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What’s New in Civic Tech: Weighing Data Reuse for COVID-19

Plus, Philadelphia groups launch digital equity helplines, experts issue a report on the IT components of Philadelphia’s new payroll system, and local stakeholders call for additional federal support of disrupted Census.

by / June 25, 2020
New York City's subway system, carrying millions of passengers daily, seems like the ideal way to spread COVID-19. But the evidence isn't so clear. (Shutterstock)

A new initiative aims to essentially take the measure of how people feel about data reuse being deployed to combat COVID-19.

This initiative is called The Data Assembly, and it’s starting by working within New York City. It is founded by The GovLab, a research group housed within the New York University Tandon School of Engineering, and it is supported by the Henry Luce Foundation. In order to understand the group’s goals, one must first be familiar with the concept of data reuse, which in its simplest form means taking research data that was collected with the intention of accomplishing one purpose and using it to accomplish another.

In a press release announcing this new initiative earlier this week, officials wrote, “Understanding that policymakers often lack information about the concerns of different stakeholders, The Data Assembly’s deliberations will inform the creation of a responsible data re-use framework to guide the use of data and technology at the city and state level to fight COVID-19’s many consequences.”

In order to get a sense of how a given community feels about these issues, Data Assembly stakeholders also noted that their plans called for deliberating with civil rights organizations, the holders of key data, policymakers and members of the public at large. They will be doing this work through remote engagement, specifically citing the use of surveys and online town hall meetings. The intent is to include people from across different strata of society en route to determining how officials might exercise control over the flow of data while still using it to make decisions in the service of limiting COVID-19.

Once the deliberations have been completed, plans also call for creating concrete paths to use data to solve other public challenges. The Data Assembly estimates that its work is the first such public-facing effort to deliberate on the benefits and drawbacks of data reuse, specifically in the service of COVID-19 response by the public sector. 

In terms of specifics, it is perhaps also worth noting that examples of data reuse in this context include using mobile data to measure the impact of social isolation, and the use of other data to improve disease treatment, identify supplies and generate further insights. 

Finally, the other notable bit in the press release announcing this effort is that those involved are aware of the complications. 

“The work recognizes that policymakers must determine an appropriate balance between the potential benefits and costs of re-using data,” officials wrote. “This balance should take into account the different, and sometimes contradictory, needs and values of different stakeholders.”

Three Philadelphia Community Groups Launch Digital Equity Helplines

Philadelphia has embraced a new digital equity approach to social distancing known as digital navigators, which means training staff to provide digital skills training and other tech support over the phone or other distanced communication methods.

To support this, Philadelphia’s Digital Literacy Alliance (DLA) recently awarded grants to three community groups, aiming to fund their efforts to train staffers in digital navigator skills within their organizations. Earlier this week, the groups’ digital navigator hotlines went live. 

Now, Philadelphians who need help with technology can call these groups to get it. The three groups are the Community Learning Center, the ExCITe Center at Drexel University, and SEAMAAC. Digital navigators within these groups — which were selected because they were already trusted digital inclusion groups within the community — can provide Internet and tech support. 

“Each of these groups understood the immediate technology challenges presented by COVID-19 and the importance of working toward digital equity in Philadelphia,” said Andrew Buss, deputy chief information officer for innovation at the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology, in a press release. “The DLA is eager to test the digital navigation model in Philadelphia and adapt it to support our residents as they work and learn online.”

The digital navigators will also be available to help residents get access to the Internet, providing support for them to find and apply for affordable Internet connections or other low-cost tech access initiatives. 

Report Evaluates IT Components of Philadelphia’s New Payroll System

Also in Philadelphia civic tech news, the city controller’s office recently completed a report that evaluates the new OnePhilly payroll system for municipal employees, and the report found a number of shortcomings that need to be addressed.

What it found, according to a press release, was “multiple breakdowns in the system’s functionality and controls that led to employees being paid incorrectly and inefficiencies across departments.”

As a result, the controller’s office has now called on the mayor to halt proposed spending on a separate new accounting, procurement and contracting system until the city has guaranteed that all employees are being correctly paid through the payroll system. The idea is that the city should not engage in another large-scale IT overhaul project until ensuring the earlier project has been implemented free of additional hiccups.

More information about all of this, as well as details about recommendations from the controller’s office, can be found in the report. 

Local Stakeholders Call for Additional Federal Support of Disrupted Census Efforts

Nearly 150 national, state and local groups involved with the U.S. Census have called on the U.S. Senate to match a plan from the U.S. House of Representatives to give $400 million to the Census in the next federal COVID-19 relief bill.

The money, the stakeholders stressed in a co-signed letter, would help replenish the U.S. Census Bureau’s depleted contingency funds as it continues to deal with massive disruptions brought about by the advent of a pandemic. Census field operations in particular have suffered massive setbacks, with many involved worrying that the ongoing resurgence of COVID-19 could make things even worse. 

The signers of the new letter were varied, and the list of them includes the National Association of Towns and Townships, the National League of Cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and many others. Part of the request for the money is the fact that even with the pandemic aside, the effort to get the count completed faces other contingencies, among which the group cites potential IT failures. 

This decade’s count, it should be noted, is the first high-tech Census, with respondents encouraged first and foremost to fill out the necessary information digitally. This inherently means that the potential for IT setbacks has never been greater.

Data collected by this year’s U.S. Census will be used over the next decade to determine federal funding allocations, political representation at the federal level, and information that the private sector uses to make business decisions. An inaccurate count has repercussions that are vast and wide-spanning.

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Zack Quaintance Assistant News Editor

Zack Quaintance is the assistant news 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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