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Tech Volunteers Help Overloaded U.S. Government Agencies

Since mid-March, U.S. Digital Response has staffed hundreds on projects at 25 state and local organizations

3 min read
Illustration of USA map with COVID network
Illustration: iStockphoto

When U.S. Digital Response launched 16 March, it was four colleagues who wanted to pool their collective experience running public-sector technology programs to help government agencies that were buckling under COVID-19.

Since then, the all-volunteer group has scaled exponentially, placing more than 150 people with a range of digital skills into more than 150 short-term or ongoing assignments at 25 agencies at all levels of government, including with state labor departments struggling to keep up with new claims for unemployment insurance benefits.

As of early May, U.S. Digital Response had amassed a database of more than 4,850 other prospective volunteers who filled out the online application on the group’s website to donate their time. The group continues to accept applications for volunteers with digital, policy, and communications skills, and to encourage public agencies to fill out an online form if they need help.  

“It’s been unexpected how much impact we had so quickly,” said U.S. Digital Response CEO Raylene Yung, a former engineering and product executive at Stripe and Facebook. “A lot of people want to help. As the call went out, the outpouring of volunteers who were signing up has blown us away. That enabled us to do more than we thought.”

In addition to Yung, the group’s other three cofounders all served as deputy U.S. chief technology officers during the Obama administration, where some helped launch the Healthcare.gov website.

Brian Boyer, of Key West, Fla., applied to help, thinking he’d use his early training on Cobol, the long-time mainframe language that’s still used to run unemployment insurance claims systems in some states. But Boyer, who retired last September after a career with Citibank, ended up tapping into his more recent skills managing large-scale technology projects. He’s helping pilot a program to track states’ compliance with requirements for the US $2 trillion federal stimulus package.

“It’s been a great experience for me personally,” Boyer said, “not only to feel like I’m contributing but working with people with very broad backgrounds, in government and technology, people who’ve worked at Silicon Valley tech groups. It’s very different than my experiences at a financial institution.”

Helping State Labor Departments

The crisis has been especially hard on state employment departments, many of which are processing record numbers of unemployment benefits claims on mainframe-based systems that haven’t been updated in years, or decades.

Initially, U.S. Digital Response had no volunteers who knew Cobol. But after putting out a call on social media channels and helping New Jersey create an online application for volunteers to help that state, the group has had about 300 people with related training sign up, Yung said.

Four U.S. Digital Response volunteers helped the state of Kansas’s Department of Labor and Office of Information Technology Services scale the user interface for the labor department’s benefits application site to speed up processing claims for traditional unemployment insurance and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. None of the volunteers had worked on unemployment insurance systems before, but all had helped scale websites to meet high traffic demands.

The same group of volunteers, who worked with the state for a total of 100 hours over three weeks, also helped add a content delivery network to the labor office website, which U.S. Digital Response said cut visitor response times in half.

U.S. Digital Response made it possible “for Kansas residents to apply for the unemployment benefits they need,” said DeAngela Burns-Wallace, the state’s chief information technology officer, in a U.S. Digital Response testimonial.

U.S. Digital Response has an unpaid staff of 30 who work for the organization part- or full-time from home offices around the country. Some are between jobs, and others are pitching in on top of full-time work. Cofounder Cori Zarek, for example, is a director at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation.

Another cofounder is Jennifer Pahlka, who founded Code for America and served as the organization’s CEO for 10 years before leaving that position on 31 January. U.S. Digital Response is coordinating with Code for America on a project to help people who qualify for food stamps register online to claim benefits. Working together can “make it move quickly,” Pahlka said.

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Why Functional Programming Should Be the Future of Software Development

It’s hard to learn, but your code will produce fewer nasty surprises

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You’d expectthe longest and most costly phase in the lifecycle of a software product to be the initial development of the system, when all those great features are first imagined and then created. In fact, the hardest part comes later, during the maintenance phase. That’s when programmers pay the price for the shortcuts they took during development.

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