ubuntu-us-ne Ubuntu in the Non-Profit Office

Matthew Platte 51 at triopticon.com
Sat Dec 9 23:25:56 GMT 2006

On Dec 9, 2006, at 3:11 PM, Dave Thacker wrote:

> What's the biggest need of social service agencies?
> Chris Holt thinks he knows.
> http://www.freesoftwaremagazine.com/blogs/free_software_for_non- 
> profits

Abstract: In the human services network there are many service  
providers but only a handful of funders.  The trend is towards  
standardized reports, pulled from the central database.  Once a  
service provider grows enough to win a few grants, their data  
management toolset will likely be determined by the funders'  

My experience is pretty much limited to a few local human service  
agencies.  My point of view is somewhat less than universally  

One of the growing trends amongst the funders (USDA, HUD, United Way,  
etc.) is that in compensation for making fewer dollars available they  
are tightening their reporting requirements.  For some (Head Start)  
the funder has mandated the use of a particular case management and  
reporting tool for quite some time.  For others, they've been asking  
for more detail and analysis in the periodic reports and have  
recently or will soon be mandating a common client management  
platform to be utilized by the many agencies that they fund.  United  
Way has been pushing ServicePoint pretty heavily recently.  A few  
years ago the Lutherans were developing a similar, comprehensive  
project; don't know what became of that one.

ServicePoint(SP) is the package I'm most familiar with.  SP has been  
around Lincoln for several years now.  It's developed by some outfit  
in Louisiana and there have been a series of federal grants feeding  
the development of SP just here in our little part of the planet.   
I'm sure that well over a million federal bucks have been spent  
directly or indirectly on SP at UNL.

Part of the rationale for SP is that all agencies providing services  
to a family or individual will work from, and build, a common shared  
database.  Some data is generally available, some bits are not -- and  
each agency evaluates what they can or can not share with the other  
agencies.  The database is what you'd expect in that there's an  
initial building of the family record then agencies and programs  
within agencies hang their program-specific data fields on that  

A benefit for the service provider agency is that the burden (and  
expense) of generating the periodic report for the funders is pushed  
down the org chart, out of the project administrator's office and  
into the data entry cube farm.  For example, at the state level, an  
administrator in Nebraska Health and Human Services can pull  
demographics and other reports directly from ServicePoint without  
waiting for the individual agencies' mid-level managers to submit  
their inconsistent and poorly-formatted paper reports.  The agency  
that needs to track just a little bit more about their clients is  
encouraged to add that to their SP collection of data entry forms.   
Indeed, ServicePoint refers to itself as a Management Information  

Yeah, well that's the some of the promise.  The reality of  
ServicePoint is that it is complicated.  Complicated and slow to work  
with.  Slow, unresponsive software leads to bad data: duplicate  
family records bloom because it's a PITA to look for the numerous  
possible (mis-)spellings of a client's name.  It is, of course, a  
relational database so the un-structured and semi-structured data  
that really tells the story of any given client is difficult to  
pigeon-hole.  We can count how many 47-year-old Hispanics that were  
born of Asian and Native American parents but there's not a very  
effective way to capture the reasons why a person requests the  
services of the agency.  The classic design problem of posing  
multiple-choice questions because the answers will be easier to count.

If ServicePoint were to publish an API, there would be development  
opportunities; perhaps they have already done so; I haven't seriously  
looked or asked.

Matthew Platte
51 at triopticon.com

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