At the end of April, Vice President Biden, while rolling out the final report of the White House’s 90-day Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, announced the launch of NotAlone.gov, a website built by 18F and the Presidential Innovation Fellows.
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Changing how we think about task force deliverables
Often, the final product of a government task force is a lengthy report, a new committee or commission, or proposals for legislation or executive action. But as Mike Bracken says, “in a digital world, delivery informs policy.”
This task force found that both students and school administrators have difficulty finding help dealing with and understanding this issue, and that campus sexual assault victims often feel unfathomably isolated from everyone around them. So about one month before the release of their 90-day report, the White House came to us to talk about tackling those problems head-on with a new online resource.
We think this is part of the future of digital government: For the first time, the work product of even a short-lived, narrowly focused task force can be a new public resource, instantly available, and useful not just to policy makers and subject matter experts but to everyone affected by or interested in the issue. NotAlone pulls together disparate and sometimes difficult-to-find resources, including a crisis services locator, an interactive map of colleges and universities where federal sexual assault enforcement activities have occurred, extensive easy-to-read legal guidance for students and schools, and a searchable compendium of reports and other documents related to sexual assault on campuses – all in response to requests from the students across the country who have lived through the need for these resources.
User-centered iterative design
The task force came to us at the end of March, and asked us to deliver a site before the end of April. Notwithstanding the tight deadline, we did what we always do: begin by learning what our primary users were seeking. Mollie led a design thinking workshop with student advocates and survivors, asking them to co-design their ideal online experience. That session exposed the painful journey survivors endure before finally turning to federal resources, and helped us understand which information would be most important to them when they do.
The insights from that session informed all our design choices: a simple information architecture, a prominent document search feature, a warm color palette, gender-neutral language and tone. It also inspired the site’s name, chosen to help survivors feel they had come to a place that could truly support them—to help them feel a little bit less alone.
Then we iterated. Fortunately, the compressed timeline was counterbalanced by an invested team of project owners who were dedicated to providing fast, comprehensive feedback.
About the code
18F is committed to transparency. NotAlone is open-source. All the code for the site is available at https://github.com/18f/notalone. As we state in the README, content and feature suggestions are welcome via GitHub Issues, and code contributions are welcome via pull request (although of course we can’t guarantee your request will be merged).
Unlike FBOpen, this site needs to be amenable to frequent content updates by non-coders. Rather than building the site using an out-of-the-box content management system, we decided to experiment with using GitHub as NotAlone’s CMS. So far, we’re pleased with the results.
We use Jekyll to generate the site content from simple Markdown, which allows basic formatting while keeping the content simpler and more structured than a full-featured rich-text editor. Various lists – the site navigation, the list of available student services and resources, and the list of search-indexed documents – are maintained in easy-to-read, easy-to-edit YAML files. NotAlone’s (decidedly non-techie) content editors signed up for GitHub accounts and edit the Markdown and YAML files themselves in GitHub’s built-in, Markdown-friendly editor. Thanks to GitHub Pages, they can preview their work at https://18f.github.io/notalone/ before code is pushed to the live site.
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We’re honored to have been involved in delivering this site in cooperation with the task force, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of the Vice President, and our outstanding support team in GSA’s Office of the CIO. We’re grateful for such an exceptional array of partners for this important project.