Johns Hopkins PACER

Readiness, Indeed!

JHU Pacer website on laptop


After 9/11, the U.S. mandated and partially funded the creation of multi-disciplinary academic coalitions to research and execute plans for and responses to homeland security issues. The mandate made possible the creation of the National Center for the Study of Preparedness and Catastrophic Event Response (PACER) at Johns Hopkins University. 

Although there are hundreds of such academic coalitions around the country, PACER is one of only 12 to have earned the prestigious Homeland Security Center of Excellence (COE) by Congress and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  Each COE studies a different aspect of security threats and scenarios, such as threats to the food supply chain, explosives-related threats, and threats to the nation’s multimodal transportation system.

PACER’s mission is to improve the nation’s preparedness and the ability to respond in the event of a high consequence natural or manmade disaster to alleviate the event’s effects by developing and disseminating best scientific practices. Academics within PACER study what might happen in different disaster scenarios, such as the availability of medical resources during a catastrophe.

TBG (The Berndt Group) has a long history of developing many sites for Johns Hopkins institutions. For this project, we engaged with PACER shortly after the Center’s creation to develop a rich, contemporary, memorable website—a challenge given that we were designing and developing the site while the organization was being defined. Truly a case of building the ship while it’s sailing! We strove to create a look-and-feel that would fit with the role the organization would eventually fill. Because PACER sets a best practice standard in readiness, the site would be used by academics around the world working on disaster preparedness.

Our design and site organization challenge was to unite myriad interests in one interface: PACER is a joint project of both the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins University; it is also jointly appointed and created by Congress and DHS; and its audiences are research scientists, government officials, and everyday citizens interested in preparedness.

PACER also had an operations challenge: They needed a content management system (CMS). TBG implemented Umbraco, an Open Source ASP.NET product, enabling PACER to gain all of the advantages that come with a CMS, including:

  • reusability of content throughout the site, requiring only one input of content to appear in multiple places;
  • automated related links, encouraging site visitors to explore all facets of a given topic; and
  • distributed authorship, allowing staff with no technical knowledge to publish Web content quickly and efficiently.

In the end, TBG was able to take the complex and somewhat esoteric-seeming subject of disaster preparedness and make it relevant and useful to its multiple audiences, as well as provide PACER a robust and highly efficient way of managing content that is flexible and sustainable as the organization grows and matures. Readiness, indeed!

Positioning Messages

Positioning Messages

PACER had the double whammy of being a new organization and having an acronym that didn’t signify its purpose. TBG’s charge was to aggressively position the organization as critical and authoritative in the landscape of disaster preparedness despite these constraints, to communicate that PACER’s researchers and investigators are best in class, and that the EMCAPS modeling program is a serious tool that plays a major role at the national level in emergency and catastrophic response. TBG and PACER needed to keep it simple, developing and using content and a navigational structure that hammers home these points right on the homepage and throughout the site. TBG resolved PACER’s positioning problems by straightforward messaging and navigation labeling, creating the greatest possibility for community building and for the best uptake with new visitors. Investigators and researchers can clearly and immediately see the content that is intended for them, and likewise everyday citizens can immediately see the value of content intended for them, such as disaster preparedness toolkits.

CMS Implementation

CMS Implementation

PACER’s need for distributed authorship and fast, efficient web publishing certainly isn’t unique. But being a hybrid of both a government-funded organization and an academic coalition, the need for easy publishing by just about anyone—even a shoestring staff—is especially endemic to university and government settings. PACER’s need for a CMS was pressing. TBG implemented Umbraco, a leading ASP.NET CMS that has many of the robust capabilities PACER needed, like the ability to automate related links. And because Umbraco is Open Source, the cost is lower than for licensed products. Umbraco fits the bill perfectly for an organization that needs to publish Web content quickly and efficiently by non-technical staff. The PACER site is best in class, as is the organization itself. Distributed authorship, automated related links, and reusability of content gave the organization the leg up it needed while PACER was still defining itself. 

Branding Challenges…PACER?

Branding Challenges…PACER?

Branding a new organization with a somewhat long and difficult name (using a cryptic acronym) is a big challenge. PACER would be housed on the Hopkins Medicine website and use some of its branding, but needed to stand distinct as well, its own entity. Tying in the PACER name with the Hopkins brand was key to helping establish the new brand’s credibility, but it would be challenging to simultaneously impart the new organization its own identity. TBG used the Hopkins Medicine brand guidelines, but in a relaxed way, to allow for the PACER site to exist within the Hopkins Medicine family of sites. The full name of PACER—The National Center for the Study of Preparedness and Catastrophic Event Response—needed to exist alongside the Hopkins Medicine brand, helping to establish a new, distinct identity. The homepage needed to be rich in information and yet uncluttered, with a design that created a memorable experience. The PACER site is sophisticated and modern, using both Hopkins Medicine styling and its own, new brand identity. The full PACER name is prominent, making clear both what the organization does and who and what it is affiliated with—helping to communicate its prestige.