How an army of tech volunteers is helping local governments cope with COVID-19
More than 4,500 volunteers, some hailing from the top tech companies, have signed up to wield their expertise as part of the U.S. Digital Response.
In the middle of March, as the coronavirus crisis swept the country, former U.S. Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil called Code for America founder Jenn Pahlka with a simple question: "What are you going to do to help?"
Pahlka immediately called up Cori Zarek, and together they formed a Google group and began tapping into their tight-knit network of technologists and policy wonks who have spent their careers working to infuse tech expertise into all levels of government.
The group, which included a cadre of former deputy U.S. CTOs, eventually became a larger Zoom call with more civic technologists focused on the issue. That Zoom call ballooned into an email chain with dozens of recipients, many from top tech companies, Code for America or the U.S. Digital Service. Within a week of the initial call, that email chain and multiple separate efforts formalized into U.S. Digital Response, a nongovernmental, rapid-response network of more than 4,500 volunteers who want to harness technology to help the U.S. through coronavirus, an unprecedented crisis that has laid bare the inadequacy of countless government systems.
"There's an incredible amount of tech talent inside government," said Zarek, a former U.S. deputy chief technology officer. "Still, it's not enough."
In a little over a month, USDR has placed more than 90 volunteers across 80 coronavirus-related projects throughout the country, connecting with dozens of government teams in states including California, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Its volunteers come from some of the country's top tech companies including Facebook, Google and Palantir, as well as policy shops and government offices. They specialize in back-end engineering, user research, data science and engineering.
And volunteers have seen 25 projects to completion, including a volunteer-run delivery network with more coming down the pipeline.
Its goal is to help, fast, wherever and however they can. It's a hefty task in a country where most government systems rely on outdated technology, and bureaucracy notoriously bogs down even the simplest digital tasks. But as projects stream in from local and state governments, USDR is trying to serve as a middleman.
"I'm not a health care worker, I don't have sewing skills, I'm not a truck driver," said Jordan Kasper, who spent the past month helping out as a USDR volunteer in New Jersey. Kasper is a former member of the U.S. Digital Service, an executive branch unit dedicated to helping federal agencies solve tech issues. "I was looking for a way I can use my technology skills to help in whatever way I could."
At the helm of USDR is CEO Raylene Yung, who previously served as an engineering and product executive at Facebook and Stripe. And the organization's founders include Zarek, Pahlka and Ryan Panchadsaram, another former deputy U.S. CTO who now works at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins.
Yung, who had just finished up a fellowship with the Aspen Institute when Pahlka tapped her to run USDR, said the volunteer effort seeks to provide an outlet for the upswell of engineers and programmers who want to use their skills to help out as unemployment sites crash, governments struggle to communicate with local residents, and vulnerable populations are forced into isolation without any lifeline.
"I think people have wanted to help, and especially with the crisis underway, it's kind of a black box: 'How do you help the government?'" Yung said. "Engineers who spent their career at tech companies … light up once we explain how we're getting in the room."
USDR fields a flurry of requests over online forms and over email from local and state governments every day, ranging from complex tasks to very simple requests. Last month, in the city of San Rafael, volunteers digitized finance and human resources forms so they no longer needed to be filled out in person. Right now in New Jersey, a USDR team is working to create a system that vets health care volunteers and eventually helps place them in hospitals that need more help.
A volunteer Instacart
In Concord, the mayor has worked with more than a dozen USDR volunteers hailing from a range of tech and government backgrounds to set up a system best described as a kinder version of Instacart.
The tool is called Neighbor Express, and after the volunteers spun it up in Concord, it's been set up in two other cities — Walnut Creek and Paterson, New Jersey — with more to come. Neighbor Express allows people in need of grocery or food deliveries to fill out a simple online form, which then feeds into a back-end database from Airtable. (Airtable has lended its services for free to humanitarian efforts amid the coronavirus crisis, including USDR.) The Airtable database then matches helpers with people in need. So far, the tool has helped facilitate hundreds of deliveries across Concord and Walnut Creek. It will launch officially in Paterson next week.
Jessica Cole, who helps lead the project and previously served as a fellow for Code for America, said Neighbor Express is meant to help those who can't or don't know how to use services like Instacart or other on-demand grocery delivery services.
"Neighbor Express is seeking to help cities with homebound people who, for whatever reason, are not being served by those platforms right now," Cole said.
