Printer Friendly Allegheny County Department of Human Services.


A. System

1. Name of System and ESIG Category

2. Letter of Authorization from Marc Cherna, Director of Allegheny
County DHS

3. One-Page Summary of System

4. User Testimonial: Samantha Murphy, Office of Community Relations,

5. User Testimonial: Judy Barricella, Director, The Disability
Connection, DHS

6. User Testimonial: Ethel Novogradac, Director, Office of Aging, DHS

B. Jurisdiction

C. System Design

1. Motivation for System Development

2. Specific Service System was Intended to Improve

3. Unexpected Benefits

4. System Design Problems

5. Differentiation from Other Systems

D. Implementation

1. Phases of Development

2. Modifications to Original Design

E. Organizational Impact

1. User Community

2. Decisions, Operations and Services Affected

3. Quantitative and Qualitative Impacts of System

5. Other Impacts

6. Changes in Service Delivery and Business Operations

F. System Resources

1. Primary Hardware Components & Configuration

2. Primary Software Components

3. Data and Databases

4. Staff Resources Required to Implement the System

A. System

1. Name of System and ESIG Category, Single Process System

3. One-Page Summary of System is a unique website and distributed database system that integrates detailed information about human service programs, providers and facilities throughout Allegheny County. Available to anyone with Internet access, increases the community's awareness of the wealth of resources that exist to help people in need of human services. The target users of the website are people in the "helping professions" like DHS Caseworkers and DHS Information & Referral Specialists, along with clergy, teachers, counselors and other members of the public looking for services for themselves or family members. In addition, policy analysts, academics, foundations and policy makers can use to analyze service gaps, service utilization and service duplication. represents a groundbreaking approach to information sharing in the public sector. Utilizing peer to peer database technology, integrates information from multiple Federal, State, County, City and local non-profit sources into one distributed system called the Information Commons. Data in the Information Commons can easily be modified, updated and accessed by anyone whose data is included, allowing human services organizations themselves to keep their own records current. This eliminates the lag time and the high costs associated with centrally-controlled databases, where information must be entered and changed by a single entity. It also eliminates the confusion of multiple, potentially conflicting data in other organizations' databases. The end result is a much more accurate listing of services for individuals who need them. A data intermediary called 3 Rivers Connect, works with all of the organizations to determine how the data will be fused together, ensuring the highest quality data always takes precedence.


Users of can search for a wide variety of programs, providers and facilities by neighborhood, zip code, school district or handicap accessibility. Search results are displayed on a map or in a list (by distance from the geographic area selected) and come with driving directions and detailed public transportation instructions. The information provided on goes beyond that of a typical online directory, enabling users to learn about program eligibility, fees, paperwork required to enroll, and easy navigation to information about the sponsoring organization-including information about all of the organization's staff, facilities and other programs.

Referral specialists can quickly search and compile a very targeted list of referrals that can be printed or emailed to their customers, replacing a process that used to take a very long time while involving a myriad of paper directories, maps and bus schedules.

Public commenting is available to anyone who "logs in" to the site, creating a new forum for dialogue about the accuracy of the data, helpful hints or service quality. Open APIs are available to local non-profits who wish to use the data from and the Information Commons in other applications.

B. Jurisdiction

1. Name of Jurisdiction: Allegheny County, Department of Human Services

2. Population Served by DHS: Annually, approximately 230,000 residents of Allegheny County (Children, Youth and Families; Mental Health; Drug & Alcohol; Mental Retardation & Development Disabilities; Aging; Employment And Training).

3. Annual Budget: Approximately $800 million

4. Name and Title of Chief Elected Official: Marc Cherna, Director, Allegheny County Department of Human Services (appointed by the County Chief Executive); Courthouse, 436 Grant Street, Room 101, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

5. Name, Title, Address, Telephone, Fax, and E-mail for Contact Person for System: John M. Pierce, Deputy Director (Office of Information Management); One Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15222; Ph: 412.350.5860; Fax: 412.350.5220;

C. System Design

1. Motivation for System Development

For many years, caseworkers, information and referral specialists and social service workers in Allegheny County did not have a comprehensive resource to consult to find information about what social services were being offered by the great number of large agencies and small nonprofits. DHS maintained a comprehensive database of service providers that contracted directly with the County, but information about other providers who did not contract with the county was limited to word of mouth knowledge and paper directories. For DHS staff, several resources would have to be consulted before a referral could be made. Paper directories for referrals were published by the Allegheny County Dept of Human Services, the United Way of Allegheny County and several other agencies focused on very specific areas of human services and these directories were costly to print, distribute and maintain. In addition to consulting paper directories, referral specialists would need to look up locations of agencies on maps and they needed to provide bus route information as well, which involved consulting a stack of paper bus timetables published by the local Port Authority.

