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Four innovations state and local governments spawned during the pandemic

Over the past nine months, the pandemic required state and local governments to quickly transition the services that they normally provide in-person — including social services, health care, hearings and city council meetings — to virtual events and digital interactions. Under time constraints and financial duress, their IT departments launched new, innovative solutions to provide new functionality, transparency and support to residents who needed it most.

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Fighting back with data

In August, officials in St. Louis estimated that the pandemic had cost the city at least $21 million in lost revenue. But the city has also kept track of every penny spent to slow the spread of the virus using a new open data portal.

The website tracks things like how much personal protective equipment, additional IT services and COVID-19 test kits the city is buying and who it’s buying them from. It also shows how much the city is spending on COVID-19 relief areas, often provided through agreements with local homeless shelters.

“Even during a global emergency such as COVID-19, governments must remain accountable to the people,” St. Louis Mayor Lydia Krewson said in a press release announcing the data portal’s launch in April. “That includes showing them how we’re investing in critical, life-saving resources. I appreciate the multiple City departments that worked together to activate this portal in a timely, accessible manner.”

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Cough bots

Jackson, Mississippi, became one of the first cities in the U.S. to include a “cough bot” in its coronavirus screening platform this year. The app enables residents to send a recording of a cough so that a machine learning-powered tool can analyze it, potentially distinguishing it between that of a regular cold and COVID-19.

City officials said the tool will also eventually be able to distinguish between chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, emphysema, bronchitis and lung cancer.

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Maps made it easier

The need for resources like food banks, child care centers and job placement offices shot up during the pandemic, but actually getting to those places became more difficult due to building closures, changes in public transportation schedules and stay-at-home orders. 

To address the problem in Los Angeles, the office of city Controller Ron Galperin put together a map of the food banks in Los Angeles County — and later for all of California — including hours of operation and who is able to access the food. Galperin later published a COVID-19 “resource hub” with options for Los Angeles residents to get help accessing digital services. The website is organized based on user group, such as immigrants, homeowners, renters or artists.

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Automation for 'profound need'

In many cases, the pandemic accelerated the modernization of local governments, pushing them to transition traditional services into automated digital transactions.

In Suffolk County, New York, Chief Information Officer Scott Mastellon turned to robotic process automation to free up the county’s nurses from spending as much time doing paperwork so they could spend more time caring for patients. The Long Island region was hit hard by COVID-19 at the onset of the pandemic, and health care workers had been overwhelmed by the amount of data entry required to log coronavirus cases before the tasks became automated.

Clark County, Nevada, the state’s most populous county, took a similar approach to distributing emergency housing assistance during the pandemic. Residents were previously required to hand-deliver a housing assistance request form to one of 14 locations throughout the county, posing a health risk, on top of slowing down the relief process. The county contracted IBM to develop a portal through which residents can quickly apply for relief.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the lives of the residents of Greater Las Vegas and Clark County,” Assistant County Manager Kevin Schiller said in an announcement of the project’s launch. “We had a profound need to immediately address an unprecedented number of claims and, on top of that, navigate the issue that most of our government services were not open to the public and the staff processing assistance claims were forced to work in remote environments.”

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