Making the best possible referrals

2021-04-28 4-minute read

The Data Standards Authority are holding an open challenge to discover and set a new data standard for vulnerable people services.

Police Rewired, CharityBase, Open Referrals, DSA

It might not sound very glamorous, but data standards here could affect how quickly and easily people can find the help they need. The DSA post describes a number of use cases where this can reduce friction and help to speed up referrals:

  • As someone seeking information, I need to know what services are available locally, so that I can meet my health, care, and other needs.
  • As the administrator of a service directory, I need to publish data that is searchable and easily integrated as a data service.
  • As a service provider, I want to update my details once, so people and organisations can easily access what I provide.
  • As a frontline (emergency) worker, I need access to a directory of services, so that I can refer especially vulnerable people to the public services and service providers best suited to address their specific needs.

That last use case should be of particular interest to you if you’re a frontline emergency services worker.

Hundreds of thousands of people pass through police custody each year,1 and many more encounter police on the street in the roles of victim, suspect, witness or bystander.

Many of those people will have needs that could be met by a local service or charity, but often police and other front-line services do not have the time or the tools to make the right referral.

As a result of this, policing referrals aren’t as nuanced as they might be. Whilst some people may be offered help for an obvious drug addiction, many opportunities to make a meaningful intervention are missed.

A few years ago Police Rewired, a volunteer community working on problems in public safety tech, embarked on an ambitious referrals project:

Could we build a tool to make it quick and easy to refer a vulnerable person from police custody, or on the street?

We had a couple of use cases in mind, too:

  • As a custody sergeant, I want to make a meaningful referral before releasing a person from police custody.
  • As a police officer, I want to make a meaningful referral for the vulnerable people I encounter in the community during my day-to-day work.

In both cases speed was important. Frontline workers rarely have the time to make a detailed search for the right referral service. Police custody is a particularly busy place, and often it’s a fleeting opportunity to help someone who may be caught in cycles of violence, drugs, abuse or crime.

We wanted to make it easy - but we quickly came across a problem: No standardised directory exists.

Our search took us to CharityBase, an open, searchable database of all UK charities - composed from some disparate sources: Charity Commission, Companies House, 360 Giving, Charity Websites, ONS, and social media.

What we wanted, however, was a way to discover their referrals processes.

  • Which services does a body offer?
  • Which means can be used to contact them?
  • What are the opening hours, or physical locations a person can visit?
  • How can a referrer get feedback on the success of a referral?

Searching for a standard, we discovered Open Referral, and the Human Services Data Specification (HSDS). It’s a data interchange format that enables resource directory data to be published in bulk for use by many systems, and a common vocabulary for information about services.

Discovering good ways to share information is one part of the solution. Persuading organisations to adopt a common standard is another.

Since then we’ve heard from several forces who are looking at building their own directories and solutions. We’re doing our best to connnect everybody who is trying to solve this problem - but, of course, a common data standard would help to build a common solution…

The DSA’s open challenge offers an opportunity to change things for the better.

We believe that with a shared standard, services will be able to publicise their referrals processes in an easily consumable, quickly searchable way - and that can then be used to build the tools that frontline staff need to help the people they encounter.

If you’re an emergency services worker hoping to solve some of these problems, please engage with the DSA’s open challenge.

The deadline is 28th May 2021.


  1. 671,126 arrests were made between April 2018 and March 2019. Source: GOV.UK ethnicity facts and figures ↩︎