Showing our work: Eviction Lab's COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard

How we pivoted in a pandemic to meet an urgent need.

This is the first in a series of articles from Hyperobjekt that present detailed, first-person technical walkthroughs of our team members’ work on our latest projects. We hope that sharing our process in this way will be of interest to developers, designers, and others, as we have learned from the approaches and techniques of fellow professionals in our field.

James Minton, Creative Director

The typical project cycle for us is much like any other agency’s: a discovery phase, mockups, kicking off development, and then—allowing for a few wrenches thrown along the way—final tweaks and product launch. In other words, things follow a fairly orderly sequence from concept to execution.

But then came COVID-19, which has humbled the entire globe and disrupted countless best-laid plans. Most of us have faced the need to reassess goals and adjust working lives; as a team, we’ve had to adapt and reshuffle as projects have been delayed and plans revised.

But at the same time, much of the work of Hyperobjekt’s clients—including on evictions, universal basic income, and educational opportunity—has been thrust in the spotlight during this crisis. The times call for timely responses on these issues, so we have retooled for rapid turnarounds and released a steady stream of new apps and updates to support our clients’ efforts.

One of those apps is the Housing Policy Scorecard we created for The Eviction Lab at Princeton. Conceived in response to a pandemic which has caused the worst economic hardship in nearly a century and heightened millions of renters’ vulnerability to eviction, the scorecard is a constantly-updated overview of states’ responses (or lack thereof) to this impending threat. This tool has since become an essential reference used by journalists, policymakers, and the public to gauge the efficacy of their states' protections.

The COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard.

In keeping with the need for a fast launch (which necessitated starting to code even while the data structure was still coming together) and an application flexible enough to adjust to rapidly-changing circumstances, we took an approach that favored simplicity, adaptability, and future-proofing, versus an overdetermined design that would’ve boxed us in and required restructuring down the road.

In this case (and in keeping with these times), having options seemed better than being attached to plans.

Corralling the Complexity

Lou Groshek, Developer

Time was at a premium. State-level housing protections were changing rapidly, and the Lab requested a nimble solution that could be built and released iteratively, while they refined their data. In hindsight, this was a wise approach, as the Lab found it necessary to change both the data structure and format of certain columns after development was underway.

The team at Princeton had used Google Spreadsheets as a data source for ther aspects of their website, so that seemed like a useful solution that would encourage rapid collation of data. The scorecard could fetch the spreadsheet data easily, as JSON via AJAX request. However, the lack of structure in Google Spreadsheets posed potential problems. We avoided a great deal of difficulty by instating multiple sticky headings in the spreadsheet itself. The first row was the machine-readable column key for parsing the columns. The next row was a human-readable title for the column contents. The third row contained an example entry. When parsing the JSON, I simply discarded the unnecessary rows. 

The Google Sheet which serves as the app's database.

Sasha Zyryaev, Designer

The scorecard contains a lot of data and during development, more data and policy filters were added. One interaction pattern I made use of in order to reduce complexity was progressive disclosure. As the design developed, I had to keep reorganising information to not overwhelm the user. In-depth explanations and advanced features were moved from the main page to individual state pages. Accordions were used to hide policies in order to allow the user to easily scan the list of states. Ultimately my aim was to increase comprehension and improve the experience for the user.

A Look Under the Hood

Lou Groshek, Developer

The interactive scorecard was to be presented in a Hugo site, and the scorecard itself was certainly complex enough to warrant an MVC framework. I considered building the entire scorecard as a React app. However, publishing and re-publishing the scorecard as a JavaScript library or NPM module, then making subsequent commits to the Hugo repository, would have both slowed down development and created hurdles for team members who would later fine-tune styling and other aspects of visual presentation. I instead opted for an old-fashioned JavaScript implementation, which would load and parse the GSheets JSON, generate the requisite HTML using Handlebars.js() templates (one for the scorecard page and one for the individual state pages), then inject the content into the page. jQuery was used for DOM manipulation. I authored the functionality as a rankings object, which contained both the arrays and objects which dictated the filters and other features of the scorecard and the functions necessary to fetch and build the scorecard pages. This isolated the functionality from other scripts and pages on the Hugo site while still allowing other team members to edit the templates and styling in parallel.

Regarding animations: jQuery’s hide() and show(), no matter how much you fine-tune the options, don’t even come close to the animation quality of CSS transitions, so in most cases I chose to toggle classes with jQuery and handle the animations in SCSS.

Another feature is the “sticky sub-header” for filtering the scorecard based on states’ policies. We discussed and experimented with several different presentations for these filters. Knowing that we weren’t working with a genuine MVC framework and each additional UI element added a significant amount of technical debt in terms of responsiveness, a11y, and feature collisions, I fought to keep the filters inline, and in general to keep the UI as simple as possible. I’m ultimately very pleased, when testing at different device widths, with how stable and naturally responsive the UI is, and glad that we arrived at this solution.

The Scorecard's filter options.

Lastly, we needed a strategy for showing each state’s details. Originally, these were to be displayed in a panel or dialog that would appear when a state was selected from the scorecard. In the end, because it would both improve SEO and offer a more stable interface, we decided to create unique Hugo pages for each of these states. I wrote a Hugo template to declare the state abbreviation as a JavaScript variable on page load, allowing the rankings init to detect and load the correct state details data. Once again, this allows us to present detailed data in a natural and intuitive navigation structure without further taxing an already relatively complex interactive UI.

The Scorecard's individual state page for New York.

Making it accessible

Lou Groshek, Developer

The tooltips presented quite a problem for a11y: several tooltip plugins claiming to be accessible didn’t test well for me, or couldn’t handle screen resize and overflow issues with nuance. This is one place where exhaustive standards for visual presentation simply don’t cohere with current a11y best-practices. In the end, I simply resorted to aria-label or aria-labelledby to add tooltip text to the screen reader queue for filter selection.

Sasha Zyryaev, Designer

It was important to consider accessibility when designing so that users of all abilities could understand the content. I followed the WCAG 2.1 Level AA conformance requirements and implemented a number of changes. A combination of text, colour and iconography were used to represent each policy as they are the most critical pieces of content (not relying on colour alone can aid understanding for users with colour-blindness and those who rely on text-only displays). All text throughout has enough colour contrast against its background which helps those with low vision to read. I hope that by following these principles the design is inclusive and accessible to all.

The Scorecard's Impact

James Minton, Creative Director

Before the Scorecard launched, it was difficult to discern a coherent picture amid the complex patchwork of state-level measures in place to prevent evictions during the pandemic. We are gratified to see that this tool has helped clarify a common set of criteria and benchmarks for examining the nation’s varying responses, and helped activists, politicians, and the public understand their state’s protections—and where needed, to push for more.

The Scorecard has been featured in numerous media outlets, including Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act television series, the Washington Post, CNBC, NPR, and many more.