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Open Data Fuels Local Solutions

May 21, 2015 ET

By Sarah Washburn
Director of Community Engagement, Caravan Studios

You may not think government data is sexy. However, as data becomes more organized, more focused, and more available, organizations are able to catalyze the fields and numbers from databases and spreadsheets into usable tools. It’s alchemy, and in our case: the data turned into tangible good.

Range, the mobile app we created last year, helps locate vital summer resources for youth: free meals provided through the USDA-funded summer lunch program and, new for this summer, safe places youth can spend time, starting with the nation's 16,536 public libraries.

Screenshot of the Range app

Range is built on local data, reported by lunch sites around the world to state coordinators who collect, collate, and submit their information to the USDA. That open data fuels Range, an app that uses geolocation services, texting, and email to make finding local sites easy and free for those who refer services to youth and families.

We designed Range to be used by adults who are in trusted support roles in their communities—most notably, public librarians. Increasingly, librarians and staff are referring community members to social services in their area. In addition to librarians, Range is and can be used by social workers, outreach workers, employees at public parks, individuals who work at faith-based organizations, and those who provide home healthcare. This community of users asked us to augment Range by adding safe places for youth to visit during the summer months. Because we know libraries and the vital services they offer, we decided to add public libraries to Range to meet this need.

With the launch of the IMLS Data Catalog, we have a source for the safe places youth need at an even greater rate during the summer months.

The data provided by IMLS gives us a running start at what our users asked for when they asked for the addition of safe places. We need more, though: to provide accurate information at the point of need, we need to know the days and hours of operation for each of the 16,536 public libraries in the U.S.

Because the core data is provided in an open and accessible way, we can concentrate our efforts on acquiring more resources to enhance that data set. Our team has been fortunate to work with federal agencies and nonprofit organizations committed to making their data open and accessible.

The valuable resource of open government data provided the catalyst for two events: our ability to create Range in the first year and an opportunity to enhance another set of data that might be useful to other developers.

We pride ourselves on providing an integration point between different worlds—the community resources and the families and youth who need them, as well as developers and the social good apps they imagine. But we would never get off the starting blocks without trusted data made robustly available.

Sarah Washburn is the Director of Community Engagement at Caravan Studios, a division of TechSoup Global, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in San Francisco. Caravan Studios builds apps that help communities organize, access, and apply local resources to their most pressing problems.