Taxonomy: A Vital Building Block for 211 in Canada
Information and Referral (I&R), the process of "bringing people and services together," has a
long and valuable history of service delivery by nonprofit organizations in many Canadian
communities. 211 is the three-digit number assigned in 2001 by the Canadian Radio-television
and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to enhance access by residents throughout the
country to the community services they need.
The National 211 Project Charter states as the mission of 211 in Canada "to effectively connect
people with the appropriate information and services, enhance Canada's social infrastructure and
enable people to fully engage in their communities." The success of 211 on a national scale
depends on its ability to provide – seamlessly – consistent, reliable and yet locally relevant
information about human services in communities with diverse needs across Canada.
A bilingual pan-Canadian taxonomy of human services is one of the many standards vital to the
infrastructure required to deliver 211. The first goal of taxonomy is to organize human services
knowledge so that I&R specialists answering 211 inquiries can identify appropriate services for
callers. However, taxonomy is also a linchpin in the vision to make 211 interoperable with other
I&R programs and generate valuable data about the system of human services for social planners.
This paper is intended for all stakeholders in 211. It provides the background required to
understand the importance of a bilingual pan-Canadian taxonomy to 211 and proposes a 4-step
Background: 211 and Information Management
Standards-Driven Resource Databases
In Toronto, the first city in Canada to offer 211, information and referral (I&R) specialists answer
a thousand calls a day from individuals, families and service providers looking for services
ranging from child care to support for seniors. With 20,000 services to choose from in the city, it
can be a challenge to identify the most appropriate service.
The challenge will only grow as other communities across Canada launch 211. Citizens will
expect the same high quality of service no matter where they are. They may also expect, quite
reasonably, to call 211 in Edmonton or Moncton and be able to access information about services
in Toronto on behalf of a relative or client. Unlike many information lines, however, 211 will not
be a single, centralized call centre. The 211 service will be coordinated centrally but delivered by
licensed, community-based organizations that are in touch with and knowledgeable about human
services in their region.
The resource database is one of the primary tools used by 211 to ensure quality from one provider
to the next. The database contains accurate and up-to-date information about community and
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government organizations, the services they provide and the conditions under which the services
are available. Each 211 service provider must have access to a database that is locally maintained
by resource specialists according to the Standards for Professional Information and Referral set
by the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems (AIRS). The Standards require a written
policy of inclusion/exclusion criteria, a standardized profile for each organization, consistent
indexing and procedures for keeping the database up to date.
Benefits for I&R Systems and Social Planning
Standards-driven resource databases are essential to providing seamless access to information
across the country. Parallel in scope and structure, local databases can be integrated, making it
possible for I&R specialists in Edmonton and Toronto to look up “bereavement counseling” in
either city and know they are accessing the same type of service. The databases can also
interoperate with systems other than 211, so that government and specialized I&R programs (e.g.,
311 municipal services, disaster response systems, health care) can tap into the information
without duplicating efforts.
Beyond supporting service delivery, standardized databases are a valuable source for social
planners. The databases can be mined, for example, for information about the availability of types
of services and their geographic distribution. The information can be further enhanced by cross-
referencing it with census data (e.g., income level, languages spoken) and other data collected by
211 (e.g., referrals made, unmet needs). While this information already feeds into social planning
in individual communities, its potential value is much greater if it were to be shared across
Canada or even North America.
Planning for a 211 Taxonomy of Human Services
211 can enable this vision quite simply, by requiring any organization providing the service to use
common data standards. There are some challenges, however. For the most part, the AIRS
Standards are at a very high level. Canadians are engaged in developing more detailed
supplements to the Standards, but additional work will still be required to address issues specific
The task requiring perhaps the most work – and also the one most important to
interoperability and data mining – is adopting a common language for indexing types of
services and target populations. In March 2004, InformCanada (the national association of I&R
providers partnering with the United Way of Canada to implement 211) took a significant step
towards setting this standard when it accepted a taskforce recommendation “to pursue funding to
develop, implement and maintain a Canadian edition of the AIRS/INFO LINE Taxonomy of
Human Services, the necessary work to be done in conjunction with INFO LINE Los Angeles.”
