What’s New in Civic Tech: Pearl Jam Publicizes New COVID App

Plus, Michigan’s central IT shop has now released new data about its work helping with the pandemic response, the University of Kansas shares its 54th edition of a statewide data set, and more.

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As states continue to roll out COVID-19 exposure alert apps for residents, the challenge becomes getting the word out about them. Washington state, however, recently got some help in this effort from — that’s right, you guessed it — Pearl Jam.

Specifically, the state got some help from Pearl Jam rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard, a native of Seattle. Gossard helped out by teaming with the Washington State Department of Health for a YouTube PSA. The brief — roughly 40 seconds — video is a good example of how notable members of a community can use tech to help government solve obstacles, and it is perhaps a small hint at what’s to come once similar efforts begin in full force for the COVID-19 vaccine, presumably using technology as a way to spread the word.

In the video, Gossard introduces himself, before jumping into a quick explanation of what the app can be used for, how it works, what the privacy situation is and how folks can add it to their phone.

“So, wear masks, stay in small groups, socially distance and protect other people by using this new app,” Gossard says in the video. “I’ve got it on my phone, and I hope you do, too.”

Washington rolled out its WA Notify app this fall, joining more than a dozen other states that have already done the same. All of these apps are relatively simple, and they function much the same way: they are anonymous, no-cost and voluntary, asking users to submit positive test results into apps, subsequently sending alerts to anyone who may have been in their proximity.

The apps all have measures in place to protect privacy. In other words, it won’t alert you if you’ve been in contact with a famous guitarist, but it will alert you that you’ve been near someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Michigan’s Tech Shop Details Pandemic Response Measures

The Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget noted that pandemic response led its list of accomplishments in 2020, doing so by sharing a look at the work it did to help stem the impact of COVID-19.

There’s a long list of what the tech folks in Michigan did to organize, aid and support the state’s COVID-19 response, and that list included securing 200 million personal protective equipment (PPE) items, expanding broadband access to more than 10,000 new users, answering more than 500,000 COVID-related questions via chatbot, assigning 274 employees to COVID-19 support work and more. 

This is perhaps the most important story of the year for many state and local IT shops, including Michigan — when the challenges needed fast, efficient and cost-effective solutions, the tech folks were there.

University of Kansas Shares 54th Edition of Statewide Data Set

The University of Kansas has released the 54th edition of its Kansas Statistical Abstract (KSA), which is essentially a look at statewide data sets. 

This year’s edition is perhaps more remarkable than most because it contains information related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic turmoil. Specifically, it features data in 16 categories “that provides context for the challenges Kansans are now facing,” according to the press release. The KSA was developed by the university’s Institute for Policy and Social Research staff, and it features the most recent available data. 

Key findings in this year’s edition are related to everything from medical resources to the digital divide to solar energy. For example, interested parties can learn from the KSA what the patterns of hospital usage rates were in the state, providing a control data set to compare with COVID-19 usage rates. As it relates to the digital divide, there is also a map that shows broadband availability in Kansas, which is especially useful for any new efforts to get more folks connected in the name of social distancing. 

Finally, this marks a bit of a landmark for the KSA, which as of this edition has now been available online without cost for 20 years.

Mayor Pete — Biden’s Transportation Secretary Pick — Has History in Local Transit Innovation

Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and one-time candidate for the Democratic nomination for president was tapped by President-elect Joe Biden this week as his nomination for U.S. transportation secretary. 

As close watchers of the local gov and civic tech innovation space may remember, Buttigieg has a history with innovative transportation work at the local level. Specifically, while Buttigieg was mayor, South Bend was one of nine cities that won $1 million from a 2018 Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge. That money helped develop a plan that helped low-income and part-time workers with unreliable transportation get to work via a partnership with ride-share companies, offsetting costs by working with employers. 

The plan was South Bend’s Commuters Trust, and it’s still functioning today. 

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine