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Coronavirus Is Inspiring Wave of Gov Tech Volunteerism

The U.S. Digital Response is a volunteer effort made of some 3,500 technology experts. Their mission is to help all levels of government meet increased service demands during the COVID-19 crisis.

code on a screen
Shutterstock/Melody Smart
Whether it’s the surge of unemployment claims, or simply setting up a virtual private network (VPN) from home offices, government agencies and the IT departments supporting them have been faced with a tsunami of needs since the outbreak of COVID-19.

The pandemic — which has sickened nearly 580,000 Americans, killing more than 23,000, and hobbled the global economy — has also inspired legions of government technology experts from various backgrounds to volunteer their time and expertise to help government at all levels overcome these hurdles.

The loosely assembled nonprofit ad hoc group called the U.S. Digital Response is now more than 3,500 strong.

“The help can be things like people,” said Raylene Yung, a co-founder of USDR with a background in the private sector, working with companies like Facebook and Stripe. “And so that’s a relatively easy placement."

She added that sometimes the needs of an organization are more ambiguous, recalling one situation where systems were largely paper-based and in need of an office-based printer. Yung said situations like this require a more "consultative" approach to share advice and move processes forward.

USDR was assembled largely by Code for America alumni and veterans of the Chief Technology Office under the Obama administration.

A significant part of today’s U.S. Digital Response requests are data related, such as systems showing an availability of personal protective equipment (PPE), hospital beds, ventilators and other virus-related data points.

The work of USDR has inspired longtime gov tech educator O’Reilly Media, a facilitator of online learning for public-sector organizations. O’Reilly is making its platform available free of charge to local, state and federal agencies through July 6, 2020.

O’Reilly quickly understood that in a number of cases an army of tech volunteers is what’s needed by government. However, in other situations, “what they need is just better access to knowledge,” said company founder Tim O’Reilly. “And that’s where O’Reilly comes in, because we have this knowledge platform.”

O’Reilly is married to Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America and the United States Digital Service when she was CTO in the Obama White House. O’Reilly has no formal relationship with the U.S. Digital Response.

The O’Reilly offer went out early last week, and already, several thousand people at all levels of government have expressed interest.

The U.S. Digital Response is structured in three parts, Yung explained, with one of those arms as an online platform where government officials can write in and ask for help on any number of issues. Another group is set up to deal with larger concerns that require pairing the government agency with a tech volunteer or team of volunteers.

Much of the focus of the work leans toward data and digital needs, with USDR focusing in areas like data science, engineering and project managers from an equal mix of experience in the private sector and others with government technology experience.

“I would say that reflects the great extent of our networks,” said Yung.

“That’s how it started. But it’s evolved a lot. And now what is especially cool is we have different needs, and we’ll broadcast them,” she explained. “So over the last week or two, trends were coming up. One was we realized we were needing more ‘content’ help. Because a lot of what we were doing is helping cities communicate what was happening. And so we had very few people who were content specialists or content candidates in our database. So we put out a call for more.”

One need to grab headlines in the mainstream press was a desire for computer programmers with knowledge of COBOL, the Space Age-era programing language often associated with large government mainframe systems.

“We had very few people who had that skill set and then, within kind of a day or two of it being out there, people posting about it, we had like dozens of people sign up,” said Yung. 

For all the hardship brought by the coronavirus, the crisis is also fostering the development of new ways for government to work, and the formation of new relationships among public-sector agencies and others who may want to join the ranks of government.

“We might put a SWAT team of volunteers on for now, and maybe they’ll go back to their normal jobs after, but they’re going to help create these sort of new ideas around how to build easier to use, scalable, forms that I think will stay on with the states and cities we work with,” said Yung.

“I think there’s maybe a side-effect where some of our volunteers may get really excited about working for government and wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a new generation of gov tech people that come out of this,” she added.  

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.