The foundation community, along with DHS management wanted a systematic way to better evaluate the effectiveness, availability and quality of services in the County. With no clear picture of what services were offered where and how they were being utilized, it was difficult for the foundation community to make informed philanthropic investment decisions and it was difficult for DHS to evaluate where services were needed most. With the launch of, there is now a very comprehensive view of the full spectrum of human services available to residents of Allegheny County.

Funding for the project came from DHS and the Human Service Integration Fund, a coalition of 15 foundations in Western PA that was created to fund innovative human service projects that can not be paid for with federal, state or county dollars.

2. Specific Service System was Intended to Improve

Marc Cherna, the Director of the Allegheny County Dept of Human Services, identified the need to provide a comprehensive data source for all of the human services offered in Allegheny County. He realized that once the data was collected in one place, various user communities would need to access the data in the ways that best help them to accomplish specific tasks.

First, data was added to the Department's "Master Provider Index" (MPI), as collected from the various organizations and agencies that had pertinent information, such as the United Way of Allegheny County, 3 Rivers Connect and the Port Authority of Allegheny County. All of this information was fused together to produce a definitive set of agencies and services, with additional information about their location, nearby bus stops/routes and other community information.

The website was established to allow case workers, information and referral specialists and the general public to be able to quickly find appropriate services and agencies within the community for referral purposes. The Department chose to implement this data system in the Information Commons because it allowed for the most flexible and scalable approach to sharing information throughout the community.

3. Unexpected Benefits

The most unexpected outcome was how quickly other organizations in the community started to join and collaborate with the new information system. Within a month of the launch of the first beta version of, a non-profit organization in the community that tracks the performance of after school programs started adding their information into the system and built a topic-specific version of the site, Through their participation, the entire system became enriched with more complete data about after school programs, benefiting all users. Another benefit of the system was the quality of fused information from many sources. No one had ever attempted to bring together all of this information before, and the quality of the data reflects the whole being greater than just the sum of the parts. Because the quality of the data is so high, the United Way has recently decided to replace the database that backs their Help Connections website with the Information Commons and data from, a great tribute to the value this project by DHS has provided to the entire human services community.

4. System Design Problems

There have been two major challenges the project has faced. The first was gaining the trust of the human service professionals in the completeness and quality of the information they could receive from the system. This challenge was overcome through extensive involvement of these users in the design and creation of the system. The second major challenge was determining what rules to use for fusing the data together from many different and frequently incompatible systems. Technology barriers to achieving this fusion were eliminated by using the Information Commons platform developed by a Pittsburgh-based company, MAYA Design. The political problems associated with fusing the data were considerable, but were overcome through the involvement of a third-party non-profit organization, 3 Rivers Connect, a data intermediary that has experience with these challenges. The result has been a significant increase in the amount of collaboration and transparency between the various departments of DHS and local human service agencies, helping create a more effective and better informed human service community.

5. Differentiation from Other Systems

There are three primary features of that make it different from other systems:

Evolutionary Design & Benefits of the Information Commons

Like many government agencies, DHS has suffered from the challenge of investing in large, expensive information systems that might meet a current need at the time of purchase, but that cannot grow to meet unseen needs over time. In contrast, was designed on a flexible platform that allows the system to grow incrementally over time making it easy for DHS to add new types of data into the system and add new levels of functionality without needing to re-map the existing information architecture. This is achieved because the system is not based on traditional relational-table database technology, which requires a high level of administration and planning once a system reaches the same level of ongoing dataintegration as Unlike relational databases, the Information Commons platform is "schemaless", enabling the administrators of the system to easily change their minds about what type of data is supported and displayed on the website. For example, dropping or adding an attribute (like lat/long) is a simple process, as is creating or changing a fusion rule, to accommodate new ways of integrating data. The user interface design is "data driven" so most new attributes show up automatically, in the form they should. For example, if the administrator adds a lat/long coordinate to a facility, it will automatically show up in map-based searches. Multiple schemas are supported, like the Infoline taxonomy as well as internal taxonomies to DHS and smaller non-profits, making it easy for anyone to extract data from the Commons to be re-used in their own internal systems.

