U.S. Digital Response 2020 Highlights
U.S. Digital Response (USDR) was launched in March of this year as a new initiative to serve the urgent needs of our communities by pairing pro-bono, best-in-class technologists with state and local governments. Today, we are 6,000 handraisers strong, with more than 550 technologists directly deployed on critical projects, supporting over 180 government and nonprofit partners. We are endlessly inspired by the willingness of people to give their talents and time to some of the most pressing needs of communities around the country, and every aspect of USDR has been led or shaped by our volunteers. Together, we’ve supported over 250 projects impacting 13 million people across 36 states and territories, and we’ve built a dedicated community driven to serve in a time of need. This community continues to sustain our optimism around what we can build together. And that deserves our biggest *stretch-clap*!
Here are ten USDR highlights from the year.
1. Enabling Free City-Wide COVID-19 Testing
“It’s safe to say working with USDR has been a game changer for the City of Seattle during our COVID response.”
— Tina Walha, Director of Innovation and Performance, City of Seattle
In the earliest days of USDR, our government partners reached out to USDR to meet a surge of urgent health needs, including access to COVID-19 testing for all members of society. In June, the City of Seattle reached out to USDR as a technical advisor to support the launch of two free citywide testing sites for Seattle residents in partnership with the University of Washington. USDR staffed the project within hours, and Seattle’s testing sites and sign-up systems began serving residents within 3 weeks. Six months later, over 450,000 people had been tested using the City’s free sites.
2. Supporting Unemployment Insurance (UI) Systems
“At a time when we needed to move quickly and thoughtfully, U.S. Digital Response assisted KDOL in making it possible for Kansas residents to apply for the unemployment benefits they need.”
— Secretary DeAngela Burns-Wallace, Ed. D., Kansas Department of Administration, Executive Branch CITO
An unprecedented number of applications for traditional Unemployment Insurance (UI) and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) are overwhelming existing state UI systems and exacerbating problems that have long existed, and governments are working hard to keep up. In response, USDR created a dedicated UI team to support governments in helping UI filers at every stage of the process. In partnership with the Kansas Department of Labor and the Office of Information Technology Services, four USDR volunteers helped get the state’s benefits application site up and running again, enabling residents across all of Kansas to digitally apply for UI and PUA. In New Jersey, USDR volunteers partnered with the state to build a benefits eligibility screener where residents learned what benefits they were eligible for and how to apply for them. USDR’s dedicated UI team also conducted a “discovery sprint” with a state to highlight areas for additional research and problem solving, and is actively partnering with governments to research the problem of identity fraud and how states can individually combat it.
3. Ensuring Accessible Voting and Elections for Millions of Americans
“Highly recommend any county elections office partner with USDR to expand access to the ballot box in your community.”
— Michael Pipe, Board Chair of Centre County, Pennsylvania Board of Commissioners
Operating an election is never easy — this year, officials were faced with operating two elections: one in-person during a pandemic, and another by-mail at unprecedented scale. Through USDR’s nonpartisan elections work (featured in The New York Times), over 50 volunteers helped 36 government and NGO partners increase access to voting across red and blue states, large and small districts, and key battleground states including Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. County election officials used USDR’s Elections Toolkit to facilitate voting for over 13 million Americans: by standing up informational elections websites using our elections website template, recruiting and managing poll workers in a year when they are in short supply, and automating vote-by-mail processes. We’re continuing to partner with counties in Georgia to support the upcoming runoff election on January 5, 2021, and we’ve already started building capacity for future elections at the local and national levels.
4. Delivering Nutritious Food to Low-Income Populations
Nearly 1 in 4 Americans experienced food insecurity this year, and cities and counties nationwide had to find creative ways to provide healthy food to those in need during the pandemic. USDR volunteers powered the delivery of more than 40,000 boxes of fresh produce by 7 partners in Dallas, Tulsa, Washington D.C. and San Francisco, including City of Dallas food banks, R&G Family Grocers, and DC Greens Produce Plus Direct, by creating a tool called Storefront. Storefront is a mobile-friendly site that gives local retailers and governments everything they need to launch and maintain their own e-commerce site, complete with online ordering for delivery and pickup, support for in-person EBT card payments, options to make monetary donations, and the ability to apply for jobs as a delivery driver. Storefront continues to scale and is available to partners looking for tools to manage food pick-up and delivery.
