A new website matches cities with pandemic help, but many aren't ready for partnerships

(Rohit Tandon / Unsplash)

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Jay Nath, co-CEO of the San Francisco-based civic technology nonprofit CityInnovate, was one of many last week to lend his services to local governments dealing with the spread of the novel coronavirus. But as Nath and his team quickly found out, some cities are spread too thin to even consider third-party solutions to resource shortages or technical assistance during the pandemic, which has so far killed more than 4,600 people in the U.S.

“We were quietly reaching out and seeing if there was interest in identifying needs, etc., and what we’ve learned in having conversations with cities and governments is they’re all underwater,” Nath told StateScoop.

Nath, who runs CityInnovate along with founder Kamran Saddique, quietly launched the organization’s COVID-19 Challenge Platform last week to attempt to match hospitals and government agencies with additional resources, much like how the organization’s Startup in Residence program matches tech startups with government agencies. The goal was to gather insight into what local communities need and then try and get it to them.

After several conversations with local officials dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks, however, Nath said it was clear that some cities lack the personnel and logistical capabilities to arrange partnerships with third-party services or volunteers during the pandemic. As a result, Nath said, the online platform will soon shift to focusing on the needs of cities and counties that are recovering from the coronavirus pandemic, whenever those recoveries begin in earnest.

“Right now, their ability to identify, get the sponsors, line up everything and articulate those needs in a detailed way is very limited,” Nath said. “What we’ve heard is that might change during recovery, but during the crisis it’s all hands on deck and trying to address things.”

Though the goal of the platform will shift to addressing the needs of recovering communities, cities can still file requests for resources or volunteers through the platform, Nath said. City and local agencies experiencing shortages of goods, services, volunteers or donations during the recovery period will be asked to fill out a form to explain their specific needs. CityInnovate will then, at no cost to the governments, use social media and its network of technology startup partners to advertise the needs of participating governments. The group is also encouraging governments to advertise their needs themselves.

The structure is similar to that used by the Startup in Residence program, which Nath originally developed while working in the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation in 2014. STIR, which is now managed by CityInnovate, pairs technology startups with city agencies looking for digital tools in niche policy areas, like managing flood data, transportation permits, curb space or urban traffic flows. (The program secured 43 partnerships between city agencies and startups in its last cohort.)

Each resource request will be posted publicly online, according to CityInnovate, and governments will be able to review applications from startups or other organizations that respond to their requests.

The coronavirus efforts of Nath and his team at CityInnovate are part of a much larger call-to-action in the broader civic tech community, which has offered data-sharing, communications and logistical help to cities and states amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Jen Pahlka, the founder and former CEO of Code for America, has helped gather a team of civic tech experts to match thousands of volunteers across the country with local governments in need of resources, and several member-based organizations like the National League of Cities and the left-leaning NewDEAL group have begun cataloging the policy responses that local officials take in response to the coronavirus.

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CityInnovate, coronavirus, COVID-19, Jay Nath
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