By using the Information Commons platform, DHS benefits not only from the flexible architecture, but also the ability to integrate other types of public data into that did not originate from DHS, but that becomes fused with DHS data to enrich DHS's own information. For example, the addition of data from the United Way, A+ Schools and Venture Outdoors, has created a superset of rich data about a myriad of programs available, without cluttering the system with duplicate entries. If a caseworker is looking for exercise options for a senior citizen, they might find information provided by Venture Outdoors about "senior hikes" that they would not have known about before the integration of Venture Outdoors' data into the Commons. And if the "senior hike" program is sponsored by the YMCA, that program becomes automatically fused to the definitive entity of that particular YMCA, so the caseworker might be able to easily refer their client to the YMCA for the senior hike, to be followed up with an appointment at the YMCA for nutrition counseling. As more non-profits add their data to the Information Commons, fusing their information with the definitive set of organizations and facilities that have already been created, the more every agency benefits from having a single comprehensive directory of services in the community that is not limited by any one agency's particular focus.

Another benefit of the Information Commons approach is the ability to integrate other types of data into, broadening the scope of the website's capabilities. For example, current expansion plans include the addition of US Census data about neighborhoods into the system to give caseworkers and managers an easy way to understand the demographics of community and a faster way to produce reports about community impact. Because the census data was already imported into the Information Commons by the University of Pittsburgh, DHS can easily incorporate this data into, giving caseworkers and managers an even deeper understanding of the needs of County residents.

Distributed Database

By using a distributed database for, no one agency bears the burden of maintaining the accuracy of all of the data in the system, nor the burden of coordinating backup services for the data. The data in comes from many sources and each source is responsible for keeping their information as up-to-date as possible. By creating one definitive source for human services data in Allegheny County, there is now the level of focus and value required to encourage agencies to keep their data accurate. In addition, the system provides tools that make it easy for agencies to update their data in small batches via the web or by coordinating with the data intermediary, 3 Rivers Connect to arrange bulk uploads.

The data in is replicated throughout a peer to peer network of servers hosted at DHS, 3 Rivers Connect, the University of Pittsburgh, MAYA Design and (starting soon) at the United Way. As the Information Commons in Allegheny County grows, more servers will come online providing additional venues for data replication and backup.

Open APIs

By providing open APIs to, other human service agencies and organizations interested in human services (funders, analysts, policy makers, etc..) can build their own systems to utilize the data provided by DHS and its partners. By making it easy for other organizations to re-publish the data in, the value of the data increases and the amount of time other organizations within County government and nonprofit community have to spend gathering, analyzing and publishing human services data significantly decreases.

D. Implementation

1. Phases of Development

The design of started in June, 2004 with the development of a Beta system to generate acceptance within DHS. The first phase of the design process involved hiring two firms with extensive experience in "user-centered design" to observe and interview DHS staff to determine the types of data and features the system would need to support. A pilot version of the system was built by MAYA Design, Inc. with close collaboration with DHS staff and 3 Rivers Connect. The pilot system tested throughout various departments at DHS and with members of the public and human services specialists at other agencies.

User feedback was collected and analyzed and a new set of requirements for Version 1.0 was developed. Version 1.0 took close to one year to develop and was recently launched countywide.

2. Modifications to Original Design

A number of modifications were made to the system based on the user feedback gathered after the launch of the pilot. They include:

** Many changes to how the user could do basic and advanced searches. The logic changed from an "or" based search to an "and" based search, providing more targeted results. Also, the ability to choose your own search logic was added to advanced search, enabling a user to "cast the net wider" if they wanted to.

