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NYC and USDR Team-Up for Long-Term Digitization Amid Crisis

A civic tech fellowship that was born out of crisis response earlier this year has now lead to nearly half a dozen successful digitization projects in New York City, with no sign of slowing down.

Empty streets in New York City.
Empty streets in New York City.
New York City has created a new civic tech fellowship program that is rapidly yielding results while also fueling innovation culture within the country’s largest local government. 

The program is called NYC[x] Innovation Fellows, and it is essentially a team up between the civic tech group U.S. Digital Response (USDR), and the NYC Mayor’s Office of the CTO, although the work it has already done has involved many agencies within the city as well. The program will soon close applications for its second cohort of volunteer participants, who will help it to tally half a dozen finished projects in roughly as many months — an incredibly rapid pace of work for any civic tech program.

To understand how New York City was able to create such a prolific initiative, one must start by looking at the roots of the NYC[x] Innovation Fellows, which span back to March and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic saw New York City suffer immensely under the weight of its outbreak. At the same time, the USDR was formed, in large part to help cities like New York use technology to respond to and manage the pandemic. The two teamed up almost immediately about the USDR’s formation, said Alexis Wichowski, deputy chief technology office for innovation within the NYC Mayor’s Office of the CTO.

What the USDR did was pull together thousands of technologists — many of whom had never worked with government and held jobs in the private sector — to volunteer to aid governmental work. New York found itself in great need. One problem was that the city was in dire need of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the medical personnel on the front line of the crisis. Dozens of different agencies within the city were procuring PPE, while private companies were making donations and manufacturing efforts were stepping up to meet demand.

The city, meanwhile, was tracking it all manually with emails and spreadsheets.

“In a crisis situation it was the best we could do, but we very quickly realized we were not getting any insights,” Wichowski said.

That’s where USDR came in. The group’s volunteers helped the city create a new dashboard it could use to view PPE inventory, remaining needs and more. And they did it all within a week.

But the work didn’t stop there.

The New York City Emergency Management Department had a need around isolation hotels, which were being used for people to quarantine. The city needed to track where people were staying, when they were being tested, and when they were getting checkups and care. The volunteer technologists helped them create a tracker for this data as well. 

Both of these projects were stated as needs by the city, conceived by the technologists and executed by both partners in a matter of days, a timeline that Wichowski called “amazing.”

By June, the partners decided to give their fruitful new relationship more structure, and that was the start of what grew into NYC[x] Innovation Fellows, with the first cohort of 12 launching in August. These fellowships would span a total of eight weeks, asking from participants 20 volunteer hours each week.

Jessica Cole, who is part of the core team of USDR, said that the city is to be credited for being willing to open up its governmental workings for volunteer technologists, eliminating obstacles that can sometimes hamstring civic tech efforts.

“It takes a special kind of government team to be creative and nimble enough to figure out and translate an interest in helping into a program that is truly effective at helping constituents,” Cole said.

So far, the fellows have created three functioning projects: one that uses artificial intelligence to translate government websites into other languages, a hate crimes prevention dashboard and a broadband asset map — all of which are projects Wichoski said the city would have liked to have executed prior to the crisis and will continue to use long after the crisis has passed.

The second cohort is slated to work on projects that involve a data directory to help women and minority-owned businesses disproportionately impacted by COVID; payment processing online to reduce physical trips to government buildings; and helping older adults in New York City gain access to virtual programming.

While all of this is fantastic and productive, there are less tangible benefits to the program for both the city and for the technologists. Meg Towle was one of the first cohort of Innovation Fellows, and she said this program is a meaningful way to indoctrinate private-sector technologists into government work, many of whom have never done or considered that work in the past.

For the city, part of the program involves weekly demo sessions where attendees from municipal agencies can learn firsthand about the agile methodology the volunteers are deploying. As many as 16 other agencies have attended these sessions. 

The program has proven so successful, that NYC is creating a guidebook for other cities looking to replicate it, while USDR is working to scale it to other municipal partners.

“What governments are finding right now are that they can either use these moments of crisis to take one step in the right direction,” Cole said, “or they can use the surge of support to take a leap in a direction they’ve always wanted to go.”


Civic Tech
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.