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.

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