On the 5th May 2021, SICCAR hosted an online workshop to discuss Open Referrals for the voluntary sector. The SICCAR team have been working with CAST, to build a scalable and re-usable tech prototype to support referrals into and within the voluntary sector.

Watch the recording of the session on our YouTube channel.

The session started with discussion of the impact of Open Referral on the voluntary sector by Chris Thorpe, Head of Technology at CAST. Rab Campbell, SICCAR then explained the capability for distributed ledgers, or registers, for third sector organisations to manage their own information. We then heard from Chris Mackie from the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland (the ALLIANCE) about their experience with connecting local authorities and the voluntary sector. Finally, we showed the prototype Open Referral platform and explored the issues with and opportunities for the referral process.

Below is a full summary of the workshop.


Firstly, Chris Thorpe provided some background and purpose to the Open Referral project:

The purpose of this project was to try and understand how best to support vulnerable people and how best for organisations to refer vulnerable people to different service providers like the lovely charities in the voluntary sector. As part of the discovery work we realized that publishing this data in an open standard about which charities did what and for which individuals could have a revolutionary effect.

The project then moved on to select an open standard that existed already in the U.S, called open referral, which had created standardized dictionaries and standardized directories of services that local organizations could adopt.

Implementation of Open Referral should mean that charities are better utilised. There is a need from local government to speed this up because their budgets are being restricted. And there is need from central government and the NHS to speed it up because everyone feels that social prescribing is a better way than using lots of medicines, for example.

We know that charities give the very best service for those in need – it’s at the heart of their being. For us to take this step into this world where there is one search index around the services that are available in the UK, we need all charities to get on board and publish with us.


Rab Campbell explained why new technology should be used:

When thinking about the implementation of this data standard, we must discuss registers. Registers have been around for an awful long time, probably as long as government has been around. If you think about registers of deaths and marriages, or parish registers, registers are fairly common. Their purpose is to provide a single source of truth, or a canonical truth. So, registers are not a new thing. At SICCAR, we use modern technologies to create digital registers. This lets people maintain their own data on the register and they can decide who might see that data. In the context of Open Referrals, it gives the third sector body much more control over their information and it takes away the middleman, so that charities don’t have to rely on other bodies to publish or maintain their service information.

Following on from the implementation of an Open Referral standard, this can give way to a more cohesive referral process between the NHS and the third sector. There is a very big issue in the NHS with delayed discharges, and this could be reduced using digital technologies to better utilise the voluntary sector. Our recent work with <the Food Train> describes the impact of better connected care for patients and carers.


Chris Mackie introduced the Alliance, and discussed the learnings from ALISS:

The Alliance is a third sector intermediary organisation which has a membership over three thousand organisations and individuals. ALISS stands for A Local Information System for Scotland, and it’s been around for about 11 years.

ALISS is different in that information is provided by organisations, or individuals from organisations, and we encourage people to take control of their own information and to ensure that it’s kept up to date. We have services listed from anything from the big national charities right down to lunch clubs and food banks. At the last time of counting, we had well over 5000 of these resources listed within the ALISS database – so when we say it’s local it is, but it’s also national as there are organisations that will reach right across the country. But of course, there will be others who are very much a local resource.

Data quality is very much a challenge for us. We have ongoing work to encourage people to take control of their own information and so ensure that its kept up to date. We are interested in the Open Referral standard to help with this, and we’re also interested in open data to ensure that the good work of ALISS is utilised to the best it can be. We have a partnership with NHS 24 which lets them pull service data from ALISS, and we are interested in partnerships. We’re just embarking on a new three-year strategy which includes increasing the amount of data that’s available on ALISS.  We want more people to get involved in this project so that it is a valuable information resource in Scotland.

In the second half of the event, we went on to show the prototype of the Open Referral platform.


This first screenshot shows the search page for services on the platform. As well as standardised search terms, there is a playlist section where your saved services, i.e., those you may utilise more, are displayed.

The second screenshot showcases how a specific service is displayed. As well as displaying the service information, the page shows the location and availability of the service, and other services that organisation may offer. If any of this information was sensitive, it could be easily hidden.

The final section of the event included some audience participation. We were able to validate the findings from our initial research; focused on the main issues with and opportunities for referrals.

These results provide some good insight as the Open Referral project progresses. It highlights the areas of focus for the platform and should help to produce a solution which streamlines referrals to and within the third sector.

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