Mass VetsAdvisor: Unlocking Access to Veterans’ Benefits Information


“Returning to civilian life is challenging,” said Kyle Toto, a U.S. Army veteran who worked with Massachusetts Broadband Institute on the project. “When I came home from Afghanistan I wanted to spend time with friends and family and not have to search endlessly for my benefits. MassVetsAdvisor allows veterans and their families to search for their benefits from the comfort of their homes and on their own time.”

For the past year BYO has been working on a project for the Massachusetts Broadband Institute to design the requirements for a website that would meet the online needs of veterans. Instead of looking at the coolest toys on the market and designing a flashy site, we went into the field, talking with the most marginalized groups of veterans to identify their core needs, and designed a product that would meet them. Check out our presentation on the human-centered design process we used to create the concept.

1. How does this project make the world a better place?

The biggest frustrations that our end-users felt was the presence of empty jargon that they couldn’t understand, the large quantity of data they had to search through before finding benefits they were interested in, the uncertainty around eligibility for the benefits they found, and their overall reliance on other people to research, recommend, and relay information about benefits to them. The Mass VetsAdvisor was designed to transform this experience for our users:

How accessing information about benefits services online will change

However, all of these issues relate to a larger challenge present in many sectors of government. Agencies across all policy areas create unstructured documents that are unreadable by both humans and machines.

In the case of veterans benefits, eligibility rules are complicated and are dependent on a variety of inputs (age, educational status, time served, discharge status, marital status, employment and financial status, etc). Each benefit requires a different combination of inputs, which is often difficult for individuals to understand.

“Releasing benefits eligibility rules in unstructured documents creates a negative externality whose cost is borne by the end-user.  The Massachusetts VetsAdvisor directly solves this problem by taking unstructured documents and turning them into machine readable data, reducing the time veterans and their caretakers must spend deciphering complicated jargon-laden text.”

2) Who is the intended audience?

Our goal with this project was to create an application that met the needs of its users. And we think we did that through untangling the information about benefits. However, there is much work to be done in terms changing the way that policies are published, and we need policy-makers and technologists at all levels of government to help us create this change.  Policy-makers, journalists and others who have the potential to influence the way that policies are published.

3) How can our readers extend the impact of this project?

We need and want government agencies to publish information in ways that can be read by machines (and humans!), providing more value to the end user. The U.S. House has already made big steps forward in requiring that all legislation and committee documents be published in XML formats (see, but there is still room for improvement in making sure that the actual content and rules embedded in regulations at the federal, state and local level are readable as well. When eligibility rules are published in machine readable it is much easier for innovators (both within and outside of government) to create tools that interpret the rules for humans, reducing the cost to the end user and hopefully resulting in a greater uptake of benefits.

Want more info? See the below resources.

Categories : BYO  People  gov20

Improving Engagement by Understanding People


I’ve been studying and/or working in government and technology (“gov20) since 2007. My original interest in the field was around improving the efficiency and effectiveness of governance. The idea was that if we had better data and information about our work, engaged with the people our policies were designed to impact, and used the best technologies to manage the process, that we could create better government. I still carry this fundamental believe, and over the last few years have had the privilege of working on a variety of different technology and engagement projects with nonprofits and government institutions as well as studying how the best practices in the field from an academic perspective.

Much of the work to date has focused on pushing the use of technology to further engagement, improve the delivery of services and information, and help organizations meet their goals and missions.

In my experience, it is important to think about several layers when designing gov/tech/engagement projects:

I. Ecosystem

Although there is currently some question around the federal commitment to open government, we are pretty good at creating an ecosystem that encourages engagement. From the Open Government Directive released in 2009, to Mayors across America experimenting with and pushing engagement, to the newly formed Open Government Partnership, we have leadership at high levels expressing the importance of open governance. We also have a robust system of contractors, journalists, advocates, an citizens pushing us in the right direction.

II. Organizations

I think we also understand that it is critical to get the entire organization involved – its not just about the PR or tech shops; for engagement to work there have to be feedback loops that are integrated into the fabric of the organization.

