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Making accessibility the ‘ethos’ of Baltimore’s social services network

How the Baltimore City Health Department partnered with SmartLogic to improve search and usability on its CHARMCare site.

A CHARMcare search result page. (Screenshot)

This article is sponsored by SmartLogic and was reviewed before publication. SmartLogic is a Talent Pro client.

If you’re at Baltimore City Hall and need to access mental health treatment, there are three facilities within a one-mile radius, according to CHARMCare. Seeking transportation to help you get to your destination? CHARMCare can help you find that, as well.

CHARMCare is an open-source directory that guides users to free or low-cost resources in Baltimore. The site is a custom-designed search engine for Baltimore social services that includes info on emergency help, education, food access, employment and legal assistance organizations. Its results can be filtered by proximity and keywords, and a built-in Google Translate function makes the website accessible to a broader group of non-English speakers.

The Baltimore City Health Department (BCHD) originally launched CHARMCare about five years ago. Baltimore custom software firm SmartLogic began working on CHARMCare in December 2019; previously, teams at Code for America and fellow Baltimore dev firm Fearless worked on the project.

As a partner, SmartLogic has skillfully balanced the technical and community needs of CHARMCare, said Mike Fried, BCHD’s chief information officer.

“We have a strong commitment at the health department to being innovative, being open, being data-driven, but also a commitment to working with local partners,” Fried said. “SmartLogic has been a fantastic partnership because I think they really embody what’s best about the Baltimore technology ecosystem, where they have just incredible depth and technical strength and are able to be incredibly agile and responsive.”

Justus Eapen has been the lead Ruby on Rails developer on CHARMCare since SmartLogic began working on the project. He said it was quickly apparent that the project’s search feature needed to be enhanced.

Specifically, the team had its eyes set on integrating Elasticsearch into CHARMCare.

SmartLogic has been a fantastic partnership because I think they really embody what’s best about the Baltimore technology ecosystem.

“It makes it a lot easier to do complicated search features at a very high degree of performance, and it’s much easier to do big things with Elasticsearch than it is to do with writing raw PostgreSQL queries,” Eapen said.

The increased reliance on social services during the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the importance of SmartLogic’s ability to quickly translate user needs into technical fixes for CHARMCare. One search feature that SmartLogic incorporated was specifying a particular resource as COVID-19-related and then prioritizing it in the order of the results for users, Eapen said.

Anna Dorigo said she didn’t know anything about Elasticsearch before joining SmartLogic in September 2020. As the newest dev on the CHARMCare team, she didn’t hesitate to learn the intricacies of the open search and analytics tool, broadening her skill set.

“The good thing about the internet is that you can find information about everything, so I found very good tutorials on YouTube and also on the Elasticsearch website, you can find a lot of tools to play with,” Dorigo said. She also used online databases to test certain features of Elasticsearch, like results order and the inverted indexing of text.

Dorigo and Eapen’s contribution to enhancing the search function was essential since it eradicated undesirable results cropping up for users, said Craig Mertan, product designer at SmartLogic.

Other changes included UI updates, cleaning up the homepage and the search-by-distance tool that Eapen spearheaded, per Mertan. Separate from CHARMCare’s front-end UI code that serves constituents, the site has an admin-facing interface where community stakeholders add information about their services.

SmartLogic will continue to develop all aspects of CHARMCare into a sleeker and more user-friendly project, Mertan said.

“We need to keep moving forward with CHARMCare and we need to keep re-iterating it, making it better,” Mertan added. “And that’s never really done.”

That’s what jazzes me about this project, that it serves my fellow citizens.

Looking back on CHARMCare’s progression, Mertan applauded Eapen’s expertise and Dorigo’s dedication to learning Elasticsearch. Eapen similarly complimented Mertan on his project management and communication skills, and Dorigo said the company’s support was essential for her to effectively learn a new skill. The collaboration is apparent within SmartLogic’s ranks, allowing them to approach the project as a unit.

But how does the team prioritize what to work on next? CHARMCare hosts website analytic tool Hotjar on its site to track user satisfaction. BCHD is also getting “constant feedback” from people on the front lines of Baltimore’s social services, Fried said.

Over the past year, CHARMCare has “shifted a little bit from that upfront design of ‘What is it that we want to do in the world?’ to QA and ongoing improvement, which is really where we want this to be,” he added. “We want this [project] to be part of the ethos of this ecosystem.”

Expanding the reach of Baltimore’s social services is one of the most exciting aspects of CHARMCare for the SmartLogic team, Eapen said.

“That’s what jazzes me about this project, that it serves my fellow citizens, and so I really just hope that we continue to focus on providing value to the end-user, to the constituent, to the social workers that use the back end,” Eapen said.

Learn more about the services SmartLogic offers
Companies: SmartLogic / City of Baltimore
People: Craig Mertan

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