Digital First Response: How to Make Technology Work During the Next Crisis

On May 5, U.S. Digital Response brought together a virtual panel of some of the best in government and technology to reflect on what’s happened over the last year, how we’ve supported communities in need, what we’ve learned, and what digital response efforts will look like in future crises. While better data and technical tools are not a perfect panacea, it’s important that we, as technologists and public servants, try to use all of the tools at our disposal, especially the technical ones, to do all that we can to make progress on these fronts. The panel event, entitled “Digital First Response: How to Make Technology Work During the Next Crisis,” featured:

  • Alexis C. Madrigal, staff writer at The Atlantic and co-founder of The COVID Tracking Project
  • Jenny Durkan, Mayor of the City of Seattle, Washington
  • Raylene Yung, CEO and co-founder of U.S. Digital Response
  • Ryan Panchadsaram, former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of U.S. Digital Response

Here, we’ve summarized the key points, reflections and recommendations from our panelists to help set the groundwork for how we approach digital first response efforts for years to come.

Hallmarks of a Good Digital First Response

“Without a digital response, there’s no response these days,” Mayor Durkan said. Digital response efforts start by thinking through the end-to-end process of delivering services to people and considering the ways that technology can be used effectively. But that digital response encompasses more than technology itself. USDR CEO Raylene Yung emphasized that good digital response efforts also apply techniques like human centered design and thoughtful user research, which allow public servants to work more efficiently on the inside and broader communities to understand where and how to get help on the outside. Additionally, having the right team around the table — including technologists, policymakers and people across different sectors — is what enables digital response efforts to be flexible, fast, affordable, upgraded and updated more easily than traditional or manual processes.

Earning and Maintaining Public Trust

In a culture that’s accustomed to immediacy of information and has become highly politicized, building and maintaining public trust was a major challenge for governments at all levels across the country. Alexis Madrigal noted that throughout the COVID-19 crisis, information and data were easily dismissed and the threat of fast-acting, bad-faith information providers put attention and trust at odds with each other. To combat this dilemma, Mayor Durkan emphasized three key elements required for trustworthy communications.

  1. Establish unity of voice across all involved parties at the outset. Speak from the same page and lead with public health.
  2. Stay grounded in science and data. Help people understand the way you’re making your decisions by showing your work.
  3. Say what you know, but also say what you don’t know. You’ll lose trust the minute you overstate your case or pretend to know something you don’t.

Data Accessibility and Dissemination

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, the availability and consumption of data was paramount for governments to make decisions and for the public to understand the reasoning behind public health countermeasures. “There’s this idea that data is just sitting there, you can read it like a temperature reading and that collecting the data is not a complicated process,” said Alexis Madrigal. “But throughout this crisis, governments needed the data for themselves and for the public, and in many cases it wasn’t there or wasn’t available in a form that was useful.” Data collection and usage must be intentional, transparent and consistent in order to ensure an effective crisis response. We must ask ourselves, “What data can we collect? How can we clean the data? How do we present the data? How can we continue to improve?” According to Mayor Durkan, “If you haven’t thought about the human aspect of getting the data into your systems so policy makers and others can actually look at it, then you’re in trouble.”

Creating a Tech-Ready Team in Government

“The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated and changed our relationship with technology across sectors, from Zooms being the norm in the workplace to telehealth visits filling healthcare gaps across the country,” Ryan Panchadsaram said. “Every sector changed how it uses and adopts technology at a speed that we’ve never seen before.”

There’s a common assumption in government that digital transformation or technology-based solutions take months to years to implement and require an extensive, and often expensive, procurement process. In the last year, however, governments have had to flex their creative muscles and have stretched in new ways to implement quick, affordable changes that can have immediate impact on their communities. Raylene Yung noted that many low-code or no-code solutions are available and can help governments move away from manual processes to tackle problems more efficiently. “Just applying a few cloud-based tools, you could move toward something better than a spreadsheet, but cheaper and more flexible than a multi-month procurement process and custom build,” she said. Simplifying a project, planning for ongoing iterations, and using accessible tools and resources enables a team to break a large problem down into smaller, more approachable solutions.

Establishing Meaningful and Productive Partnerships

Organizations like U.S. Digital Response and COVID Tracking Project have bridged the gap between public and private crisis response, allowing experienced professionals across different sectors to tackle issues collaboratively. Having these partnerships makes it so that entities outside of government can be agile, test new ideas, pursue creative solutions and share insights with people within government where this flexibility is not always available. “It’s important to have clear pipelines into civic tech projects that create a space for professionals within government, but also space for other people to come in and show what they can do,” Alexis noted. A key component to making these partnerships effective is to plan for a collaborative process so there’s no real hand-off, but more a side-by-side experience. “It’s a continuous process where you work together until one partner is ready to take the lead, and then the others can roll off,” Raylene said.

Equity in Digital Crisis Response

By its nature, a digital response can create a digital divide. Mayor Durkan reminded the room that the role of government is to empower and assist the most vulnerable people who may those with the least access to technology. “In all of our technological responses, we have to make sure they don’t become inequity themselves and that we’re designing tools that bring people in and empower people. We need to see where those shadows or gaps are and make sure we have ways to fill them so that when we’re in crisis, we might be able to serve those who are most vulnerable who have the least digital equity.” This topic of bridging the digital divide will continue to be a huge focus throughout this crisis and moving forward.

Special thanks to Alexis Madrigal, Mayor Jenny Durkan, Raylene Yung, and Ryan Panchadsaram for sharing their thoughts.

U.S. Digital Response has a team of pro bono technologists ready to assist with digital crisis response efforts at all levels of government. We’re fast, and we’re free. Fill out this brief intake form to connect with USDR, and we’ll be in touch within 24 hours.

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