III. Projects

Projects themselves have also become much better aligned with important goals, and are structured to create productive products.

IV. People

However, I still think that we can much improve our understanding of people – how they want to engage (i.e. in-person town halls, online, via mobile, or some combination thereof), what they actually need and expect from their interactions with organizations, and what will motivate them to participate in meaningful and sustained ways.

In developing engaging projects it is important to understand the deep motivations and interests of specific communities as well as the overriding motivations and interests that appear over and over again.

In fact, a lot of my client work focuses on understanding the specific groups with whom agencies want to engage with. The tools we use can range from surveys, individual interviews, focus groups, data analysis, and ethnography, and work really well in terms of understanding specific groups of people in a really deep way, ensuring that we are engaging equitably in ways that excited, motivates, and delights them.

Outside of my client work its super important to spend time thinking about and studying the research around engagement to ensure that my thinking is fresh around how to best captivate audiences.

Experience Hacking Salon (#exhack)

That’s why I started the Experience Hacking Salon.

ExHack Salon an opportunity for folks to get together for dinner once a month and discuss research findings in the fields of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, behavioral economics, linguistics, ethnography, and sociology to design better and more engaging experiences for our communities, constituents, and customers. We know so much more than we ever have about what motivates, captivates, and excites people from a scientific perspective, and we should use that knowledge to design better experiences and interactions for the people we want to engage.

The goal of the salon is to dig into this research in a fun and productive way, figuring out how to  apply this research in ways that makes our projects more impactful.

We get together with a small group of people once a month for discussions, and beer // wine // soda // pizza. The only requirement is to read the materials distributed ahead of time, and come ready to discuss them with the group. Social policy makers, product developers, technology strategists, politicians, business owners, consultants, and game designers are encouraged to join.

Anyone can sign-up, but sessions are limited to a small group to promote deep conversation. Our goal is to be inclusive, yet intimate.

Our first meetup focused on Game Design, and we had a fascinating discussion about the power of game mechanics, which was a perfect first topic because it reaches across so many diverse fields. We are narrowing in a bit for our next Salon (August 11th @ 7pm) when we focus on the concept of flow (

We’re organizing via meetup and hope to see you soon:

Categories : BYO  People  gov20
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Guest Post: President Barack Obama Twitter Townhall


Starting two hours before the Twitter Town Hall with President Barack Obama I followed the #AskObama trends on Twitter to see the type of questions they would be asking. There were various types of questions, some hostile, others serious, and more or less comical ones. It seems like of the tweets that were posted are a reflection of the current political climate.

I’d say 20% were  substantive:
@brucelesley: Child poverty in the U.S. is approaching 25%. What is our nation doing to address this national crisis? #AskObama

20% were slanderous and inflammatory:
@southsalem: Who gave you the Mao Xmas ornament: Marshall Davis, Bill Ayers, Reverend Wright, Tony Rezko, Rashid Khalidi, VanJones? #AskObama
@anabeavenhauser: WWMD….What would Mohammad do? #askobama.

Although these comments did add a hostile feel to the monitoring of the incoming tweets they did not loom over the finished product of the actual Town Hall, and there were some substantive questions.

60% were somewhere in-between, and relatively harmless (if not funny ;-) )
@drbrown_bear: Mac or PC??? #AskObama.

@Kaore: Will you insist the Dems NOT cave to GOP hostage taking? Why do we CONSTANTLY insist on bipartisanship when they don’t want it? #askobama

Only seventeen out of what I can only assume were hundreds of thousand of questions were answered live on with Twitter founder, Jack Dorsey as moderator. My Tweetdeck was very chaotic and once the Q&A began I had to turn it off because questions were flying so quickly that it was impossible to read them fast enough. Truly, overwhelming.

