Why Open Source Matters During the Pandemic

A Q&A with Mark Lerner, who spearheaded the creation of New America’s new Pandemic Response Repository

Earlier this month, after a frenzied few weeks of work, New America unveiled its Pandemic Response Repository. Mark Lerner, a New America fellow who works with the organization’s Public Interest Technology program and Digital Governance and Impact Initiative (DIGI), led the team that created it. Here he talks about why the new site only features open-source tools and resources and what the current moment reveals about the state of the civic tech community.

Why build the repository—what is the goal?

My fellowship has been around how to bring more government organizations into the world of using open source. I’ve been working to create an open source guide for government. After the pandemic started and everyone started working from home, we started thinking about how to reframe the work that we’ve been doing in a way that’s relevant right now. 

We wanted to build a COVID-19 resource platform as a way to not only provide open source solutions to people who are desperately looking for them, but also to share guidance and resources on open source in general. More general guidance and resources will be coming in phase 2.

Why was it important for the repository to only feature open source tools and resources?

Right now everyone is facing the same challenge: trying to get info out to their residents. Everyone is trying to understand vast amounts of public health data and economic data, and provide benefits to support people that need them. We’re all solving the same problems. I used to work in the federal government with the U.S. Digital Service, and saw time and time again that a lot of times people are trying to solve the same problem. We can find solutions faster if we work together. 

I’ve seen people try to push proprietary, closed solutions for this pandemic. I don’t want to work with those because I have no idea if they’re usable, if they’ve been vetted. Open source gives you a way to see, this is something that’s been tested and provided by, say, Italy. We can have confidence that it will work well for us. 

Right now, we need to move quickly and rely on each other’s skills and talents to find solutions. A lot of people in the civic tech space get this. But we want to provide resources and guidance for people in government who have not really interacted with open source before. People who don’t necessarily know what to do when they get to a github repository, or think open source tools are less secure. We want to provide them with the resources to say, actually, open source is usually more secure.

How did you decide what to include in the repository?

There are two main criteria. First, it must be open source. Second, it must be used by at least one government organization. We decided to use adoption by at least one partner as a proxy to be able to see that someone already believes in this enough to bring it into their organization. 

Also, the tool or resource has to address one of the two crises: the public health crisis or the economic crisis.

How do you think the pandemic could accelerate the adoption of open source products by governments?

I think this pandemic is the turning point for a lot of government organizations with regard to using more modern digital practices in general. Open source adoption is a large part of that. But there are also a lot of people who are seeing that they should be building platforms and deploying this stuff onto the cloud, as opposed to internal infrastructure. Or that they should have in-house technical talent as opposed to relying on outsourced talent. These are things people in the civic tech space have been rallying around for a while now.

People are seeing that you can move quickly and build tech that works, without having to wait an extremely long time. Governments are basically avoiding usual procurement processes right now. There are pros and cons on that front, but for the time being I think it’s the right decision to just move as quickly as you can and get volunteers in the door. This is going to be a moment when people realize that there is a better alternative to what they’ve been seeing with technology. Open source is certainly a huge part of this. 

Could you highlight something in the repository that really stands out by filling an urgent need?

The COVID-19 Ask a Scientist project is a great example. This is something that the state of New Jersey really spearheaded. They wanted to find a way to get info about what to do about the virus to residents as quickly as possible. And in a way that was natural to residents.

It’s super easy: you type in a question, and it will give you an answer collected from various authoritative sources, and provide resources you might need. This was a tool New Jersey built for itself, and made open source immediately. And we’ve seen tons of interest from a variety of states on using this.

What gaps in government tech capacity have you been seeing?

The first thing that comes to mind is talent. A lot of people are now working double-time, and by and large they’re not necessarily technology experts. So what we’re seeing now is a lot of examples of governments finally reaching out and grabbing talent. You see governments that haven’t invested into technical expertise trying to figure out what to do and rely on outside help. 

Conversely, you see places that have invested in talent producing incredible results. Over the last year or two, New Jersey has built out more of a digital innovation workforce, and that’s why they’ve produced a number of tools that people are able to use—and they’ve open sourced them. Same thing with California. 

Coming out of this pandemic, I hope we see a rallying call for governments across the world to invest more in their technical capacity.  

Do you see the civic tech community’s reaction to this pandemic as unprecedented?

Yes—I’ve seen the community really shifting its focus to everything pandemic-related. The thing that has really struck me is U.S. Digital Response, a totally volunteer effort that I’m involved with as well. It’s a giant network.

In a sense, what we’re seeing now is an extension of what we saw with the healthcare.gov crisis. There were technologists that came into government in a time of great need. But in this case, it’s a global pandemic affecting people everywhere, and it’s long-lasting. People are standing up and raising their hands and saying, “I want to help.” The civic tech community is mature enough at this point to organize and find ways into different government organizations. We know what works and what doesn’t.

It’s totally unprecedented, but it’s also a logical extension of where we’ve been going with the movement.