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In Defense of Big Tech: Pandemic Partners Answer the Call

While there are important discussions to be had about privacy, data ownership, social media and corporate citizenship, private-sector partners have stepped up to play a crucial role in pandemic response.

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There has been a theme in recent media stories about “big tech” being “bad tech.” While there are important discussions to be had about privacy, data ownership, social media’s role in civic engagement and discourse, and corporate citizenship, the truth requires a deeper discussion. For some balance, let’s look at the partnerships possible in civic technology. In truth, cities and counties enjoy relationships with their vendor partners that make social good through technology a tool at the disposal of communities. Here’s a story where big tech equals good tech. 

In March 2020, the likely arc of the COVID-19 pandemic was gaining clarity. Astute local governments were beginning to see the necessity of acting on public health needs to save lives and livelihoods. It was apparent that these would be both the worst of times and the best of times. Lives would be lost to this novel disease. People would suffer physically and economically. But we would also be the help our neighbors required in a time of hardship. And communities would rise to the occasion to help meet exceptional needs.

Against this backdrop, Ying Chan, chief of IT operations of the city of Austin, Texas, and I connected. Discussing what we were seeing as the 10th and 11th largest cities in the nation, we tried to look ahead for our communities. Following examples and science for pandemic response in Asia, we identified three things that would be crucial to saving lives. 

  • First, pandemic response would succeed best as federal, state, local and tribal governments leaned into their roles and provided leadership through remarkable coordination. 
  • Second, with personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing supplies far short of demand, logistics would define how effectively we could connect the people and businesses in our communities with the testing, supplies and services they would need to stay healthy. 
  • Third, data could play an outsized role in connecting insights from COVID-19 testing with superior public health decisions. If you know where sick people are emerging, we can optimize the placement of supplies and personnel. Issuance of public health orders could be specific to localized risks in a way that lessens the blow on domestic economies. Hospitals can prepare for waves with advanced notification, through to assigning vaccination efforts where they can choke off the spread of disease most. In this moment of great challenge, data was power and transparency was comfort.
Ying and I reached out to the best people we knew to gauge interest in allying to create a COVID-19 testing, data and response solution. Adobe, Oracle and Splunk quickly said they wanted to hear more. Globant and Whyline asked to contribute. After a few sessions architecting the solution, we put the question to our group: We had the chance to be the lifeline in a storm. It needed to be a solution that connected public health response with data and improved decision-making at the speed of the disease. It needed to be free to local and state governments struggling under the weight of a global pandemic. The call to action was to commit, build, advocate and support. 

The result of that meeting still makes me pause in awe as well as gratitude. As we surveyed the Zoom participants, every potential partner said they were on board. Adobe? “This is Colin (Wardlaw) and Megan (Atchley). We are in.” Oracle? “Celeste (O’Dea), here. Oracle is in.” Splunk? “Corey (Marshall) and Tim (Woodbury) on. Count on us.” Neil Christianson, an innovation executive in the Houston area, committed to lead the project. These companies could have said there wasn’t any revenue, or that it was someone else’s problem, or they weren’t committing until they saw federal and state governments weigh in. Instead, they did what was right. They left their badges at the door and asked what the nation’s communities needed at the moment COVID-19 caught fire. 

Those tech companies and their people stepped up and stayed true to their word through months of hard work. The COVID-19 TDR system that was built now supports Tarrant County, Texas, and Nueces County, Texas, and is slated for use in Alameda County, Calif. Through our partnership structure with the Alliance for Innovation, use and support remain free to those communities. Over 100,000 people have been tested through the system’s ability to provision sites and administer supplies in a coordinated fashion. Regional to local test results are accessible in real time by public health staff in those counties. Over 3 million people in the metro areas of Dallas/Fort Worth and Corpus Christi benefit and in Texas, those counties have helped lead the state in pandemic management.

So, in the end, Adobe, Oracle, Splunk, DataHouse, NuHarbor, and many others stepped up in a pandemic and helped saved lives. The collective team was focused at every step. We solved purchasing and legal questions with speed. The comradery and accomplishment will remain one of the high points of peoples’ careers. Can big tech be “good?” The example here shows that it certainly can. 

Tech companies often step up in crises. The good ones do so quietly and are focused on keeping their help pure. Those examples are in their company’s DNA and show a largeness of heart. It shows clarity in their values. I suspect it’s the same reason why we often look to these companies as partners, versus their “spray-and-pray” sales cousins. 

One lesson learned and one final thanks to end: First, we spoke with dozens of state, local and tribal governments about how a technology platform should work best to support pandemic response in a way that minimizes health and economic harm. There are brilliant and experienced people who know the answers. But too often, they were deferential to another agency they didn’t want to offend, and/or they felt blocked by lack of leadership from a higher level. Those issues must be solved for the nation to be successful in future pandemic response and recovery. 

Second, gratitude is a special power in hard times. It rights our compass and clarifies what’s most important at a human level. It shifts emotions from short-term exhaustion to a sense of journey. In terms of gratitude, a number of us will forever be impressed by that moment when some of the biggest and best tech companies responded to the challenge of helping communities with the worst pandemic in 100 years for free: “We are in.”

Rob Lloyd is a civic technologist and serves as the CIO for the city of San Jose. He has served in C-level roles spanning state/local government and utilities in California, Arizona, Oregon and Colorado. In that time, he and his teams have earned over 30 national honors for exceptional customer engagement, operational excellence, and innovation through technology. Follow him on Twitter and on LinkedIn.  

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