New America Weekly

Data Nerds and Open Source Activists Are Filling Crucial COVID-19 Information Gaps

Weekly Article
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May 28, 2020

From the start, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in large part, been a crisis of information. As schools and businesses closed and stay-at-home orders spread across the country, Americans scrambled to understand the nature of the threat—but while there’s been wall-to-wall news coverage, reliable, up-to-date online resources compiling state-by-state and country-by-country infection and testing levels have been harder to come by.

The federal government botched the nationwide rollout of testing kits early on, hobbling efforts to understand the extent of the virus’ spread; even now, the CDC isn’t publishing detailed testing data. And overwhelmed state governments lack the capacity to quickly build digital tools that provide residents with urgently needed information about the virus.

Seeing these gaps, nongovernmental organizations and volunteers have stepped in with open source solutions. Two prominent early examples are the COVID Tracking Project—created by a group of journalists, researchers, and programmers—which tracks testing counts by U.S. state, and Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 Visual Dashboard, which tracks global case counts.

Both are filling crucial public health data gaps—and they showcase the power of open source during this unprecedented and overwhelming moment, noted Mark Lerner, a fellow at New America.

“Everyone is trying to understand vast amounts of public health data and economic data,” he said. “We’re all solving the same problems. We can find solutions faster if we work together.”

At New America, Lerner—a former deputy executive director of the U.S Digital Service at the Department of Homeland Security—has focused on how to bring more governments into the open source world. As the pandemic intensified in late March, he realized a repository collecting open source COVID-19 resources could help spread solutions while underscoring the power of open source.

Thus, New America’s Pandemic Response Repository was born. Launched earlier this month by New America’s Digital Impact and Governance Initiative (DIGI) and Public Interest Technology (PIT) teams, the repository collects a wide array of open source COVID-19 resources beyond data tracking sites: a health self-assessment tool used in both Alberta and Ontario, an “eligibility wizard” connecting New Jersey residents to various emergency assistance programs, and a site that helps people donate personal protective equipment. The repo will continue to be updated throughout the pandemic.

A particularly effective resource in the repository, according to Lerner, is the “Ask a Scientist project,” created by the state of New Jersey: “It’s super easy: You type in a question, and it will give you an answer collected from various authorities and provide resources you might need … [W]e’ve seen tons of interest from a variety of states in using this.”

Having built up its digital innovation workforce in the last few years, the New Jersey state government has emerged as a U.S. leader in developing open source platforms for the public sector. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t called on volunteer members of the civic tech community for help. U.S. Digital Response (USDR), a nonpartisan organization that connects state and local governments with skilled volunteers, has supported New Jersey’s digital innovation team with a few additional engineers.

“We were able to provide them with more software engineers to help them double their output,” said Raylene Yung, USDR’s CEO. Previously an engineering and product executive at Facebook and Stripe, Yung co-founded the organization in March with three former deputy U.S. chief technology officers. In the space of weeks, the volunteer-run organization has evolved from little more than a Google form collecting volunteer info to what Yung says feels more like a startup. As of publication, more than 5,000 people have indicated their interest in volunteering, and more than 200 volunteers have been deployed in various government organizations.

“It’s grown up fast,” said Yung.

Governments have asked for a wide variety of support: USDR has helped state public health experts develop data models of virus impacts and cities digitize workflows and streamline communications. It’s also built new tools from scratch: Neighbor Express, for example, helps communities connect volunteers to vulnerable people in need of food and other essential items. First launched in Concord, California, the open source platform has since been replicated in nearby Walnut Creek as well as in Paterson, New Jersey.

“Mobilizing local volunteers is something every community is trying to figure out how to do,” Yung said.

Because so many governments are now struggling with the same challenges, USDR sees its core role as helping people scale solutions to their problems using technology.

“We’ve seen that we can provide the most value by building or surfacing more reusable tools than can be reused across jurisdictions,” Yung said. “Every state and city doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel and design a new coronavirus website. We want to build a tool once, and then make it extensible.”

With the COVID-19 crisis persisting and the attendant economic crisis growing, USDR volunteers are now assisting states in building tools that help residents and businesses navigate various assistance programs. New Jersey, for instance, built its emergency assistance “eligibility wizard” in conjunction with USDR.

From a digital tech perspective, both Yung and Lerner see opportunities for positive change to emerge from the pandemic. Yung forecasts a big wave of remote collaboration tools and digitized workflows coming to governments, along with healthy evolution beyond the legacy mainframes that often run state unemployment insurance systems.

“People are seeing that you can move quickly and build tech that works without having to wait an extremely long time,” Lerner said. “This is going to be a moment when people realize that there is a better alternative to what they’ve been seeing with technology.”