5. Saving Government Time and Resources with Digitized Workflows
“Our community’s needs are continuing to evolve, but thanks to USDR’s help with streamlining our processes, we’ve got a great way to remotely serve the tasks of local government.”
— Garrett Brown, IT Systems Analyst with City of Napa
Throughout the year, USDR partnered with various governments to improve remote work processes, including digital document routing and approvals systems, and simple, off-the-shelf solutions for quick, continuous workflows. In California, the City of Napa reached out to USDR for support streamlining and securing a VPN (virtual private network), so that the City could respond to residents and deliver services more quickly and efficiently. On the other side of the country, USDR created a document uploader prototype for the New Jersey Department of Human Services so that people could submit their necessary documents online to apply for public benefits in a streamlined way, dramatically reducing the time it takes to complete an application and get much-needed relief. USDR partners and volunteers also created better channels for public communication, for example, by launching a chatbot on the City of San Jose’s website and improving the accessibility and design of St. Louis County’s COVID-19 website. We continue to source tools, resources, and best practices to support governments’ ongoing digitization.
6. Matching the Homebound with Community Support
“In the City of Paterson, we want to make sure our senior citizens are taken care of. Neighbor Express will allow us, together as a community, to be there for one another during these uncertain times.”
— Mayor Andre Sayegh, City of Paterson, New Jersey
The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 left many senior citizens and immunocompromised people isolated and unable to safely leave their homes. Governments partnered with USDR’s Neighbor Express team to spin up aid programs for their communities. Neighbor Express is a digital platform that connects at-risk community members with essential services including meals, groceries, and ad-hoc deliveries. This program launched in the City of Concord, California, and has since expanded to the City of Walnut Creek, California, and the City of Paterson, New Jersey. The Paterson program tested a new model: partnering with grocery stores to offer pre-paid packages for seniors, and enabling senior citizens to request deliveries or help via phone or an online form. Neighbor Express is completely open-sourced and can be spun up within days for new communities.
7. Helping States Efficiently Access and Report Stimulus Funds
“Volunteers from USDR have been an incredible resource to Ohio by developing a solution to assist with the Coronavirus Relief Fund reporting process to make it as easy and seamless as possible to help reduce administrative burden at a time when all are at maximum capacity in managing the funds.”
— Stacie Massey, Senior Financial Manager of the Ohio Office of Budget and Management, Ohio Grants Partnership
The CARES Act unlocked a substantial amount of federal dollars for states to address public health and economic impacts of COVID-19. As a result, states were responsible for identifying available grant opportunities, applying for grants, and tracking how the money would be spent. To support states through this process, USDR volunteers built a CARES Act grant tracking and reporting tool based on prior federal Recovery Act and DATA Act reporting requirements. The tool, currently used by Rhode Island and Ohio, features automated reports of new grants available to state agencies, tracks internal steps for application processes, and provides an easy-to-use template and platform for reporting CARES Act spending to the U.S. Treasury.
8. Providing Guidance and Assistance for Small Business Owners
“USDR has been an invaluable source of talent, helping our office move at the “speed of need” on COVID-19 response efforts. Their volunteers are diverse, capable, and enthusiastic. I would recommend any agency consider partnering with them to add team capacity and leverage unique skill sets in these trying times.”
— Ross Dakin, Office of Innovation, New Jersey
Many small business owners are in need of financial assistance, particularly as states begin to reopen with new guidelines and restrictions for business operations. As a result, government support systems are being flooded with questions about businesses’ qualifications for federal, state, and other relief programs. USDR volunteers created an online tool, currently in use by four states, including New Jersey and California, that helps small business owners understand their eligibility for federal stimulus funds. In New Jersey, more than 50,000 borrowers used the Loan Eligibility Wizard within one week of its launch, and the tool also saved time for local agencies by absorbing the volume of requests. The Wizard — available in English, Spanish and Mandarin — is a 10-minute eligibility quiz that prompts users one question at a time to easily determine which programs they qualify for and how they can access assistance. USDR volunteers also built a texting tool with the City of Anchorage to share guidelines and grant information with local small businesses.
