Helping Governments Push Through the Pandemic

With the virus overwhelming many governments, technologists have jumped into action to build open source tools the public needs now. A new repository collects them in one place.

From its start, the COVID-19 pandemic has been in large part a crisis of information. As schools and businesses closed and stay-at-home orders spread across the country, Americans began scrambling to understand the nature of the threat and its spread. There has been wall-to-wall news coverage from the beginning. But reliable, up-to-date online resources compiling state-by-state and country-by-country infection and testing levels have been harder to come by. 

The federal government botched the nationwide rollout of testing kits early on, hobbling efforts to understand the extent of the virus’ spread. Even now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not publishing detailed testing data. And overwhelmed state governments lack the capacity to quickly build digital tools that provide residents with urgently needed information about the virus.

Seeing these gaps, nongovernmental organizations and volunteers have stepped into the breach with open source solutions. Two prominent early examples on the tracking front have been the COVID-19 Visual Dashboard, which details global case counts and was created by the Johns Hopkins University, and the COVID Tracking Project, which also details testing counts by U.S. state and was created by a group of journalists, researchers and programmers.

They’re both filling crucial public health data gaps—and they’re both examples of the power of open source during this unprecedented and overwhelming moment, says Mark Lerner, a fellow at New America. “Everyone is trying to understand vast amounts of public health data and economic data… We’re all solving the same problems. We can find solutions faster if we work together,” he says. 

At New America, Lerner—a former deputy executive director at the U.S Digital Service at the Department of Homeland Security—has focused on how to bring more governments into the open source world. As the pandemic intensified in late March, he realized a repository collecting open source resources that are helping governments respond to COVID-19 could help spread solutions while underscoring the power of open source. New America’s Pandemic Response Repository, which is a joint project of the Digital Impact and Governance Initiative (DIGI) and Public Interest Technology (PIT) teams at New America, launched earlier this month. 

The repository collects a wide array of open source COVID-19 resources beyond data tracking sites: a health self-assessment tool used in both Alberta and Ontario, an “eligibility wizard” connecting New Jersey residents to various emergency assistance programs, and a site that helps people donate personal protective equipment (PPE). The repo will continue to be updated as the pandemic continues—anyone can submit a project for inclusion here. Beyond requiring open source, the team vetted resources with two criteria in mind: they must be assisting pandemic response efforts, and they must be “built, run, or maintained by or on behalf of government.” (A Q&A with Lerner about the repo is here.)

One particularly effective resource Lerner highlights in the repository is the “Ask a Scientist project,” which the state of New Jersey created. “It’s super easy: you type in a question, and it will give you an answer collected from various authorities, and provide resources you might need. … [W]e’ve seen tons of interest from a variety of states on using this.”

A volunteer org sprouts up

Having built up its digital innovation workforce during the last few years, New Jersey’s state government has emerged as a U.S. leader in developing open source platforms for the public sector. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t called on volunteer members of the civic tech community for help. U.S. Digital Response (USDR), a nonpartisan organization that connects local, county and state governments with skilled volunteers, has supported New Jersey’s digital innovation team with a few additional engineers. 

“We were able to provide them with more software engineers to help them double their output,” says Raylene Yung, CEO of USDR. Yung, previously an engineering and product executive at Facebook and Stripe, co-founded the organization in March with three former deputy U.S. chief technology officers. (Lerner is also involved with USDR.)

In the space of weeks, the volunteer-run organization has evolved from little more than a Google form collecting volunteer info to what Yung says feels more like a startup. 4,000 people have now raised their hands to volunteer, and more than 100 people have been placed to help about 25 different government organizations. “It’s grown up fast,” she says.

The type of help governments have asked for runs a wide gamut. USDR has helped state  public health experts develop data models projecting virus impacts; helped cities with suddenly distributed workforces digitize workflows and streamline communications; and built new tools from scratch. An example of a brand-new tool is Neighbor Express, which helps communities connect volunteers able to deliver food and other essential items to people in need.

The open source platform first launched in Concord, California and has since been replicated in nearby Walnut Creek and across the country in Paterson, New Jersey. “Mobilizing local volunteers is something every community is trying to figure out how to do,” Yung says.

Because so many governments are now struggling with the same challenges, USDR sees its core role as helping people scale solutions to their problems using technology. The organization would like every tool and resource its volunteers help develop to be open source. (Its GitHub repository is here.)

“We’ve seen that we can provide the most value by building or surfacing more reusable tools than can be reused across jurisdictions,” Yung says. “Every state and city doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel and design a new coronavirus website. We want to build a tool once, and then make it extensible.”

With the public health crisis persisting and the attendant economic crisis growing, USDR volunteers are now assisting states in building tools that help residents and businesses navigate various assistance programs. The organization helped New Jersey build its emergency assistance “eligibility wizard.”

Both Yung and Lerner see opportunities for positive change to come out of the pandemic, from a digital tech perspective. Yung sees a big wave of remote collaboration tools and digitized workflows coming to governments, along with healthy evolution beyond the legacy mainframe systems that often run state unemployment insurance systems.

“People are seeing that you can move quickly and build tech that works, without having to wait an extremely long time,” Lerner says. “This is going to be a moment when people realize that there is a better alternative to what they’ve been seeing with technology.”