This post is the fifth and final in a series produced for a Harvard Kennedy School field class on tech and innovation in government. Our team has been working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Cemetery Administration, and the U.S. Digital Service to improve the process of discovering, locating, and visiting graves in NCA cemeteries.
Imagine designing a product that could help millions of families across the country who have lost loved ones and memorialize the veterans who have served our country. Thirteen weeks ago, when our multidisciplinary team of Harvard students joined forces to tackle a problem for an organization none of us had ever heard of, this was a pipe dream. Today, it’s our reality.
Back in January, the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) approached us with a question: how might we improve the process of discovering, locating and visiting graves in their 135 cemeteries?
Prototype 1: Mobile-Friendly Visitor Site
The first prototype, a new mobile-friendly site, responds to the challenges visitors face in finding information about a loved one, a friend, or an ancestor before they arrive at a cemetery. The site allows them to search by a wide range of fields (including service branch, war period, and hometown) to narrow down the results as much as possible.
When a visitor has found the veteran they’re looking for, the site gives them all the information they need to visit. They can even navigate directly to the grave (not just to the cemetery) through a new maps feature. If they want more information, in a few taps they can see the cemetery’s opening hours, flower policy, parking availability, and other amenities. They can call the cemetery directly from their phone—and a warning will pop up if it’s closed. Throughout, we’ve used the vets.gov style guide and design library to keep the interface clean, simple, and intuitive.
Prototype 2: Enhanced On-Site Resources
The second solution focuses primarily on improving the navigation tools available to visitors when they plan a visit or arrive at a cemetery. This ranges from making the cemetery maps higher quality and more readable to being able to generate customized directions for visitors to the specific grave they’re visiting. This routing feature and the ability to integrate it with the mobile site becomes more feasible each year as the NCA geo-references every grave in its cemeteries.
Prototype 3: Open Data Strategy
The third solution, an open data strategy, involves making the NCA’s data more easily accessible and up-to-date so that people can find information quickly through third party sites like Google or Ancestry.com. This could be as simple as fixing broken links to NCA data on the U.S. government’s open data website, Data.gov. More long-term, an open data strategy could involve creating an API or working with Google to generate “rich snippets” or enhanced search results when someone googles an NCA cemetery or the name of someone buried there (see image below for an example).
We tested these prototypes with real people—including fellow Harvard students, service members, veterans, and an NCA cemetery director. We used their feedback to iterate and refine our ideas. On April 28th, the class Demo Day at Harvard, we presented our finalized prototypes to our clients at the US Digital Service and the NCA, as well as to the rest of our class and the wider Harvard community!
Ultimately, our prototypes represent three related approaches to improving the process of discovering, locating, and visiting gravesites at NCA cemeteries. Our recommendation to the NCA is to implement all three.
We recognize that some of our prototypes will be more difficult and time-consuming to implement than others. We therefore recommend a phased approach. In the short term, we believe the NCA should focus on developing a new mobile-friendly site, with the core features visitors told us they most need: an improved grave locator tool, and basic cemetery visitor information. Improving map print-outs from existing on-site kiosks should also be done in the first phase. One way to do this would be to add a more detailed plan of the relevant section, so that visitors can better navigate to a specific grave.
In the medium term (6-18 months) and longer term (18 months+), the NCA should add more functionality to the mobile-friendly visitor site. There is a great opportunity to use the site as a platform for the new history and education content that the NCA is developing. The kiosks themselves can also be replaced in the longer term, and—like the mobile-friendly site—make use of GPS technology to more accurately locate graves. An API that is regularly updated would also allow visitors to better access accurate grave and cemetery information through third-party sites.
Our conversations with visitors, cemetery directors, and veterans have made us confident that these solutions have significant potential. They promise to help the NCA in its mission to honor and memorialize veterans, and importantly, to improve the wayfinding experience of visitors to NCA cemeteries. We are excited to see the US Digital Service and the NCA hopefully implement these solutions in future.
Finally, we would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has supported us: first, our fabulous clients, especially Jessica Tozer from the NCA, and Suzanne Chapman and Mary-Ann Brody from the US Digital Service at the VA. It’s been an honor to work with them on such an important topic. Second, to our professor Nick Sinai and course assistants Angel Quicksey and Chante Lantos-Swett, who have guided us at every step, and taught us new brainstorming techniques and prototyping approaches. Third, to the veterans, armed services, and family members who were our interviewees and were so generous with their time—their insights have been invaluable. Finally, to you, dear readers of this blog—thank you for all your interest and support! We hope you have enjoyed reading about our journey, and that you will continue to support the work of the National Cemetery Administration in future.
Over and out!
Keith Caton, Athena Kan, Emily Middleton, Devyn Paros, Yuko Tanaka