Indulge me with a quick experiment:
You’re a parent and you’ve got a problem. If you can imagine yourself in that situation, ask yourself, what does this quite typical list of helplines I found published tell you where to turn? What does each of them actually do?
CHILDLINE 0800 1111
CONTACT A FAMILY 0808 808 3555
GINGERBREAD 0800 018 4318
KIDSCAPE 0451 205 204
PARENTLINE PLUS 0808 800 2222
SUFFOLK FAMILES 0845 60 800 33
How do you know your answers; apart from your knowledge of their ‘brand’ or a clue in their names?
How much information is derived from the ‘heading’ which these names are clustered under?
Now which one of these agencies would you go to for advice on:
Which one of these agencies can you drop in to?
Obviously a mere list can’t tell you all that, so how long would it take to call them to answer these questions? What if you haven’t lived in the UK for very long or English is not your first language?
What resources or capacity would you need to have to get the answers to these questions?
So here’s my beef: I consider that publishing directories of resources in a list format are, in the main, hardly useful at all. The more information that a list must have for clarity, the denser and more complex they are so consequently less useful as a list.
A great number of Third Sector organisations are producing directories to other resources expecting that users of these directories will know what they are looking for. Ask yourself again of the list following; what do all of these services here actually do? How do you know? If you don’t, how do you find out?
When you look in the Yellow Pages® for a plumber, you know it’s a plumber you want. You know a plumber is the solution to a leaking pipe.
But with most social care needs, the ‘consumer’ doesn’t know what the solutions to their needs are and providing that advice to its consumers is very expensive, even if done with volunteers.
Before anyone tells me the web is the answer, you can try asking the NHS website for ‘care respite funds’; with a IP17 postcode you will get 2261 answers as a list, which then have to be sifted. I won’t go into how many of those responses will be inapproptiate nor actually exist but in my mapping I located evidence of less than ten actually available in the same area.
I found when I went visiting GP surgeries and libraries to audit the evidence of service provision that in leaflets and posters (many were well out of date) that services are often very poor at describing themselves. Perhaps they are phobic to commitment in case their remit has to change, so many depend on uncertain funding. A typical example would be:
“We offer a range of flexible and person centred social care supports across Suffolk to vulnerable adults and their carers. Support is focussed on maximising people's independence, promoting progression, providing effective communication and encouraging self-help....”
Apart from the clues it’s for vulnerable adults in Suffolk, I have to ask what is it they actually do? How is it delivered? How is it accessed? Does it cost anything and all the other questions that a user perhaps doesn’t realise they need to ask?
The Third Sector needs to publish such information in formats that are compatible across print and digital media so that users don’t find it such a “struggle” when they need information on services, often at the very time they are least able to access it. This was a finding of The Information Game report commissioned by Suffolk County Council. http://www.researchingpeople.org.uk/projects/entry/the-information-game
So here’s the pitch then: I think I have found a way of publishing information that allows the user to direct themselves to the right resources, with or without guidance, by something they can read as a poster in a library or the doctors’ waiting room or village hall, or that can be carried in a pocket like a walking map and accessed without an internet connection but is also compatible with the web and it may well be compatible with audio menu navigation.
When looking on a website or browsing a leaflet rack in the library, if you don’t know what to look for, the vast choice of headings which users have to look under to find what they want is overwhelming. On the other hand, if information is in a hierarchical tree, users don’t have to read every heading to find what they need but just the heading adjacent to see if they’re going in the right direction.
So that same list of parent helplines can be shown like this:
I haven’t yet found any examples of such graphical referral maps in the field that direct users by need to appropriate agencies and so I have to ask, if it they are so easy to make, why not?
By experimenting with making maps of resources for different needs, I found that an ordinary person can use my technique to rapidly make maps of local services with this structured information and they can become local ‘active referral’ agents for a great variety of services. It is also an excellent tool for managing community projects and the auditing of local provision. Like a cartographic map, these referral maps will provide clear comparisons of resources between one place and another. That capacity and improving passive and active referral methods surely will interest the Third Sector? So rather than just aiming for those who refer people to resources, I posit this method is essential for those who strive to develop and those who commission the resources too.
While my method works well on its own, its usefulness increases exponentially if you use a standardised hierarchical taxonomy to group services in categories, at least initially, to structure maps so that the Citizens Advice Bureau would ideally first fall under ‘advice agencies’ and not say medical services. If every map was created with the same taxonomy rules, their production would be faster, even automated, and every map is compatible and comparable with another (just try combining two different cartographic maps of the same place with different scales and colour and symbol conventions).
I thought there were not any such taxonomies used in the UK so I first began to develop my own. I won’t burden you with a detailed description of its rules or structure; I hope the illustration following is sufficient. With this method I have been able to render the wide range of social care, youth, education, employment and community development resources across Suffolk into coherent maps according to the location of the consumer.
While they are ideal for steering a map author in deciding what category a service belongs too, they are not quite what I hope for as they are really ‘controlled vocabularies’ in which a defined term has a unique number which computers can understand to present lists but these numbers aren’t useful to human librarians, unlike the Dewey decimal system. The IPSV has a structure of categories and sub-categories but that structure is not inherent in the numbers assigned to defined terms. If you use a single IPSV number out of its context, you have no clues where it belongs or what it means but with Dewey, each subsequent digit of its number is a sub-category of the previous. Librarians only need to look at the spine of a book to predict where some others roughly on its topic might be found. Using IPSV numbers by themselves to file things is the equivalent of dropping the typesetters’ tray; the contents cannot be sorted manually without painstaking work. I expect this is why the SCIE has created its own decimal system for classifying services and topics in social work.
In the USA, the most commonly used service referral structure is the AIRS 211 taxonomy www.211taxonomy.org I don’t advocate simply adopting it for the United Kingdom but it is the best that I know of. It would require a central government decision to create national service description taxonomy and it would be sensible to make it compatible with AIRS 211 so that UK specific terms could be mapped to the US counterpart, if they existed. With a decimal agreed system in use, we could then encourage Third Sector organisations to publish a service category number on their literature, which would earn eternal thanks from county librarians, GP practise managers and thousands of other ‘active’ referrers and resource mapmakers. We might even think about using the classification numbers within funding proposals and outcome reports so we can compare apples with apples from one place to another.
In summary it’s very hard to make claims in the abstract about the usefulness of such referral trees unless people have actually tried it. But when I have invited users to race a printed map against internet resources to accurately locate services in the same place, the users of the paper map will beat them consistently.
Now what I’d like to know is has anyone done this before? Why don’t we have something like the AIRS 211 taxonomy in the UK and why don’t organisations publish more useable referral maps instead of directories? I expect readers will know and I welcome your advice and discourse.
Nat Bocking MA MCE