people returning from prison.
This site is intended to be merely a starting point for future conversations about how—with access to standardized open data and open source software—simple websites can be built cheaply and quickly, so that precious resources can be allocated to harder challenges, like improving users’ ability to gauge whether any particular search result is the right service for them.
Second step: visualize an “Open211” system for sharing resource directory data among an ecosystem of applications and services.
Working from a visual vocabulary developed by Jenn Stowe in her work as the Lead Organizer of DC Open211, while listening carefully to our conversation about the problem and possible solutions, Matteo Becchi drew this mural to convey a rather complex technical process in a way that’s easy to understand:
This graphic shows how we can move past a status quo (bottom left) in which many organizations produce their own directories, through a process of aligning various sources of data into a “resource repo” where community members can collaborate on improving and validating this information into a common format—toward a future (bottom right) in which trustworthy data is freely shared among various organizations with different information systems of their own.
It’s great to have this summary of the big vision. But how would we ensure that information is kept accurate and up to date? This was the third question tackled by DC Open211 team.
A group led by Saskia DeVries (who helps people find services through her work at LIFT-DC) designed a first draft of a mobile-friendly “verification tool.” This tool could help social workers, volunteers, and other community stakeholders walk through the complex process of finding and confirming information about social services.
The next piece of the DC Open211 team’s work is perhaps the most important for the long term: envisioning the means for returning citizens to share feedback about the services they’ve accessed.
This conversation was led by Brian Ferguson, who is developing plans for an application that he calls “Angel’s List.” In Brian’s vision, Angel’s List would be a clearinghouse designed specifically for returning citizens to find services and share their experiences with them.
Brian has a deeply personal perspective on the need for this kind of tool: he was recently exonerated after ten years of incarceration for a homicide that he did not commit. Upon returning, Brian resolved to dedicate his work to giving back to the community of people returning from prison.
In partnership with service providers and designers, Brian and other returning citizens outlined a set of questions that can solicit feedback from users about the services with which they engage. (For example, one important question that returning citizens say speaks to their experience: “Do you feel like you were treated the same as others?”)
Moving forward, Brian and the Angel’s List team will partner with DC Open211 (and, potentially, other pilot communities in the Open Referral initiative) to demonstrate how open resource data can be put to use in such a specific, sensitive context.
Finally, we composed a policy memo for DC’s incoming mayoral administration (and newly elected councilmembers) about how the District Government can play a role in making all of the above possible.
In consultation with data policy experts from Code for DC, our team developed a “transition memo” for Mayor-Elect Bowser that proposes a clear line of action for the DC government:
Altogether, it was an exhausting and exhilarating weekend.
We are truly grateful to Laurin Hodge and the team at Mission: Launch for organizing this event. Moving forward, these conversations will continue at Code for DC, Code for Progress, and in the DC Open 211 network. Join us!