Rebuilding ACCESS NYC with Blue State Digital

It’s not always easy to figure out which government benefit programs you qualify for—information and ease of use are key barriers for families looking to avail themselves of social services. Alongside our work with New York City on Growing Up NYC, we also partnered with the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity (NYC Opportunity) to rebuild ACCESS NYC, which provides New Yorkers with helpful information and critical resources about the social service benefits and programs available to them.

ACCESS NYC functions as a public online screening platform in which residents answer a brief set of questions to discover whether they’re eligible for food, money, housing, or work benefit programs—and find out how to apply. The eligibility screener accepts dozens of pieces of information, such as a person’s marital status or income, and returns a list of potentially eligible government programs. Some prompts are revealed conditionally based on answers to earlier questions; for example, if a user notes that her household includes a grandparent, she will then be invited to enter that grandparent’s income and expenses.

The redesigned ACCESS NYC site makes finding social services easy and accessible.

Why did the City want to redesign ACCESS NYC?

The City of New York’s longstanding website was not effectively meeting the needs of its diverse users who were increasingly accessing the site on mobile and experiencing difficulties determining their eligibility for services. With the City’s focus on user-centered design as a starting point, they redesigned ACCESS NYC and partnered with Blue State Digital to rethink the site’s technical strategy and infrastructure.

Previous iterations of the site had been developed in a proprietary platform that was difficult and expensive for the City to update and maintain, and—most importantly—failed to convey the information in an easily consumable, mobile-friendly format. The screener was also producing a high dropoff rate, with users unable to complete the questionnaire due to usability issues.

Blue State Digital was able to completely replace this complicated, expensive piece of technology with an elegant solution that the City’s team can support through both technical and non-technical resources.

How did human-centered design influence the project?

The NYC Opportunity team conducted a 12-week human-centered design process and tested five successive prototypes with caseworkers, City agencies, and residents to reach a design solution. The most important aspect of the approach was making it fit into the lives of real New Yorkers.

Not only is the interface easy to use, but the tone of the site’s content is friendly and straightforward, departing from more traditional government resources. Given the growing trend of residents accessing information from their phones, we built ACCESS NYC mobile-first, prioritizing the small-screen experience over the full desktop site.

ACCESS NYC also adheres to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The eligibility screener and other features of the site were designed and built to be used with screen readers and other accessibility tools. The design follows guidelines for text size, color contrast, consistent navigation, and button labels.

Finally, the site is available in seven languages to accommodate the millions of non-English speaking residents of New York City and will soon be adding four more.

To ensure that real New Yorkers feel comfortable using these tools, NYC Opportunity offers monthly hands-on training sessions for community-based organizations and City agencies, highlighting the main features of and best practices for using ACCESS NYC. Additionally, the team regularly conducts outreach training on-site for City agency workers, including a recent series with the Department of Homeless Services programs, where they provided training and materials to over 60 caseworkers.

What is the technical infrastructure of the site?

Our approach also allowed us to build an eligibility screener to collect the household demographics of each user. Built in JavaScript, the screener determines eligibility by submitting data the user entered into the eligibility screener to a back-end rules engine API, which is an implementation of the open source Java-based Drools platform.

Drools returns IDs of various programs, which the WordPress application uses to lookup program information. Unique results combinations are each paired with a URL so that users can return to their results page without creating a login. This functionality allows users to save or share using email and SMS links, which is game-changing to New Yorkers accessing the site from a library or other public terminals. Plus, the API is hosted on a high-availability Amazon Web Services (AWS) environment that allows for sub-second processing time.

Additionally, we developed the new version on the open source WordPress platform, cloud hosted on WP Engine. WordPress allows NYC Opportunity to make quick changes and updates to the site, connect to other services, and present a clean, mobile-friendly front end. Overall, this solution is more cost-effective, easier to maintain by the City, and more accommodating to crucial integrations.

The program content is managed through a web-based content system called GatherContent. All content was drafted in GatherContent, iterated on with agencies, sent out for translation, and then published. The content feeds both ACCESS NYC directly and also a public open dataset on the NYC Open Data Portal via an API.

The ACCESS NYC code itself is open source and available on GitHub. By openly hosting code on Github and publishing data via the NYC Open Data Portal, NYC Opportunity is making it possible for other governments and technology providers to use the code and information to inform their own projects. NYC Opportunity has been approached by other city, county, and state governments that are engaged in similar efforts to increase benefits access.

How have New Yorkers responded to the ACCESS NYC redesign?

Today, more residents can find these vital resources without worry or complication. Initial data indicate a higher completion rate in screening for benefits since the redesign. Since the launch of the redesign, the total number of New Yorkers completing the eligibility screening process per month has increased from 5,000 to 8,600 on average, and the rate of completion has increased from 44 percent to 67 percent.

About the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity

The Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity (NYC Opportunity) uses evidence and innovation to reduce poverty and increase equity. NYC Opportunity advances research, data and design in the City’s program and policy development, service delivery, and budget decisions.

NYC Opportunity develops and manages a portfolio of city-wide digital products that help the City address poverty-related challenges. These include public-facing services as well as tools for City staff to better serve clients. The digital product team conducts user research, creates user experiences, and works closely with internal and outside technology teams to prototype, develop, and set ongoing strategy for these digital services. The team has rebuilt legacy systems to have a more human-centered approach and developed new products.

Blue State Digital Staff

Blue State Digital is a purpose-driven digital strategy and tech agency that works with brands and causes to engage their most important people. Blue State Digital also created the BSD Tools, which has helped nonprofits raise billions of dollars and enabled brands to build meaningful experiences for their customers.

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