Demos not Memos in 2021: A Look Back

In an unprecedented year we saw a renewed dedication to supporting the critical needs of the public.

As the year draws to a close, our team at U.S. Digital Response is reflecting on 2021. This past year saw USDR establishing our executive team, expanding our services, marking our first year milestones, and most recently growing our leadership team to meet a surge in demand for our assistance. When we boil it all down to just numbers, USDR’s projects have impacted over 42 million people in 37 U.S. states and territories through partnerships with over 230 governments and organizations on more than 300 projects. That’s 1 project for every 2 days of USDR’s existence.

But we know that the impact of our projects goes beyond just data. Throughout 2021, we witnessed civic servitude at its best. Our partners displayed a courageous focus on meeting the needs of their communities, even as those needs changed by the day. Our programs rose to the urgency of the moment across our health, rapid response, elections, and economic stability focus areas. And more than 7,000 handraisers offered their expert skills to help. So today, we’re celebrating 5 shared wins of our USDR partners and community members over the last year.

Want a deeper dive into USDR’s impact in 2021? We’re excited to share our public report on the work accomplished over the last year:

Demos not Memos in 2021: A Look Back

We’re beyond inspired to take this momentum into 2022. And that deserves the biggest **stretch clap** of all.

  1. Helping More People Receive the Covid-19 Vaccine

“With today’s launch of the finder’s beta version, we will continue to test and make improvements to the appointment finder, and we will welcome your input in this ongoing effort. … I always want to thank some outside partners in this including CVS, Epic, Zocdoc in the private sector as well as some volunteer groups including @NJ_vaccine on Twitter,, and the U.S. Digital Response.” — New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy

During the first few months of 2021, the excitement of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout was also met with significant uncertainty and challenges at both a technical and communication level. Initially, official vaccination lists weren’t always comprehensive and often did not list vaccine stock with locations managed independently. Our partners rose to the occasion, as exemplified by the New Jersey Office of Innovation’s commitment to help residents find a vaccination appointment more easily.

USDR partnered with NJ IOT to co-develop a vaccine appointment finder website for New Jersey that was able to get appointment data in any way possible, as frequently as possible. This appointment finder aggregates appointment availability information from the state’s major vaccine providers so residents can easily find an appointment in their local area. An even more user-friendly, accessible version of this appointment finder is now available to the general public, allowing residents to secure appointments on their own.

This September marked the one year anniversary of our Health Program, during which we partnered with governments across the country on similar projects to meet community health needs. You can find more of USDR’s insights from its vaccine appointment projects here: What Vaccine Appointment Data Tells Us: Three Major Takeaways from COVID-19.

2. Focusing Unemployment Insurance Benefits Websites on Delivering for Users

“We truly value our ongoing partnership with U.S. Digital Response. As we work to modernize our unemployment system, we trust USDR to help us understand how all of our stakeholders — from claimants to community organizers — interact with our system, so it can work better for everyone.” — Joe Lee, Deputy Secretary of Administration, Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry

As the crush of the pandemic continued, many states found themselves updating their unemployment benefits websites ad hoc as they tried to quickly add updates. This led to confused claimants and sometimes-contradictory public communications.

Knowing that a state’s unemployment benefits website is the “front door” for claimants to learn and access their unemployment benefits, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry partnered with USDR to better understand the claimant user experience and gather design recommendations for their website.

What followed was a thoughtful combination of quantitative and qualitative user research in the spring of 2021, including approximately 2,600 website survey responses and 4,500 call center calls as well as in-depth interviews with 10 individual claimants. The result, the Unemployment Claimant Research Findings Report, shares actionable insights from this research and recommends how Pennsylvania can use user-centered design to improve its website. The team also developed Plain Language Guidelines and example wireframes.

So far, USDR has worked with 10 states on helping to modernize their benefits systems, collaborating on projects from communications strategies to better understanding user design. Check out more of our resources in USDR’s Unemployment Insurance Modernization Gitbook.

3. Keeping Families in Their Homes by Scaling Workflows: Emergency Rental Assistance Program

In Spring 2021 the Memphis Shelby County Emergency Rental Assistance (MSCERA) coalition needed to quickly scale their Emergency Rent and Utility Assistance Program in order to keep families in their homes. USDR worked with the team to understand their workflows and built a system that leverages several low-cost software solutions. The result was a series of online tools and an automation process that helped to trigger actions and minimize manual processes for the MSCERA team.

So far, MSCERA has been able to use this system to distribute nearly $14M in assistance and have screened over 5,800 applications. What’s more, the U.S. Department of the Treasury highlighted these workflows and data integration in its guidance on best practices in local ERA programs.

Looking for more resources to help with ERA processes? Check out our blog post on 5 Questions to Ask When Choosing an ERA Vendor Solution.

4. How a Tech Fellowship Improves the Lives of New Yorkers: the NYC[x] Innovation Fellowship Graduates its 3rd Cohort

Just over a year ago, The Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer of New York City (NYC CTO) and USDR asked themselves: “What if we — a small group of public servant technologists — ran out ahead of [proposed technology projects] to scope, de-risk, and create an optimized environment that was receptive to rapid innovation?”

The result has been an award-winning program called the NYC [x] Innovation Fellowship (NYC[x] IF). A volunteer-powered sprint designed to help NYC spin up technical solutions to pressing issues and improve the lives of New Yorkers, the program has tackled issues such as helping to prevent hate crimes and mapping broadband access in the city.

The third cohort of NYC[x] IF graduated this October and included 13 technologists who were embedded within three different teams in the City of New York. The teams worked over a 10-week period to improve delivery of critical services through technology. According to NYC CTO, the program has connected 44 expert technologists with 9 City agencies since its inception in 2020, and New York City CTO John Paul Farmer credits the work of the fellows with “literally saving lives.” The NYC[x] IF program has cumulatively created more than $1 million in direct cost-avoidance and close to $16 million in broader projected, estimated, or indirect cost-avoidance over the course of its three 8–10 week sprints.

The success of USDR’s partnership with the Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer helped them make the case to expand the City’s digital service investment. Since the conclusion of the NYT[x] IF program, the City has launched the NYC Digital Service and the NYC Digital Reserve.

5. Helping Election Officials Scale What Works: A Discussion with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission

This fall, we joined the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, EAC Senior SME, Kammi Foote, and Centre County Pennsylvania Commissioner Michael Pipe to discuss how USDR can help election officials build websites and tools to serve voters. From building websites to managing poll workers, you can see our tools in action and hear officials share how they built seamless voting experiences in their communities. Our elections work demonstrates the power of public servants working in the open and sharing solutions, so that every community can adopt new digital services at the speed of need.

Want to become a part of U.S. Digital Response’s community story in 2022?



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U.S. Digital Response

U.S. Digital Response

Connecting governments and nonprofits with pro bono technologists and assistance to quickly respond to the critical needs of the public.