NC counties build services portal

A group of government agencies in North Carolina has developed a Web portal that offers young people and seniors the opportunity to learn about the social services available to them in six counties in the state's Piedmont region.

The Northwest Piedmont Council of Governments created the portal (www.accesspiedmont.com) to make it easier for teenagers and senior citizens to find help easily and confidentially.

Especially for teens, confidentiality is a concern, said Theresa Reynolds, executive director of the council's Workforce Development Board.

Visitors to the Web portal select the site they want to search, either "youth" or "seniors," and enter a keyword. The search engine returns a menu of available services. A search on pregnancy, for example, provides links to information on pregnancy counseling, shelters and health-related topics.

Although social services information was already available through a variety of resources — whether for pregnant teens, runaways or young people with substance abuse problems — it always came with a catch.

"They could ask an adult for information, or they could go to a library to look it up," Reynolds said. "But often you had to reveal something about yourself to obtain information."

The council will also make the portal information available through touch-screen kiosks at malls, schools and other locations teens frequent.

The kiosks could also help seniors who do not have computers at home or who are not comfortable using them, she said. The group designed the Web portal with large fonts, familiar icons and colors that are readable by people with eyesight problems.

Web visitors can search for services in their own counties or across all counties. That was a practical decision, given the mobility of the population, Reynolds said. Each county offers a variety of services for residents, but "when [people] need services, they don't really honor those county lines," she added.

Council leaders recognized the need for a regional database several years ago and originally thought about setting up a call center where people could request information and referrals.

Eventually, they realized that a Web portal would be more user-friendly and would not require "the time and salary of a professional manning the phone," Reynolds said.

The portal is online now, but the council does not plan to formally launch the project until February. Until then, officials will test the portal to make sure the information is accurate and will set up the kiosks, Reynolds said.

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