The U.S. Digital Response, a new nonprofit, dispatches tech-sector volunteers to assist governments with coronavirus-related projects.
Responding to the coronavirus pandemic has required state and local governments to marshal all of their public health resources. It has also required an avalanche of tech know-how: the ability to track data, to develop platforms to share and update information and new procedures to field requests for assistance from residents.
Deploying that type of rapid-fire innovation might be a strain for busy government leaders, thought Cori Zarek, director of the Digital Service Collaborative at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation.
Out of that thought was born the U.S. Digital Response, a nonprofit organization that matches volunteers—coders, project managers, analytics experts, data scientists, computer scientists, lawyers, communications experts—with governments that want to expand their digital services but don’t have the time or resources to do it alone.
“Even in ordinary times and even on its best days, government is not usually equipped with the data and tech talent it might need to fully carry out all its services and mission,” said Zarek, one of the nonprofit’s four cofounders. “Particularly in a crisis, we’re seeing those capabilities stretched really thin. And yet we have in this country an incredible wealth of tech talent and, we’ve now learned, an incredible wealth of service-minded tech talent who are interested in pitching in.”
The organization, started by former federal deputy chief technology officers and tech industry veterans, launched roughly a month ago and already has more than 4,000 volunteers, many of whom offered their services solely through word of mouth. Dozens of governments have already enlisted their help, Zarek said, including the state of New Jersey, which worked with a volunteer to create a screening questionnaire that helps small business owners determine which emergency assistance programs they qualify for.
Other projects include Covid Act Now, a website designed to help elected officials determine the scope of the pandemic in their regions, and Ask a Scientist, another collaboration with New Jersey that allows anyone with questions about the virus can seek an answer from a member of the Federal of American Scientists.
Other popular requests include the digitization of processes traditionally completed on paper applications, including requests for housing or nutrition assistance, and help beefing up existing unemployment insurance systems to make sure they aren’t overwhelmed during times of unprecedented high traffic. But governments don’t need to have a specific project in mind to receive help, Zarek said. They just need to have a need.
“We are very flexible on how we connect with and work with governments,” she said. “We realize in this moment their biggest concern, rightly, is how to keep the government running and continue to serve their constituents. However they need us is how we want to show up for them.”
That could mean a government, like New Jersey, that knows exactly what it wants to build and the personnel it needs to do so, or it could mean an agency with a problem to solve and no idea how to tackle it.
“You don’t need to have a clear picture of the exact tech system you might like to create or the exact skillset of an engineer you might like to bring on,” Zarek said. “We just need to understand what the goals are.”
Officials request volunteers by filling out a form on the U.S. Digital Response website. Typically, they’ll receive a response within 24 hours, Zarek said, though it may take longer to get matched with a volunteer (or a team of them). The services are completely free, and the organization hopes to make most projects open-source, with the goal of sharing best practices and allowing governments to easily duplicate models that work well.
“Our goal is for our work to be findable and replicable, so anyone anywhere can come across it and use it. And we hope they do,” Zarek said. “We really believe that by doing this openly we can help more people in more places, that’s ultimately the goal here.”