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Post-pandemic, what's next for USDR?

The U.S. Digital Response, a national nonprofit launched by the country’s most prominent civic technologists at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, enlisted thousands of volunteer engineers, designers and developers to aid state and local governments with their digital transformations over the past 18 months.

Jessica Cole
Jessica Cole (LinkedIn)

But as much of the country rebuilds its physical and digital infrastructure in the face of historic wildfires, hurricanes and drought, there’s opportunity for organizations like USDR to continue their mission, said Jessica Cole, its recently appointed CEO.

In an interview with StateScoop earlier this month, Cole shared the vision for her organization’s role in supporting state and local governments — today and in the future.

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How much does aiding state and local governments with non-COVID-19 situations play a role in your strategy now?

It’s a huge part of how we’re thinking about the need for USDR moving forward. The way that we see our work is that there’s both a need for rapid response and the ability to help in the moment, and there’s this need for resilience-building and the ability to make sure we’re building to respond more effectively next time.

On the rapid response side, the way we think about it is basically that in any crisis, when the need exceeds local capacity to respond to those needs, the first place a local government or nonprofit should turn is local resources: the people who know it best, who are organizing mutual aid networks or existing volunteer structures or things that they’ve put in place. However, with certain types of moments, they need resources that are not available in their own backyards. And that is one of the things that USDR is set up to do.

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What strategies are effective at helping governments achieve their goals?

What we’ve observed as patterns is that most of the time, when it comes to particularly natural disasters, those institutions are using things that they’ve already put in place. So most of the time, within the first 24 to 48 hours, they’re working within established national or state level resources or existing community organizations. It really tends to be in the rebuilding phase and recovery phase that they’ve mostly been reaching out to us, or at times in the preparation phase.

For example, in the rebuilding and recovery side, the types of things we’ve helped out with have been helping governments to actually activate volunteer networks and tools so that they can take in people that are willing to help and dispatch them to be helpful on whatever they need, or food-security projects, when people need immediate access to sustenance or support or benefits and they need to figure out the technology to drive that. Decision-making, actually, is another area that often people will reach out for in the days following a disaster to say, “We need to figure out what the state of things is, and therefore we need data support to help us do that.”

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How long does it take for these efforts to yield positive results?

A month or two months later, or sometimes six months later, that’s when they’re really starting to do things like think about how we make sure people get access to benefits they’re entitled to, how to communicate best with the community in this moment, how to improve the digital resources available to them.

And there are some great pieces of work that have been done on this by other organizations too. While we are certainly available for people to call in those 911 moments when local governments truly need that, by and large we tend to be rapid response in the immediate aftermath of those crises. 

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How do you see USDR differing from other similar organizations?

It’s interesting, we actually see a little bit of a bifurcation. I would say that established civic tech organizations like USDR and Code for America and DataKind tend to work with partners who are on the ground and use that partnership as the way to make sure they know what is needed in a community.

There are other pop-up efforts that emerge after any given disaster moment that are often more citizen-led. That’s where people will spin up because they think they see a need and they don’t necessarily have contacts with the institutions around them to make it happen, so they put their blood, sweat and code in to building systems. And that can work really well because they’re the ones who are the most knowledgeable about the problem because they’re on the ground, and sometimes it can stumble because they don’t necessarily have access to the knowledge about what’s broken or the internal resources they might need in order to make it happen.

The way we’re growing and evolving is focusing on critical needs and then as they arise, either in the rapid response moment or in building resilience to meet them in the future. That’s why the umbrella has widened for us.

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