** The user interface design of the welcome page was changed to expose search categories up front. Initially a clean "Google style" search page was created, but users were so used to searching by category they asked for the category tree to be revealed on the welcome page.

** The website was optimized for speed by moving from a Javascript based front-end to PHP

** Continually optimizing the import process. The current goal is to get to the point that weekly updates can happen automatically at a very low cost, but there are still some complicated fusion issues that have kept the cost and time associated with imports higher than we would like.

** Introduced web based editing for one-off changes to data

** The Content Management System is under constant improvement to continue to make it easier for DHS and 3 Rivers Connect to import, organize and fuse data

** When the Google Maps API was introduced, a Google map-based search replaced an earlier version of a custom-designed mapping interface that lacked the local detail provided by Google Maps.

E. Organizational Impact

1. User Community currently serves three primary user communities:

DHS Staff: Information & Referral specialists use to make referrals to case workers and other human service professionals (inside and outside of DHS) who are trying to locate appropriate resources for their clients. In some departments of DHS the Information and Referral specialists also use to make referrals directly to members of the public who have called seeking services.

Other Human Service Professionals: Outside of DHS, other people in the "helping professions" like social service workers, clergy, guidance counselors and teachers are using to find resources for the people they serve. In addition, the site serves the needs of the foundation community, academics, policy-analysts and policy makers who have long been in need of a more comprehensive view of the human services community in Allegheny County.

General Public: While many of the social service recipients who call DHS do not own computers and do not use the Internet, there is a growing population of people seeking services for themselves or a family member who are learning about from DHS and its partnership with the Public Library system, helping DHS reach its goal of making its clients as self-sufficient as possible.

2. Decisions, Operations and Services Affected

a. One-stop shop for all human service referral searches Previously, searching for the right resource for a DHS client required consulting a number of paper-based resources. If an I&R specialist needed to refer a minor to a drug counseling program in their school district they would need to look through a number of maps to determine the appropriate geographic area, then look through the right paper directory for that area and type of service then look up the bus routes required to transport the minor from school to the program and then back to their home. Such a search could take hours, possibly days depending on what type of information was available for the part of the county they lived in. Now, all of this information is in one place and this kind of search would only take a matter of minutes.


b. More detailed information available The detail frame to the left shows the type of information available about the Human Service Provider named "Hill House". Pictures of the facilities are available to help clients "see" where they are going and the various tabs let users drill down to the right level of detail depending on their needs. Useful supplementary information like program eligibility, costs, hours of operation, and what to bring to the appointment help improve the level of service DHS is able to provide.


Data providence is important in for ensuring the system remains a trusted source of information. In the bottom right corner the source of the data is revealed. For Hill House, information was fused together from data provided by the United Way, DHS, 3 Rivers Connect and A+ Schools.

3. Quantitative and Qualitative Impacts of System

User Statistics: Since, January 2006 traffic to the website has been more than doubling each month, reaching a peak of 700+ visitors this past month.

Growing Data Pool: The quality and availability of human services data in the Information Commons has increased significantly growing to 3,000 social service agencies and 10,000 social service programs fused from eight different sources of human services information.

Data Fusion: 176 human service agencies and 82 human service programs were fused together between the DHS and United Way data sources, resulting in higher quality data about each program and agency and eliminating the possibility of over-lapping and/or conflicting data.

User Satisfaction: Users report that they like the look and feel of the system, the speed at which it returns results, the ability to search by city, neighborhood, zip code, school district and bus route and the inclusion of non-DHS source data in the system. They appreciate having been a part of the design process and feel like the site was truly created to meet their specific needs.

Praise from the Foundation Community: Pari Sabety, Director and Fellow, Urban Markets Initiative, the Brookings Institution, commented, " represents an emerging best-practice in community information systems-with strong participation by government, non-profits and community-based groups to get the best information to those most in need as efficiently as possible." Scott Izzo, Director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation indicated that "access to thousands of human service organizations and services will be invaluable to individuals, case workers and planners."

4. Effects on Productivity

DHS Information & Referral Specialists (I&R): This group of users has benefited the most from Referrals now take far less time than before and they are able to access a much larger pool of information that helps them provide more targeted referrals. One user reported, "90% of people need services in the area of the family. If you have family in McKeesport, you need services in McKeesport. There has never been an easy way to do that before now."

