Public Housing Is Fighting Back Against COVID

The Auxiliary
6 min readAug 3, 2020


The Auxiliary, the Albany Public Housing Authority, Cantrell, Big Josh, and Bitta Beats teamed up to make the hottest public health campaign ever been made.

(L-R: Imran Hafiz, Beckett Mufson, Cantrell, Bitta Beats, Big Josh) Photo: The Auxiliary

What does a gospel-rap anthem written by the hardest MCs in Albany, GA have to do with the coronavirus pandemic? That’s how the local public housing authority is fighting back against viral misinformation. Dr. William Myles, the first Black CEO of the Albany Housing Authority, and The Auxiliary teamed up with Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Southern trap legend Big Josh, and up-and-coming Mass Appeal signee Cantrell to protect their community. Here’s a short clip of what they made:

COVID in Public Housing

Public housing communities have been left behind and ignored by the federal and state government. A Gothamist analysis found that public housing residents in New York City who contracted COVID were more than twice as likely to die as the general population. A variety of factors contribute to the COVID death rate, but these numbers are unacceptable. Something must be done to protect the most vulnerable Americans.

The UN and WHO identified the infodemic, the overwhelming deluge of information about COVID — good, outdated, and blatantly false — as the key factor that enables the virus to spread. COVID doesn’t spread by itself, people spread it when they aren’t social distancing, wearing masks, and following the other guidelines recommended by the CDC. The infodemic makes it confusing and time-consuming to find verified information about the virus. Most people know that wearing masks and social distancing are recommended to stop the spread of COVID, but 28% say it’s difficult to know how best to prevent the spread of the virus.

While affluent Americans flee to safety, the key to stopping the spread of COVID is ensuring the rest of us have access to unignorable, understandable public health information.

Dr. Myles, Governor Brian Kemp, and Georgia

Photo: Dr. William Myles

In this context, Dr. Myles needed a new way to reach his residents in the age of the virus. The Albany Public Housing Authority, like many local institutions, disseminates key information through a patchwork of Facebook groups, emails, phone calls, physical flyers, and going door-to-door. These methods are outdated, ineffective, and in the case of the latter, a dangerous risk of viral spread. Instead, he’s bringing his community a new way to get authoritative information to empower them to protect themselves from COVID.

Dr. Myles envisions a world where all his residents get immediate alerts with the information they need to keep themselves and their families safe. He needs a solution that instantly puts up-to-date, authoritative information into people’s hands without the clutter of social media and official public health websites. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter measure the success of content based on engagement, which means they are particularly susceptible to misinformation. Even people commenting to correct false information in a post are engaging with it. As Governor Brian Kemp voids local mask mandates, we need a new platform that doesn’t measure engagement as success. We need a platform that results in fewer negative health outcomes.

The First-to-Know System and UgoRound

Photo: UgoRound and Gavin Bernstein

The First-to-Know Alert System is that platform.

End users download an app called UgoRound, which powers the system. They immediately see themselves on a map with whatever First-to-Know Groups are nearby. They sign up for relevant First-to-Know Groups without logging in or providing any personal information. Then, they can forget about the app entirely—until there’s an emergency.

Imagine a hurricane is coming and residents need to evacuate; they get an alert with a map detailing when and where to go. A child is missing but there’s no AMBER Alert: they receive a rich-text alert with a photo sent by a member of their own community. A COVID outbreak has been identified in their neighborhood; they’re instantly alerted where to get tested for those nearby, and where to avoid for those far away. The information is sent instantly and online, circumventing clogged email inboxes and distracting Facebook pages with no risk of passing COVID along with the message. He’s already in the process of bringing First-to-Know to the Albany Public Housing Authority.

UgoRound was created by Gavin Bernstein, a lifelong activist who sold his house to support his dream of designing an emergency alert system for the 21st century. He is currently providing the service to the Albany Public Housing Authority for free. When he started UgoRound the idea was ahead of its time. Now, it’s right on time.

The Auxiliary

Photo: The Auxiliary

The biggest challenge of any app-based service is getting new people to download it. That’s where The Auxiliary comes in. We’re a communications agency founded by two VICE journalists-turned-marketers: CEO Imran Hafiz and COO Beckett Mufson. Dr. Myles contracted us to implement the system and help his residents sign up.

Hafiz co-authored The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook and won the Arizona Martin Luther King, Jr. Living the Dream Award for activism before he graduated high school. He used his public policy training from Duke University to act on his unique perspective at VICE, working on the Emmy-winning VICE on HBO team that sent Dennis Rodman to North Korea and introducing Bernie Sanders to Killer Mike for a show that never aired, among other things. He later made millions of dollars for Fortune 500 companies as a creative, strategist, and publisher for VICE Media’s ad agency, VIRTUE.

Mufson was a top-trafficked reporter at VICE for five years, covering internet culture and transmedia, first for VICE and Intel’s The Creators Project, and then for the editorial team. He later worked on campaigns for top entertainment brands like HBO, Showtime, and Facebook Watch. He helped Hafiz start The Auxiliary while on sabbatical from Sean Parker’s video chat app company, Airtime.

Our Creative Approach in Albany

We drove 1,000 miles from a safe haven in Buffalo, NY to the hot zone of Albany, GA to implement First-to-Know. We’re bringing the cultural fluency of VICE to the world of local public health messaging.

We spent weeks getting to know the community through interviews and social distancing with locals to produce a campaign that would serve the AHA as best as possible. After a rigorous creative process, we pitched Dr. Myles three creative campaigns—and he ordered them all:

  1. Porch Stories: We’ll hold a mirror up to the community by shooting down-to-Earth, real interviews with public housing residents on their porches.
  2. Ask a Nurse: When they’re uncertain about a piece of information everyone in Albany asks a friend or family member who works in healthcare. We’ll give them a break by capturing video of nurses answering common questions about the pandemic — the ones they get over and over again.
  3. Music Moves Us: Area rappers like Big Josh and Cantrell will collaborate with the largest local church, Mt. Zion of Albany, to tell stories of their experience with COVID in a huge gospel-rap anthem. The song will include how the community is taking measures to keep itself safe, including First-to-Know, and the accompanying music video will feature local landmarks and a mask and sanitizer giveaway.

Locals were involved in every step of the way, from research to production. By partnering with trusted voices in the community, we can ensure that everyone in the local community signs up for the First-to-Know System that will keep them in the loop, no matter who’s in charge politically.

What’s next?

Our vision is a world where the most underserved Americans are the most informed about COVID. There are 1.2 million Americans living in the 3,400 public housing authorities in the United States. If First-to-Know is successful in Albany, other housing authorities are already interested in implementing the system themselves. First-to-Know alerts could be keeping people safe nationwide by the time the pandemic is over.

Learn more about The Auxiliary, Dr. Myles, UgoRound, and our work in Albany in this deck.



The Auxiliary

We’re a group of mutual aid workers, digital marketers, artists, creatives, and activists fighting disinformation to save lives.