The Neighbor Express team meets on Zoom.Screenshot: Courtesy of Jessica Cole
The project stemmed from an idea that Concord Mayor Tim McGallian began mulling in February, as the first cases were popping up in the region. He realized that coronavirus was going to leave the most vulnerable populations — seniors and immunocompromised people — stranded at home. They were being advised not to go to the grocery store unless absolutely necessary.
He had a team of volunteers through the local Meals on Wheels program who were ready and willing to get those groceries to anyone who needed food. But he needed a platform that would connect the volunteers with those in need — a difficult feat in a city with more than 100,000 people.
"It's not my job to program something," McGallian said. "It's not my job to know about every new tool that's out there … My job was to reach out to my friends and the people that are in my circle and say, 'I know this can get built, help me find the right people who can do it.'"
So he called a friend at Apple in mid-March. And that friend connected him to Pahlka, who was still working to figure out how to formalize USDR. Pahlka then issued a call to arms to a still amorphous network of diligent civic technologists.
Mitali Chakraborty, who works with global women-in-tech nonprofit Anita B, offered to help immediately because she had experience working on meal delivery programs in other cities across the U.S. The endeavor also felt deeply personal: In 2011, she put her career on hold to take care of her father when he became sick. And she realized that the problem McGallian was describing — sick and older people stuck at home with no help, siloed away from their families and friends — was one of her "biggest fears realized."
Within two days, Chakraborty and Cole had helped stand up Neighbor Express. Now, only a few weeks later, their team has grown to 14 volunteers who chat frequently on Zoom, including engineers from TaskRabbit and tech company Glitch, a former product manager at Bird, an employee with digital services agency 18F, a computer science doctoral student at MIT, and others coming from a range of policy and tech backgrounds.
"If Neighbor Express is [a] product-platform-tool that can help create better productivity and efficiency and in the end serve the population better, that's what we're all about," Chakraborty said. "In a weird way, we're like a startup that's not raising money."
In Concord, Walnut Creek and Paterson, the volunteers have worked in lockstep with local governments to figure out how the tool can best address the needs of the community. In Paterson, the form is available in four languages. In Walnut Creek, the staff members of the government's Arts and Recreation Department have shifted to work full time to handle the incoming requests through Neighbor Express. And across the board, the volunteers are retooling the project to address unexpected challenges — for instance, the fact that multiple people have connected personally with their volunteers and want to be able to request the same helper more than once.
'Building back better'
Ultimately, the philosophy underpinning USDR's efforts revolves around open-source technology: If they make a tool in one place, they hope that mutual-aid groups, governments and even countries could ultimately use their code to help address their own residents' needs. McGallian is already reaching out to other mayors and local leaders in his network to encourage them to set up their own Neighbor Express.
"USDR efforts are meant to be replicated, reused, adapted, and otherwise available for collaboration," reads the project's data and software guidelines posted on GitHub.
"Once we have a project that's spun up, we hope to offer that tool to as many governments as possible," Cole said.
Still, USDR is only about a month old, and it's had some growing pains. The group's core team members — many of which are participating on top of full-time jobs — are working overtime to pair the right volunteers with the right government initiatives, and right now, they have a surplus of people who want to help.
"It's been very successful in garnering attention and getting people to volunteer," said Kasper. He had to pause his work with USDR to start a new job as a software engineer at Deloitte.
"It remains to be seen how successful it will be in the actual placement of all those volunteers, because that's a monumental effort," he said. "They're overloaded with the number of volunteers and the number of requests for help."
The group isn't stopping at local- and state-level technology projects. Zarek said the group has been in conversations with "all levels of government," including at the federal level. Pahlka said they have at least one federal project in the works. And USDR recently joined the TCN Coalition, one of the many groups dedicated to making digital contact tracing a reality. For weeks, hundreds of researchers, developers, engineers and tech workers have been looking for ways to create an effective contact-tracing system, which could ultimately use smartphone signals to stave off the spread of coronavirus.
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The founders of USDR readily admit that it is only one of hundreds of tech initiatives launched since coronavirus began to turn society upside down. Zarek said they saw a gap in those efforts — others weren't necessarily thinking about using tech to help the government — and took it. Now, they're partnering with other projects wherever they can.
And they hope some of the fixes they introduce now could help modernize the government in the long run. They're working on tools that can track health care information, money flowing from the $2 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress, and COVID-19 cases across particular regions.
"As much as I don't wish this crisis on this country by any means, we do want to use it as an opportunity to build back better," Pahlka said. "I hope we don't leave our public institutions as vulnerable as we have."