08 U.S. Digital Response Launch
For mobilizing tech talent to help local governments solve problems
It started with a Zoom call. As COVID-19 began its spread across the United States, a group of technologists got to talking about how the pandemic could stretch local government resources to the breaking point. The group—which included three former U.S. deputy chief technology officers—hatched a plan to recruit volunteer software engineers, data scientists, interaction designers and project managers to provide free, fast help to public agencies struggling to keep pace with rising community needs.
“We knew that government systems would be overwhelmed by this crisis,” says Raylene Yung, a former engineering and product team leader at Facebook and Stripe, who is now CEO of U.S. Digital Response (USDR), as the effort was named. “The technological infrastructure that was in place was not meant to deal with the rapid demand for services or the scale that was going to be required.”
In the first three months, 80 government partners representing states, counties and cities across the United States tapped USDR for more than 100 projects. One initiative helped the Pennsylvania Department of Health build a dashboard to track its hospital-bed capacity. Another helped the city of Concord, California create a system to connect local volunteers with vulnerable populations that needed groceries delivered. (That project was later adapted for two other cities.) Other efforts have ranged from data modeling to online application systems to automated health-information sites, for entities from Texas to New Hampshire.
USDR initially used email blasts and a Google Form to solicit volunteers—and the response was astounding, with more than 5,000 experts offering to help. The team reached out to personal contacts in local governments to offer USDR services, and word quickly spread. As the volume of projects grew, USDR leaders created a structure for vetting project requests and assigning volunteers. They crafted service-level agreements; created a database of volunteers to help match candidates with projects according to technical expertise; and drafted an oath for volunteers to reinforce the organization’s values of collaboration, respect and service. With project requests widening, USDR is now extending its volunteers’ impact beyond just direct coronavirus-related needs, Yung says. After the initial focus on healthcare, USDR is taking on projects for food and housing security as well as digitizing courts and other government systems.
“People are surprised by our speed,” Yung says. “We were just in a meeting where a seasoned government veteran said, ‘You know, this group has made me rethink what’s possible when it comes to how fast you can move to solve problems in government with technology."