Digital HealthcareLocal Government

Building a Scottish Open Referral Network

The Open Referral initiative has developed standards for building social service signposting networks, ideal for a national data platform.

A great example of how open standards can underpin and enable a national platform approach is the Open Referral initiative.

As the name suggests this defines a framework for members of an ecosystem to catalogue the various services they offer and federate that data to enable system-wide service signposting.

The project is galvanizing collective action by 1) developing a new lightweight data exchange format — the Human Services Data Specification (aka ‘the Open Referral format’) — while 2) supporting locally-led pilots in which various institutional stakeholders are using this format to exchange open data and develop open platforms.

Their reference implementation is the open-source Ohana API, which exposes HSDS data; in the next cycle of Open Referral, Ohana will evolve into a toolkit that enables users to collaboratively edit and validate resource data.

See the Technology Overview for more.

Transforming Public Services with Open Referral

Open Referral is such a powerful dynamic to incorporate into digital service planning as it fuses together two essential factors, best explained through their Washington 211 case study:

  1. Leverage existing resources – The call centre had developed an in-depth directory of local services and suppliers, an invaluable asset. This was leveraged to build a search engine.
  2. Utilize open standards for open innovation – Not only did the use of the data standards make this work easier, it then set in place a foundation for others to build upon, like replicating and tailoring this search engine for specialist groups such as teens.

Another excellent case study example is United Way. They describe the core challenge – The strength of their approach is a decentralized network of many non-profit organizations, but this also creates significant IT challenges as there is massive duplication and a plethora of different systems.

So they turned to Open Referral as the solution for uniting all of these disparate technologies into a single system, without each needing to change their own IT. Most importantly it defines how a national data platform can be achieved:

“By providing integrated data infrastructure for the entire domain of information about community resources managed by 211s across the country, the National 211 Data Platform can serve as the conduit for the country’s efforts to improve social outcomes and promote health equity.”


The potential for Scotland to utilize this approach is evident from there already being a keystone foundation in place for doing so, the ALISS programme, from the Alliance. ALISS (A Local Information System for Scotland) is an online resource which aims to make community services and activities easier to find.

This means the core data is available and through their site utilized to also power a search engine, like the Open Referral case studies, offering a platform to build upon for further innovations.

As the Digital Healthcare strategy document describes over 46,000 referrals and self-referrals have been received by digital therapy services in the last twelve months, so the practice is very well established but this is likely facilitated within a closed system based on proprietary technologies, constrained to only a very specific subset of Healthcare functions.

What a nationwide Open Referral approach would facilitate is a large-scale, distributed and open approach that encompasses any and all service providers involved in the delivery of Health and Social Care, and also into other major areas like Social Security. There is considerable potential to apply the same system to the network of providers who support job seekers for example.


A Scottish vendor specializing in this field is Siccar. In their blog they explore the potential for DLT (Distributed Ledger Technology), in particular how it will address the challenge of voluntary sector or local authority workers having to keep the registers up to date with the latest information from all the voluntary sector organisations in the area.

“A key to Open Referrals is that the voluntary sector will self-publish and maintain their records about their organisation, the services that it delivers and where and when those services are available.  Our CAST project – which utilises the Open Referrals standards – is built on the SICCAR distributed ledger platform. Using DLT means that the data isn’t owned or controlled by a local authority or an umbrella voluntary sector organisation – it is decentralised and therefore owned and controlled by the individual organisations.”

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