Open-source software—developed abroad—supports a new tool that allows the agency to send confirmations and other details through email or text.
The Veterans Affairs Department recently deployed a modern, centralized mechanism for digitally delivering timely updates to those it serves: VANotify.
Before it, snail mail was one of only two options the department’s various business lines had to send out certain notices. VA’s Office of Information and Technology shaped and launched the fresh open-source software-inspired platform, in collaboration with global software consultancy ThoughtWorks.
“Our OIT strategy is to reduce the amount of custom code in our footprint, and adopting proven open-source products where they exist is a key tactic to achieve that goal,” VA’s Chief Technology Officer Charles Worthington told Nextgov in a recent email.
Aside from ensuring their VA contact information and communication preferences are up to date, veterans don’t need to make any special moves to use VANotify. It’s essentially a shared service that appropriate VA teams can leverage to push out personalized notifications.
Specifically, the platform uses a ThoughtWorks-built application programming interface to send emails and texts directly to veterans. Those contain meaningful information that previously was only disseminated in the mail or through the agency’s specific, VEText app. Such alerts might confirm the receipt of benefits applications, notify veterans of changes to their VA account, or help them track some pharmacy deliveries in an easier, more digitally savvy way.
“VANotify can in the future facilitate two-way communication between a veteran and VA services like a chatbot, though today its major use cases are focused on one-way notifications such as updates on prescription shipments or application submission confirmations,” Worthington said.
It’s reaching American veterans now, but the tool’s codebase roots back to an original platform that was built by a government outside of the United States. The United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service first created Notify, a means to personalized, government agency-centered notifications. That platform’s creators implemented an open-source approach—enabling anyone to re-use the foundational code.
Canada went on to apply the Notify code to its own needs, as well.
“Similarly, at the VA we also have a large and growing number of use cases that involve communicating to Veterans specific messages via email, SMS, and more,” Worthington said. “After investigating options, we found that this open-source Notify platform was a good fit for our needs, and used what had already been created by the Brits and the Canadians as a starting point for our own platform.”
More than 1.5 million digital notifications have already been sent since the product was released. It’s still early, but open rates appear to be high—70%—suggesting veterans could be responding well to the department’s moves to digitally update. Additionally, 200,000 veterans have already received communications regarding COVID-19 vaccinations, via VANotify.
“VA determined which veterans would receive messages related to vaccination planning [as] part of the VA.gov Keep Me Informed initiative,” Worthington said.
Going forward, officials intend to explore future VANotify uses, including some for sending monthly SMS notifications about benefit payments or information about debt acquisition. Expanding features to enable push notifications might also be on the horizon.
VA is ThoughtWorks’ first U.S. federal client. After the modern pandemic hit, the two partners designed a chatbot to help address the influx of questions regarding the global medical threat.