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What’s New in Civic Tech: New App Traces Coronavirus Contact

Plus, University of Michigan launches an online guide to help stimulus check recipients; civic technologist creates free chatbots for health service; the New York State tech team attracts 6,500 volunteers; and more.

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Developers have built a new smartphone app for tracing potential coronavirus infections. 

A team of researchers at the University of California, Irvine announced the tool this week, describing as potentially “instrumental” in the effort to trace and track infections, which is something governors have described as a vital step in reopening the economy. The tool is called TrackCOVID, and it is a free, open-sourced app that its creators say also ensures the privacy of those who are potentially affected. 

In-depth information about the project can be found in a recently-published paper. In short, this has to do with something called contact tracing, which means tracking down and isolating anyone who has been exposed after an individual tests positive for an infectious disease. This has traditionally been a slow, inefficient process, and previous efforts to find tech-based means of speeding it up have been met with concerns related to privacy violations. 

TrackCOVID, however, is different in that it developers say it works by creating “an anonymous graph of interactions.” People using the app simply log contacts by hosting or joining a checkpoint when they go out in public. When a person registers at that same checkpoint, they get a quick response code. 

What all of this adds up to is a system wherein over time interactions are linked to each other anonymously. If someone then tests positive for COVID-19, they report it through the app without revealing their identity, and the app goes on to notify users who via the checkpoint login system were potentially at an elevated risk of exposure. 

In a press release announcing the app, developers urged local, state and other government entities to endorse its use, and they also stressed that it would be helpful to enlist grocery stores and other essential gathering places for outreach. Ideas for outreach include posting signs displaying the QR code for the app that visitors can quickly scan to both download it and be checked in. 

“If enough public places are doing this, then a lot of contact tracing will happen without any users making a conscious effort other than scanning a QR code when they go shopping,” said report co-author Brandon Lehrich in the release. “From there, I think people will start to see the value of the app and begin using it to create checkpoints for their private interactions as well.”

The creation of the app comes during a time of swirling questions surrounding what returning to normal will look like for the country after this pandemic, with minimum expectations for a vaccine timeline placed at around 18 months. Several governors, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom, have pointed to testing and tracking as a key part of regaining some normalcy for American life. 

University of Michigan Launches Stimulus Check Guide

With the help of a company that has been a leader in human-centric design applications within state government, the University of Michigan has created a guide for how individuals can ensure receipt of their federal government stimulus check.

The site is online now, titled How to Get Your $1,200 Stimulus Check, and the bulk of it is a question and answer section that addresses problems and inquiries such as who is eligible to receive the check, will the money be considered taxable income, what to do if one doesn’t have a bank account, how to avoid scams related to the stimulus payments and more. 

The company that helped the university create this is Detroit-based Civilla, which lent assistance to Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan by user testing language to ensure clarity and to maximize understanding, both of which are key tenets of human-centric design that are being increasingly embraced by online governmental products and services.

The stimulus checks from the federal government are aimed at lessening the economic blow of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. They are one-time checks for individuals that offer $1,200 for those making less than $75,000 a year. They have largely been determined and distributed based on tax data kept by the IRS.

The trouble for some residents, however, comes if they have not recently filed taxes with the IRS or do not have an easily accessible and consistent address or bank account for the money to be sent to. Part of the function of the website is addressing challenges such as those, as well as others. 

Civic Technologist Creates Free Chatbots for the Health Services Space

The founder of the chatbot platform Tars has now created a series of free chatbots aimed primarily at helping those within the health service space. 

Specifically, there are three different chatbots, all of which are related to COVID-19 and the ongoing pandemic. Those three chatbots are a coronavirus risk assessment chatbot, a COVID-19 case tracker chatbot and a COVID-19 frequently asked questions chatbot. These chatbots, while most useful for those working on the frontlines of the crisis, are filled with valuable information that anyone can use.

Users can, for example, take an assessment that guides them through risks and symptoms of COVID-19, ultimately gauging how likely they are to have the virus by taking into account current health as well as health history. The idea of that first chatbot is to serve as a facsimile for cursory and introductory interactions with health-care workers, thereby lessening the burden on them.

And the other two chatbots function the same way, doling out a wide range of information, most of which has been culled from the Centers for Disease Control’s own online resources, and is just being imparted here in a friendlier format. 

New York State Tech Team Attracts 6,500 Crisis Volunteers

After putting out a call for volunteers to help with tech-driven responses to the COVID-19 crisis, New York state’s COVID-19 Technology Swat Team has now attracted more than 6,500 responses. 

The volunteers for this project all come from the tech sector, with officials noting in a tweet that this wave of helpers is bringing a wide range of experience and skills to the table, including Web/mobile development, data science/analytics, end-user support and digital content strategy. The state is also continuing to solicit more tech help, noting that they are still inviting “technology companies, universities, nonprofits, research labs, and other organizations with technology expertise” to express interest in helping with this response. 

For those unfamiliar with New York state’s Tech SWAT team, it is a service partnership that aims to bring in leading tech companies to support the work being done in response to the pandemic outbreak. They are doing so with a host of tools, including data, operations, Web apps and more. 

As organizers note on the team’s website, “Almost every facet of the response effort has a technological component that we’re supporting or leading.” New York state has been the jurisdiction hit the hardest by the outbreak by a large margin, leading in infections and deaths specifically within New York City. 

Code for Chapel Hill Launches North Carolina COVID Support Site

Code for Chapel Hill — a civic tech group that is as its name implies based in Chapel Hill, N.C. — has built a new Web platform to support the COVID-19 response in the state.

Fittingly dubbed NC COVID Support, the site is primarily a means of locating necessities for citizens. With a map as its dominant element, it can be used to find restaurants, free meals, pet supplies, pharmacies and more. Users can also toggle by the day on which they need to visit these essential services, doing so with a data layer that shows what’s open and when.

In addition to the locating data, the site can also be used to find out information related to social distancing, including whether establishments are doing curbside pick-up or online payments. So far, it has been populated with data for Orange County, N.C., which is home to Chapel Hill. Developers are encouraging users to add new information for other areas of the state as well.

Code for Chapel Hill is a member of Code for America's Brigade Network, which is a group of regional civic tech groups conveened by the national organization. 

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.