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5 Ways COVID-19 Pushed Digital Services into the Spotlight

From fast-paced development and a focus on equity to GIS work and contact tracing, the pandemic showed that, despite challenges, digital services are crucial to making government work well today.

Two people wearing face maks and riding the subway in New York City during COVID-19.
Local government continues to struggle against the compounding forces of collapsing revenues and sharply escalating demands for more services, especially as residents face small business losses, poverty or illness. Over the last year — and in the face of these challenges — digital services emerged from their half-decade of growing pains, a struggle that mostly occurred in the shadows, to become a key player in municipal solutions.   

The following five broad areas of accomplishment are a tribute to the skills and hard work of those involved, but are also a road map for future improvements in governance.

First is the increasing recognition of data as a valuable asset in and of itself. Kelly Jin, chief analytics officer and director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, quickly found herself at the center of escalating requests from city agencies and external organizations, who offered assistance in the form of information and data, in addition to supplies. Jin, who also chairs the Harvard Kennedy School’s chief data officers leadership group, the Civic Analytics Network, quickly produced the NYC Recovery Data Partnership. A similar effort in D.C., according to the district’s Chief Data Officer Barney Krucoff, was a high-quality and easy-to-use COVID data coordination, flow and cataloging project.

The second area is the mainstreaming of GIS data and visualizations, not just for problem management and solution services, but also for creating shared narratives that powered community solutions. Whether the maps are global, such as the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Map, or local like those used by Cobb County, Ga., to crowdsource grocery inventory, the ability of maps to frame a narrative and help a mayor or governor rally public opinion became crystal clear.

Third was the rapid deployment of solutions in a manner that was previously unimaginable. One such effort, an initiative between NYC and the software company Unqork, was a New York City-based no-code software project that automated the delivery of food to high-need families and individuals. By creating food delivery routes that utilized out-of-work taxi drivers to connect distribution centers with those needing supplies, the city was able to meet an urgent need in weeks, not months or years.

Additionally, companies like Contrace recruited 300,000 Americans interested and ready to serve as COVID-19 contact tracers and then partnered with staffing/consulting firms across the country to rapidly deploy them. Tracers were assigned to teams across the U.S. and were quickly trained on digital tools in order to fulfill their mission of tracking and alerting exposure to the coronavirus. A group of adjoining cities in Pennsylvania (Allentown, Bethlehem, Wilkes-Barre and York) combined to use Esri’s GIS cloud-based tools and data analytics platform to help organize and deploy the contact tracers.  

Fourth, many cities quickly began using data to manage infection risk. This includes using data to monitor risk by neighborhood or business, as well as implementing contactless government to minimize in-person contact. Many local governments quickly digitized services, as well as offered expanded digital payment options to decrease physical touchpoints. One example of the latter is Austin’s parking payment initiative that allows drivers to pay for parking through multiple apps, including Google Maps.  

Finally, one other major area of accomplishment involved using digital tools to monitor and manage equity across a variety of areas. The Anchor Collaborative consortium, which includes the NAACP, uses layered data and maps to improve Census response rates and voter registration. As Betsy Gardner explained in a story for Data-Smart City Solutions

By visualizing, tracking and sharing data on Census responses, voter registration and voter suppression, the Anchor Collaborative is intent on revealing and repairing the racist power structures that have disenfranchised millions of Americans of color, while best directing their limited funding in a data-driven way.

Over the past year, many cities have focused on equity through the lens of access, an especially important area as many schools moved to distance learning and many workplaces shifted to remote work. In Philadelphia, a project to increase reliable high-speed Internet access was a critical part of this year’s governance.

This list is clear, as are the principles. When supplies become limited and needs unlimited, data can help city officials direct services where they will make the biggest impact and chart risk in ways that instigate a necessary recalibration of government.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America; The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance; and A New City O/S.