North Light Software … nearly two decades of software innovation.
By 1994, most human service reformers agreed on the problem: our human service system was fragmented. It was neither well coordinated nor locally responsive—and from the point of view of ordinary citizens, it was anything but empowering.
We also agreed on solutions. Foundations, states, and counties funded new initiatives. Their goal: to build integrated, locally responsive, empowering delivery systems. Computer technology was exploding, putting ever more sophisticated multimedia tools in the hands of developers; but public access to the Internet was still minimal.
Some of us at North Light had been involved in these reform efforts for nearly a decade. We’d trained front line staff, consulted to management and served on foundation initiative subgroups. Meanwhile, the tech-heads among us were writing robust, sophisticated software applications, primarily for large corporate clients.
Our team’s human service experience gave us broad insight into the problems facing the system, from a national perspective right down to the individual helpline. Our technological expertise was leading edge. What if we brought the two together? What if we applied innovative technology to solving the problems of response and delivery? Could we build tools to empower the public, coordinate service provision and improve the system’s responsiveness?
We decided to give it a try.
Making It Easy to Find Help
We started with the public side. Every family, every person, at some time or another needs help. Nobody makes it alone. So we decided to make it easy for people to find resources without feeling stigmatized—especially those challenged by substance abuse, domestic violence and HIV/AIDS.
North Light’s first prototype was a user-friendly system we called Resource House. Most people who tried it out found it easy to use. Our initial version guided visitors through various virtual “rooms.” In the “Library,” users could find local service information, then save it in their own “room.” For assistance in locating the right services, they could find suggestions in the “Match-Making Room.” In the “Biography Room,” users could create a personal record, then initiate the intake process via the “Communication” room.
We took our prototype on a road trip, visiting all the federal, state and local nonprofit agencies we knew. We made presentations at foundations. What did they think of this idea? What other capabilities would they like to see incorporated into the vision, into the tools? Vice-President Gore’s Reinventing Government group graciously convened a meeting for us in Washington, D.C., well attended by officials from Agriculture, Labor, DHHS, the Post Office and many other departments. Everyone liked Resource House. Keep going, they urged.
A Better Solution for the Public and Providers
In 1995, North Light won an RFP from the State of Illinois to build a statewide Information and Referral system. We began to create the professional back end of the system: components for resource database management, client and caregiver tracking, directories, and reporting and evaluation. Thirteen years later, Resource House systems have been implemented in fourteen states, 800 counties and over 250 helplines across the USA.
Meanwhile, we’ve continued to pioneer creative solutions. Web-based chat, XML technology, PDA compatibility and online decision tools are just some North Light innovations that are fast becoming industry standards. We’re not resting on our laurels, though. North Light is constantly looking for new ways to improve human service delivery through forward-looking technology.
A Human-Centered Business Model
North Light’s business model also breaks new ground. Our relationship with each user is a partnership: collaborative and interactive. When large state departments co-invest in major system enhancements—as they frequently do—all North Light customers, large or small, may take advantage of these at no additional charge. It’s all part of our service agreement. We discuss design and development with our customers through regular joint design sessions and North Light Connection: a 24/7 two-way portal to everything from mock-ups and wireframes to collaborative enhancements. We discuss business and marketing decisions together, too—both ours and theirs.
Through it all, North Light remains focused on our mission: making it easy for people to get to help, and supporting helping professionals in meeting their challenges with ease and efficiency.