I thought President Obama gave detailed, thoughtful answers to all of the questions he was asked, and overall I feel that it was a very powerful and insightful Town Hall. At this moment there are still questions flying on the #AskObama hashtag. It was an example of the all inclusiveness mentioned in previous posts (See Phil Ting Interview) that makes government transparency efficient and important. As Tweeter, jeremyt1982 said, “I think this #AskObama stream is really going to take off…”

The questions selected are listed below (as re-tweeted by @TownHall)

To watch the replay of the Obama Town Hall click here

@ModeledBehavior Modeled Behavior
So will you raise taxes on the middle class at least to W Bush levels@askObama @townhall

pedsnursemarcia marcia schneider

@AssignmentDesk1 #AskObama Public Edu here in CA falling apart. Not grad enough skilled workers or smart citizens. Privitization looming?

flynnbw Brendan W. Flynn

@WhiteHouse We definitely need to get more vets into jobs. But when are we going to support the troops by cutting oil dependence? #AskObama

Shnaps Shnaps

Is free-market an option? RT @whitehouse: Obama on homeowners underwater: Have made some progress, but+ needed, looking at options #askObama

almorrison88 Lane Morrison

#askobama What changes to the tax system do you think are necessary to help solve the deficit problem and for the system to be fair?

NickKristof Nicholas Kristof

#AskObama Was it a mistake to fail to get Republicans to commit to raise the debt ceiling, at the same time tax cuts were extended?

craigoc34 Craigoc

@whitehouse @townhall My question is can you give companies a tax break if they hire a Honorable discharged Veteran?

nealhannon Neal Hannon

Small biz create jobs. What incentives are you willing to support to improve small biz growth? #AskObama

johnboehner John Boehner

After embarking on a record spending binge that’s left us deeper in debt, where are the jobs? #AskObama

robinmarty robinmarty

@Kara_McGuire How will admin work to help underwater homeowners who aren’t behind in payments but are trapped in homes they can’t sell?

pmglynn Patrick Glynn

Mr. President, In several states we have seen people lose their collective bargaining rights. Do you have a plan to rectify this? #AskObama

awg9988 Allison Good

@KimQuillenTP Will you focus on promoting alternative energy industries in oil states like Louisiana and Texas? #townhall

ensina Sina

Immigrant entrepreneurs can build companies and create jobs for US workers. Will you support a startup visa program? #askobama

_RenegadeNerd_ Dexter Smith
#AskObama Mr. President, will you issue an executive order to raise the debt ceiling pursuant to section 4 of the 14th amendment?

dwhite105 Dustin White

Higher ed. is necessary for a stronger economy, but for some middle class Americans it’s becoming too expensive. What can be done? #askobama

dmscott David Meerman Scott

#AskObama Tech & knowledge industries are thriving, yet jobs discussion always centers on manufacturing. Why not be realistic about jobs?

conblog William Smith
@DrewHampshire: What mistakes have you made in handling this recession and what would you do differently? #askObama

(Photo by:

Post by Mallory Garrett, BYO ( Summer Intern

MA Veteran and Family Portal RFP


The Massachusetts Broadband Institute just released an RFP to develop and implement the Massachusetts Veterans and Family Portal to help untangle information about benefits and services for veterans and their families in MA.

The MBI has embarked on this project in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services and the Home Base Program, a partnership between the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Awesome important project.

The RFP can be found here:

Categories : BYO  gov20
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Interview with Phil Ting: Openness in Elections and Government


While in San Fransisco last month I had the pleasure of interviewing San Fransisco Mayoral Candidate and Harvard Kennedy School alum Phil Ting. We talked all things gov20, and had a fascinating conversation about his campaign, life working in SF government, and his thoughts around what public policy students need to learn to be leaders in a networked world.

Phil Ting is running a transparent campaign, and is focusing his efforts on engaging San Franciscans through Reset San Francisco, an online forum designed to give people opportunities to interact with each other and their elected officials to discuss the issues they care about. Ting is a gov20 advocate, and understands the challenges and opportunities of large-scale engagement:

“the way we [the government] get feedback is so archaic and has such an inability to process large amounts of information that you can only get feedback from five or ten people…and the other ten thousand people…are shut out of the process. So how do you really open it up to be representative…you have to go get enough people so that you are getting a response that is accurate to the population…I think that is what we are trying to do with Reset San Francisco, is not just get feed back but then say, ‘hey, I can’t do it by myself, I’m just one person … we need people’s help to do it.”