Looking ahead, the work is far from finished. Our last two highlights take us into 2021 and give a sneak peek of how we’re building on what we’ve started.
9. Building long-term digital capacity through our deeper NYC[x] partnership model
“We are honored to see so many dedicated technologists step up to work on behalf of New York City. With technology products that work to combat hate crimes, lower language barriers, and drive digital equity, the work of the NYC[x] Innovation Fellows will have a lasting impact on improving New Yorkers’ lives.”
— Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York City
USDR volunteers offer urgent assistance as well as support for governments’ efforts to build long-lasting digital resilience. Since April, USDR volunteers have been working with the NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer on multiple COVID-related projects. Expanding on this successful partnership, we co-launched the NYC[x] Innovation Fellows program this summer. Through this program, small teams of volunteer technologists are embedded with NYC agencies to rapidly complete eight-to-ten-week data-driven technology projects that will impact every New Yorker. Several of the projects in the Fellowship are being built as open source tools and have been shared with other cities to create cross-cutting digital infrastructure for “50-state” needs.
As highlighted in a press release by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the first cohort of NYC[x] Innovation Fellows completed their projects this fall, having focused on expanding broadband access, ensuring that every New Yorker has access to relevant COVID-19 content in a language they can understand, and combating incidents of bias across NYC. The second cohort of the NYC[x] Innovation Fellows program is currently in flight and could serve as a model for collaborations with other cities on long-term digital infrastructure.
10. Continuing to address COVID-19 public health challenges at scale
Looking to 2021, the pandemic continues to press on, and USDR has created a dedicated Health Program to make sure that every community has the technical resources it needs. State and local partners are already reaching out to USDR for support with COVID-19 testing and reporting, vaccination preparedness, and rapid research and response. In addition to dozens of those individual projects with state and local public health agencies and digital service teams, we’ve created templates for everyone in the ecosystem to build from: a Vaccine Provider Guide which provides distilled learnings and tangible action steps to help governments distribute COVID-19 vaccines; tangible action items for trustworthy communications, including implementing best practices for design, partnership, and outreach, grounded with the views and experiences of at-risk and vulnerable communities; and a simple, free template that helps governments deploy or upgrade COVID vaccine information websites in a matter of hours.
Our governments are resilient, and we have spent the last nine months working with frontline teams who have knit together solutions in a year where the demand for their services has skyrocketed. Frontline teams need resources to do this well, and they need those resources urgently. Our community is here to give governments and nonprofits the urgent, critical technical support they need to get the delivery right — so they can save lives, deliver services, and make the damn websites work.
If you’re interested in getting involved as a volunteer, partner, or donor, we’d love to have you on board. Thanks for the support in getting USDR off the ground, and we can’t wait to see what 2021 has in store.
2020 Media Highlights
Thanks to USDR’s skilled and generous volunteers and our courageous and innovative partners, we are proud to have been recognized as one of the most impactful organizations of 2020.
- No. 1 for Top Technology Projects
- No. 2 for projects in North America
- No. 8 for Overall Most Influential Projects
- Rapid acceleration of digital innovation and transformation: Compressing years’ worth of technological advancements into a few weeks and months.
- “Recognising an opportunity to help sub-national governments cope with the wave of urgent demands provoked by the COVID-19 crisis, and noting willingness among civic-minded technologists to contribute their services, four leaders with significant government and private tech experience created the United States Digital Response (USDR) in March 2020. “
- Intelligent Business Awards, 2020 Finalist
- Meet the Female Founders Who Are Making a Huge Impact in 2020: Featuring USDR CEO Raylene Yung
- “The work of U.S. Digital Response shows that technology that does good doesn’t have to involve complicated inventions or turning over government functions to Silicon Valley giants. People with tech knowledge sometimes just need to listen to problems and assess how they can help without over complicating everything.”