Hundreds pledge to help state, local government solve coronavirus challenges

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A loose network of more than 1,000 data scientists, user-design experts and civic-minded technologists — called the U.S. Digital Response for COVID-19 — formed last week to aid state and local government agencies in the fight to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The volunteer group formed last week through the efforts of several nationally known civic technology leaders, including Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, former Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer Cori Zarek, former U.S. CTO Ryan Panchadsaram and former Facebook and Stripe engineer Raylene Yung. The group posted a notice on its website asking state and local government agencies to ask for coronavirus-related help.

The group will offer aid on everything from logistics and data visualization to back-end development, according to Zarek, who said the network is already working on several projects just one week after forming.

“A lot of resources are focused on the federal government, as they should be, and that sometimes leaves state and local leaders without as much direct coordination and opportunity to work together,” Zarek told StateScoop.

The group has published two of its projects online, with many more state and city agencies requesting help behind the scenes, Zarek said. “Neighbor Express” is a partnership with Concord, California, to develop a tool that organizes Meals on Wheels deliveries for elderly people and matches local volunteers with people who need regular in-person wellness checks. “Project N95,” meanwhile, gathers data from governments on their need for personal protective equipment like masks, so that the gear can be efficiently distributed in the coming months.

Pahlka, who recently stepped back from her role as CEO of Code for America, said on Twitter on Monday that she received a call from former U.S. Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil last week that alerted her to the severity of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. A phone tree that began with Pahlka and Zarek soon expanded as they called on friends to donate their time and skills.

“Like many of us around the country, we were all sort of facing the gravity of the situation we’re in, and a number of us were talking with another and are wired to jump in and help if we can,” Zarek said.

When volunteers submit their information or a city or state agency requests help, the group matches the person or agency with the closest team member with the skill set needed to solve the issue at hand. Zarek said the group has heard from state agencies that want to compile data on how the coronavirus might impact non-healthcare related government services, and from agencies that are simply trying to manage the logistics of caring for a booming number of COVID-19 patients. Other requests include help building a coronavirus test website, like the one Los Angeles launched on Monday, or mapping infection data during outbreaks. One goal is to use as much open source code as possible to scale solutions as they arrive, Zarek said.

“As with any good civic tech project, you could start small, test, iterate and scale, and so as we test some of these solutions out … we’re looking at the best methods so we can scale this to more places,” she said.

This is part of StateScoop and EdScoop’s special report on coronavirus response. Read the rest of the report.

-In this Story-

Cori Zarek, coronavirus, COVID-19, digital government, Jennifer Pahlka
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