The recommendation was based in part on a survey of 152 I&R service providers across Canada.
Eighty per cent of the 48 respondents said they would be willing to conform to a nationally
accepted system, provided certain barriers were overcome (notably, lack of pan-Canadian and
French-language terminology and resources to support the transition).
What is Taxonomy?
As explained above, taxonomy is only one part of a system of standards required to deliver the
211 service and extend its benefits to social planners. Within that system, taxonomy is one of
several common languages or “controlled vocabularies” used to index information in the resource
database. Taxonomy defines each type of service and target population and assigns it a term.
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Taxonomy arranges terms in a hierarchy, so that I&R specialists can “drill down” from broad
categories to specific services. It also points to related concepts outside of the hierarchy and
anticipates variations in language.
A caller thinks he may have high blood sugar. The I&R specialist looks in
the database under “Health Care” and drills down through the category
“Health Screening/Diagnostic Services” until she finds “Diabetes
Screening.” She may also search the database for “blood sugar” and will
find “Blood Sugar Screening”, linking to “Diabetes Screening”. A taxonomy
ensures she finds “Diabetes Screening” and also suggests she look for
related services such as “Diabetes Management.”
It is important to understand that taxonomy is not a type of computer software but a set of
instructions that tells software how to store and retrieve information about human services. As a
standard, taxonomy can be used with any software that is programmed to accept it.
Why the AIRS/INFO LINE Taxonomy?
First published in 1987 for use in Los Angeles County, the AIRS/INFO LINE Taxonomy of
Human Services was quickly recognized as a tool that could be adapted for use in other areas. In
2004, 445 organizations subscribe to the Taxonomy, including 15 in Canada. It has been endorsed
or recognized by AIRS, the United Way of America, the National Association of State Units on
Aging and the Public Library Association.
The Taxonomy is more than just another indexing tool. While most tools provide brief scope
notes to help indexers choose the appropriate term, the Taxonomy fully describes each term and
gives details about the context in which the type of service is provided. This thoroughness has
reduced confusion about what each service offers and has helped to pinpoint duplication or gaps
in programming. Consequently, the Taxonomy is useful not only to I&R services but also to
social planners and funding bodies when allocating resources.
Before recommending that Indexing Tools Used in Canada
resources be invested in InformCanada Taskforce Survey, August 2003
developing a fully Canadian, 4%
bilingual edition of the 11% InformOntario
Taxonomy, however, the Thesaurus
InformCanada taskforce needed
to consider another tool, already
used by the majority of I&R 18%
services in Canada – the Other (in-house)
Association of Community
Information Centres in Ontario 67% Other (standard)
and Referral Thesaurus.
The taskforce evaluated both tools and selected the Taxonomy based on the following strengths:
Six times more terms (6,300 v 1,300) cover a wider range of human services
More precise terms and detailed descriptions allow more precise and consistent indexing
Hierarchical structure facilitates data sharing and statistical comparison
Work already done by InformCalgary and other Canadian Taxonomy users can be leveraged
Taxonomy: A Vital Building Block for 211 in Canada 3 of 6
New Spanish-language module in development can provide template for French
Training, maintenance and support procedures already established and can be adapted
Updates and resource materials soon to be available online at www.211taxonomy.org
INFO LINE willing, in principle, to integrate and support Canadian module
The Taxonomy is compliant with ISO standards for development of monolingual thesauri;
work on the French version for Canadian users will be done to ISO standards for multilingual
In comparison, the Thesaurus, despite being a bilingual tool from Ontario, would still require
significant work to fully Canadianize it in both languages. The Thesaurus has also not been
updated since 1996, except in an ad hoc fashion by individual I&R services. The Thesaurus
remains, however, an important reference tool for the Taxonomy.
Since the taskforce made its report, another key reference tool has been identified. The bilingual
Government of Canada Core Subject Thesaurus (CST), maintained by Communication Canada,
is the primary tool used to index federal government publications. The CST does not cover
human services in depth or describe services, but its choice of Canadian terms in English and
French for categories such as “Society and Culture” can provide guidance.