Here is a summary of our conversation (Listen to the full interview here):

1. What are your priorities for this campaign?
Our main priority for this campaign is to change the way the people elect the mayor of San Francisco. Traditionally, politicians cater to interest groups to leverage their power. However, this shuts out the rest of the population.  We want to win this election by empowering individuals and increasing the number of active participants in the campaign from a few hundred to thousands. Our campaign seeks to skip the game playing and go right to the people. By fostering an exchange of  ideas we are helping them become more involved and engaged to make government more transparent and accessible. This is how the idea of Reset San Francisco came about.

2. So what is Reset San Fransisco all about? What is the User Experience like on the platform?
The participant gets a login, picture, and has the option to link it to their Facebook. Members can then go in and read or comment and be a part of the dialogue. In their profile, they can give their name or be anonymous and provide as little or as much information as they wish. This is a safe space to talk about the issues San Franciscans care about.

San Franciscans are able to be a part of the political process and learn about their government, community, and get involved through the following features:
  • Participate in online discussions through message boards and chat rooms

  • Give feedback through surveys and polls

  • Interact with elected officials and neighbors through Offline Community Events

  • Open a profile that has their picture, information, and other information they wish to disclose.

  • Access content in Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese, and English.

  • Link to facebook
  • Obtain information about events, processes, and need-to-know resident information.

3. How do you translate the principles of engagement in your campaign into structures of governance?

Working with the barriers to, not avoid them, but change them and adapt the system to work for the people. I serve as both the head of a governmental department as well as a mayoral candidate. Therefore, I implement change within my division to better serve the community. This is how something is taken from a campaign promise to policy.

4. What challenges do you face in using technology to engage?
In tough financial times, people perceive technology as a luxury rather than part of their core business model. People are also overworked; therefore, the idea of opening something up as more work not less work is a hindrance. There are also people in government who are looking to keep things the same and they don’t like change. Although the Internet eliminates the hindrances of time and location, many people perceive it as promoting less interaction rather then more.

5. What are some interesting things that have come out of Reset San Francisco?
The petitions are extremely successful. We have a solar program in San Fransisco that actually brings in more money than it costs. However, there was a government proposal to cut funding for this program. The Go Solar SF petition was started on Reset SF and received over 700 signatures that led to a rally being held with city workers and environmentalists who demanded that the program be saved. This highlights the power of using online organizing to spur offline behavior.

6. One of the things we thought about a lot at the Kennedy School was the extent of technology training needed for Public Policy students, aspiring to careers in public service. You are a Kennedy School alum and dedicated public servant and are committed to using tech in your work; what do you think HKS students should learn regarding technology?
How to communicate with the public is a vital part of using technology to expand engagement. Communication is not just about giving a speech, but how feedback is processed and used to improve the organization. Good organizations who want to become great take feedback and use it to make things work more effectively.

San Francisco will hold its mayoral election on Tuesday November 8, 2011. Currently, Edwin M. Lee is holding the office of Mayor as a replacement for Gavin Newsom who is now serving as Lieutenant Governor of California (elected 2010). For more information on each candidates open government platform, check out Code for America’s recap on the SFOpen 2011 debate. The current candidates are:

Name Current Position Political Affiliation
Michela Alioto-Pier San Francisco Board of Supervisors Democrat
John Avalos San Francisco Board of Supervisors Democrat
David Chiu San Francisco Board of Supervisors Democrat
Bevan Dufty San Francisco Board of Supervisors Democrat
Tony Hall San Francisco Board of Supervisors
Dennis Herrera San Francisco City Attorney Democrat
Joanna Rees Venture Capitalist Progressive Independent
Phil Ting San Francisco Assessor-Recorder Democrat
Leland Yee California State Senator Democrat