What’s New in Civic Tech: Communities Respond to COVID-19

Plus, government advocacy groups create coronavirus resources online; state governments build digital platforms to centralize response efforts; top local gov philanthropy group convenes virtual workshops; and more.

by / March 19, 2020

In the midst of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic and resultant orders to stay home, many in the government space are turning to technology for help.

This help ranges from livestreaming council meetings to building digital hubs where citizens can access resources. Technology-enabled actions this week have evolved on a near-daily basis, as more state, local and federal government leaders make decisions about how to handle the crisis.

At the same time, citizen and volunteer tech groups have contributed as well, as workers and students nationwide have adjusted to life confined at home. This same new reality has also accentuated the digital divide — the gap between those who have access to technology and the skills to use it meaningfully, and those who don’t — leading to renewed calls to close it among government stakeholders.

It is with all this in mind that this week’s What’s New in Civic Tech feature is dedicated entirely to the government tech and innovation work being done to combat the novel coronavirus outbreak.

State and Local Governments Head Online to Help Citizens

State and local governments have taken online to get their constituents up-to-date information about the COVID-19 outbreak, as well as to centralize resources that members of their community may need.

The list of states who have now done this is long and growing by the day, and it already includes states of all sizes and regions, from Connecticut to Illinois, from Delaware to Colorado. The range of information and uses for the sites is almost as diverse as the states themselves.

Some states, like California, have designed stylized and easy-to-read lists of things that residents should and should not be doing to stop the spread. Others have visualizations of which counties have so far registered positive coronavirus cases, too. 

Many governors are providing live updates through the sites, which in almost all cases also double as central hubs to find resources from smaller state government agencies, including education, health, employment and more. A full list of these portals can be found here from Government Technology.

And state government actors are not alone in using technology to create these centralized coronavirus response locales online. 

Take, for example, San Jose, Calif., which has built a localized response site for its citizens, with a Silicon Valley Strong webpage. That site features many of the same informational resources as the corresponding sites at the state level, along with links aimed at facilitating donations to help the community and its most vulnerable populations.  

This proliferation of online resources is not just for the citizens. A number of convening councils and governmental advisory groups have also created online resources for mayors and other public-sector leaders. The Council of State Governments has created a coronavirus platform, as has the National League of Cities and the United States Conference of Mayors

Finally, the National Conference of State Legislatures is keeping track of how COVID-19 is impacting statehouses nationwide, noting instances of suspension and postponement of committee hearings, reduced public access, temporary closures of capitol buildings and opportunities for remote participation in the legislative process. 

Bloomberg Philanthropies, What Works Cities Boost Local Gov Support Amid COVID-19

Meanwhile, the chief philanthropic organizations that financially support tech and innovation progress for local government within the United States are boosting their efforts as well. 

Bloomberg Cities has swung into action and compiled a survey this week of the top coronavirus concerns facing U.S. mayors, many of which have tech and innovation components. Such concerns include rapidly navigating evolving scientific circumstances as well as being able to communicate reliable information to citizens and others. 

In addition, Bloomberg Philanthropies on Thursday hosted the first virtual meeting of the Coronavirus Local Response Initiative, which convened 180 mayors as well as experts from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. The Coronavirus Local Response Initiative is, in addition to another new $40 million program funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, aimed at preventing or slowing down the spread of coronavirus in low- and middle-income countries, dubbed the Coronavirus Global Response Initiative.  

In a statement, Bloomberg Philanthropies founder and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said “there’s an enormous gap between the support the federal government is providing and the support local governments need” and that these initiatives are designed to help fill the gap. 

Finally, What Works Cities — which was launched by Bloomberg Philanthropies and is actively engaged in supporting and guiding gov tech innovation work at the local level nationwide — has created its own resource bank to aid local government coronavirus response. That platform has a wide range of lists, resources, city examples and commentary that may be helpful to those charged with leading response efforts.

Public, Private Stakeholders Fight Digital Divide to Enable Coronavirus Responses

Many workers and students have found themselves confined to their homes this week in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic outbreak, and as a result, digital equity advocates are taking action.

At the federal level, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Geoffrey Starks wrote an op-ed in The New York Times calling upon FCC leadership to take action and help support broadband initiatives that can boost Internet speeds and make access to the Internet at home more accessible across the country.

More localized action is being taken in the private sector across the country as well, as many Internet service providers are taking it upon themselves to create new programs that help households get better access to the Internet, especially those that now have children relying on e-learning. These can be found in communities ranging from Upstate New York to San Diego.

Washington, D.C., area residents can find information about a program in their area here. In nearby Philadelphia, residents can go online to find a list the city has compiled of safe spaces and free meals for school kids. 

Map Visualizes Availability of Hospital Beds in the U.S.

Finally, a new data visualization illustrates the cross-section of counties in the U.S. that lack available hospital beds while at the same time having more senior residents than the national average.

That map can be found here.

Zack Quaintance Assistant News Editor

Zack Quaintance is the assistant news editor for Government Technology. His background includes writing for daily newspapers across the country and developing content for a software company in Austin, Texas. He is now based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached via email.

Platforms & Programs