Developing a Bilingual Taxonomy
For the Taxonomy to succeed as a bilingual, pan-Canadian standard, the work on English and
French terms needs to happen in parallel. This approach is not only equitable – it reflects the
taxonomy construction process. English and French terms may not always be truly equivalent in
meaning, and services may be delivered in distinct ways in French and English Canada. Regional
differences within both English- and French-speaking communities also must be reflected.
Moving to the Taxonomy
Moving I&R service providers to the Taxonomy would occur in four phases:
Development Phase 3:
Oct 2004 Feb 2005
The planning phase is currently underway. The goal of this phase is to scope out the work
required to support the transition. It involves developing:
An interim administrative structure, including a full-time bilingual managing editor,
volunteer English- and French-language working groups on vocabulary development and
technology planning and broader advisory groups.
A strategy for start-up as well as sustainable funding, with defined priorities and a
schedule, based on models for similar tools and opportunities such as current I&R projects;
funding from government, foundations and professional associations; sector interests; and
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A Memorandum of Understanding outlining intellectual property rights with
AIRS/INFO LINE on behalf of InformCanada and InformOntario. This step involves setting
up a negotiating team and researching similar agreements. The MOU will follow a letter of
intent recently sent by InformCanada to INFO LINE. The negotiation process may extend
beyond this phase.
A technology and data transition plan that assesses the readiness of I&R software
providers to accept a Canadian Taxonomy and the support required to do so. This step will
also establish procedures for converting data indexed with the Thesaurus and other
An estimate of the time and resources required to develop a Canadian Taxonomy in
English and French. The estimate will be based on a high-level review of categories in the
AIRS/INFO LINE Taxonomy and the completion of two sample sections: BM Material Goods
and ND Employment. This step also involves collating other vocabularies in use and
identifying areas where subject matter expertise and collaboration with government are
A communications plan that identifies key messages and stakeholders, and sets a
communications schedule. This step also involves enhancing online collaboration tools to
support editorial and review work.
A training, maintenance and support plan that identifies the training needs of various
users, including resource specialists, I&R specialists, human services professionals and public
users. The plan will also estimate resources required to maintain the Taxonomy and support
The planning phase will culminate in a project proposal for phases 2-4, with detailed budget and
work plan. The completion of the work is contingent on securing adequate financial support.
The scope of this project and its importance to 211 mean it will affect many different
stakeholders. Make sure your organization is involved in the process:
I&R service providers – nominate resource specialists to participate on an editorial working
group or broader advisory committee that will develop and review vocabulary for the Taxonomy.
Candidates will be selected based on their knowledge of indexing as well as regional and subject
Government and service coordinating organizations – identify representatives who can help
develop and review vocabulary for specific types of human services or target populations.
I&R software providers – identify representatives who can help develop a technology and data
transition plan. Include decision makers, resource specialists and technical experts.
Government, foundation and corporate sponsors – consider how your programs can support a
standard vital to connecting Canadians with the right services – and to ensuring those services are
in place and part of a synchronized system.
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For general information about 211 in Canada, including its implementation, governance and
minimum operating standards, see the 211 Canada Project Charter.
InformCanada. March 2004. Final Report of the Taskforce on a Canadian Classification System.
Alliance of Information & Referral Systems. October 2002. Standards for Professional
Information & Referral, 4th ed. http://www.airs.org/downloads/NewStandardsforweb10-02.pdf
Alliance of Information & Referral Systems. October 2001. Criteria for the Full Installation of the
AIRS/INFO LINE Taxonomy in an I&R Software Package.
AIRS/INFO LINE Taxonomy support website (under development).
Government of Canada Core Subject Thesaurus.
To get involved or for further information, contact:
Deborah Woods, InformCanada Taskforce Chair
13 Pemberton Lane
Shanty Bay, ON L9L 2L0
Margaret Williams, InformCanada Taskforce Member
462 Glenlake Avenue
Toronto, ON M6P 1G8
This report can be accessed at www.211.ca.
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