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What’s New in Civic Tech: 2020 Digital Inclusion Trailblazers

Plus, Google’s $100 million investment in COVID-19 recovery may have community tech implications; Code for America helps Louisiana rapidly scale gov tech crisis response applications; and more.

by / May 14, 2020

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) — a nonprofit group aimed at supporting work that bridges the digital divide — has designated 14 local governments as 2020 Digital Inclusion Trailblazers.

The list is a varied one, with those named ranging in size from the biggest cities in the country to much smaller jurisdictions. Some of those selected are also combined city and county governments. Of those that were just cities, the list includes Austin, Texas; Boston; Long Beach, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; San Antonio, Texas; Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Louisville, Ky.; Provo, Utah; Salt Lake City; Detroit; and New York City. The two combined governments are the city and county of San Francisco as well as Chattanooga and Hamilton County, Tenn.

These are all organizations that, as the National Digital Inclusion Alliance wrote in a press release, feature “an honor roll of local government initiatives that promote digital literacy and broadband access for underserved residents.” 

The criteria for the designation is based on six indicators. Those indicators are whether local gov has full-time staff dedicated to digital inclusion; a digital inclusion plan within local government; local government representatives in a digital inclusion coalition; survey research on Internet access within communities; direct funding for digital inclusion programming; and steps to increase affordability of broadband service. 

Becoming a Digital Inclusion Trailblazer necessitates both applying for the designation and meeting one of the six indicators. The Digital Inclusion Trailblazers list first launched back in 2016, and this year’s iteration is sponsored by Google Fiber.  

In a statement accompanying the announcement of the trailblazers, NDIA Executive Director Angela Siefer noted that the COVID-19 crisis has made digital inclusion work even more important, putting a spotlight on the digital divides that have enabled some individuals to easily adjust to life at home while others have struggled to access basic services such as health care or education. 

In the interest of adding more local governments throughout the rest of the year, the NDIA’s trailblazer application process remains open

Google’s $100 Million Investment in COVID-19 Recovery

Google recently pledged $100 million to support societal recovery from COVID-19, and within that, some of the funding has the potential to support civic and gov tech work.

A full breakdown of plans for the $100 million of recovery funding can be found here. Perhaps the most direct support for tech work within the public sector comes in relation to long-distance learning, which has been allocated $10 million of the money by Google. 

In addition, part of the funding will go toward supporting AI and data work related to COVID-19, with the tech company’s blog about the donation noting that “data on the spread of COVID-19 is critical to understanding how it impacts public health and the economy.” To accomplish this, some of the Google money will go toward helping to support the application of AI as well as the development of new tools and models that can be used to track the spread of COVID-19, thereby providing real-time info to public-sector decision-makers and others. 

In addition, other money is being allocated for the support of public-related interests such as local nonprofits, small businesses led by women, and direct cash assistance for the self-employed who have been greatly affected by the crisis.

Code for America Helps Louisiana Scale Crisis Apps

Code for America — the nonpartisan and nonprofit group at the forefront of the civic tech movement in the U.S. — published a blog this week detailing how it supported Louisiana’s efforts to rapidly scale pilots aimed at combating COVID-19.

A significant part of Code for America’s mission is to support government work to bolster the social safety net and connect those who are eligible with public benefits. During the crisis, the group has noted a surge in use of some of the work it has created, particularly its work around food benefit assistance, which as the group wrote in a blog is a surge in demand that has also been felt by state governments across the country. One such state is Louisiana.

To handle increased demand, the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services partnered with Code for America to create and scale a trio of innovative solutions aimed at handling increased public need during the COVID-19 crisis.

These three products are text message alerts for the more than 400,000 households that participate in the state’s food benefits program; a new text-based campaign to help others in need understand and apply for food benefits; and a concentrated effort to collect user-experience data from those within the food benefits program.

The group concluded the blog by noting that Louisiana's agility and innovation has been encouraging in the face of this surprising and unprecedented challenge, writing “The challenges that both clients and caseworkers currently face in safety net services were unimaginable six months ago. We’re encouraged that agency leaders like those in Louisiana are seizing on findings from a small pilot, and creatively fast-tracking implementation to meet the human needs of a pandemic.”

Johns Hopkins Team Builds Potential Hot Spot Tracking App

A team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University is working on a new mobile app aimed at predicting early outbreaks for COVID-19 hot spots.

The app, dubbed COVID Control, seeks to do this by essentially crowdsourcing daily temperature readings from users. So, the way it works is that a user would download the app, enter their age and gender, and then take their temperature to enter into the app once daily. With that information, the app would then use spatial science analytics and machine learning to register when there is an increase of users who have a fever in a given area, fever being one of the key symptoms and indicators of COVID-19.

The idea is that the app would give officials an indication of when their jurisdiction, community, or area is likely to see a major spike in COVID-19 cases, doing so before those who are suffering the symptoms start to seek care. This would in turn enable those officials to better prepare for the outbreak, even if the app would not be an official source of confirmed cases. 

While the minimum requirement to participate is indicating whether one has a fever, the app also allows users to voluntarily submit whether they are experiencing other symptoms as well.

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Zack Quaintance Associate Editor

Zack Quaintance is the associate editor for Government Technology. His background includes writing for daily newspapers across the country and developing content for a software company in Austin, Texas. He is now based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached via email.

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