I&R Specialists used to store referral information on index cards and paper directories and they often "called the person who knew about service x" to find information. The amount of time specialists spend hunting through paper directories, calling co-workers and retracing their own steps when making complicated referrals has been significantly reduced.

DHS Management: Managers now have a level of "top-sight" into what services are available in the county which will help them analyze service availability, gaps, and utilization. Plans are underway to add US Census data into the system, enabling managers to better analyze DHS' community impact.

5. Other Impacts

The following illustrations show how DHS' leadership in creating and the Information Commons in Southwestern Pennsylvania is benefiting the entire community:


6. Changes in Service Delivery and Business Operations A number of changes in how DHS services are delivered have been positively affected by

** I&R specialists no longer need to compile their own directories for referrals (this used to be a large part of many specialist positions, who can now spend their time evaluating programs and service gaps, instead of formatting word documents and printing directories)

** Clients with Internet access can be directed right to for future searches, empowering clients to become more self-sufficient

** Caseworkers and other DHS staff no longer need to call I&R specialists for every referral request they need

** Details about programs can be emailed to clients or caseworkers easily, reducing the lag time on referrals

F. System Resources

1. Primary Hardware Components & Configuration

1. Information Commons MiniPeer: A 1.5 terabyte RAID device was purchased and installed with Linux and the VIA Repository Server Software, which enables it to act as a peer in the Information Commons Network. The MiniPeer is installed at DHS on the agency's internal network.

2. Information Commons UltraPeer: Composed of four machines with 4 disks, creating a total of 16 repositories with 4 terabytes of storage. The UltraPeer replicates each data object 3 times across the various machines for redundancy and availability. The OS is Linux and Via Repository server software. 3 Rivers Connect hosts this UltraPeer.

2. Primary Software Components


Model Translator (+ Fusion Import Scripts): software created by MAYA Design for performing bulk imports to the Information Commons.

Content Management System: Software created by MAYA Design for importing, organizing and fusing data in the Information Commons.

Via Repository: Information Commons Distributed Database Software created by MAYA Design, Inc. that enables data to flow between peers in the Information Commons network.

Web Server: Apache Web Server, running Medusa (Python application server).

API Server: SOAP SOA Web service methods for querying data from the Information Commons.

PHP Web Front-End: Created by MAYA Design, the templated front end can easily be adapted by specific agencies within DHS to present more specific-custom branded versions of as well as enabling other social service organizations to create their own branded versions of, like the A+ Schools website.

3. Data and Databases

** DHS: Master Provider Index detailing 3,000 providers and 10,000 services

** UWAC: Help Connections database

** A+Schools: Database of after school programs, providers and facilities in the City of Pittsburgh

** Venture Outdoors: Database of outdoor recreation programs in Southwestern Pensylvania

** Allegheny County Real Estate Data: Images of facilities (buildings and parks) in Allegheny County

** Department of Education: Geographic boundaries of school districts in Pennsylvania

** Allegheny County Food Pantries: Database of food pantries in Allegheny County

** PA State Department of Public Welfare: Database of licensed childcare facilities in Allegheny County

** Port Authority of Allegheny County: Database of bus stops, routes and timetables

** USGS & Other Publicly Available Data Sources: Names of corporations, non-profit organizations and government agencies

** USPS: Zip code shape files

** City of Pittsburgh: Geographic boundaries of Pittsburgh Neighborhoods

Coming Soon:

** U.S. Census Data

** Additional USGS & GNIS Geographic Data

** Real Time Transit data

4. Staff Resources Required to Implement the System

Throughout the two-year period of system design, testing and implementation, it is estimated that the average FTE required of DHS has been approximately .5.

From 3 Rivers Connect, approximately 1 FTE has worked on over the twoyear period and this figure is expected to drop as the system stabilizes.

At MAYA Design, Inc., the range of FTEs has varied between 2 and 4 during the heavy development phases, down to .5 FTE for maintenance and development of additional capabilities.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA)
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Title Annotation:2006 URISA ESIG Award Application
Publication:Urban and Regional Information Systems Association Annual Conference Proceedings
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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