Do Something!?

NYC PPE SOS! Global civic tech + COVID-19; Organizing without bodies; and much more.


Humans of New York: I spent part of the last three days trying to help the medical workers at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, which is bearing a big part of the COVID-19 crisis in that county, and where several friends of mine work providing vital health care. Here’s what I learned. First, the medical supply chain is broken, just as Devika Daga of ProjectN95, a volunteer network working on this problem nationally explains on Medium. As Daga writes, “suppliers and manufacturers are out of stock and flooded with requests. So hospitals have to find new sources of PPE, right when thousands of other hospitals are frantically doing the same thing.”

Montefiore’s procurement department is scrambling, to the point that its team has set up an Amazon Wishlist page where people can purchase specific supplies on its behalf. Yes, in the American dystopia major public hospitals need to use wedding registries to get supplies. Unfortunately, if you dig into the items listed, you will discover that nearly all of them have long delivery delays, and many of the suppliers offering gear like isolation gowns and alcohol wipes are both sketchy and price-gouging. The front-line staff at the hospital have also resorted to GoFundMe, with at least three teams—the neonatal unit, the labor and delivery staff, and the emergency room staff begging for funds to buy more personal protective equipment. Absolutely go donate to them, or to a hospital of your choice.

I was dismayed to see that GoFundMe, a privately-held for-profit, has its donation pages for COVID-19 related causes set at an automatic 15% tip, which is a ridiculously high service charge for what is essentially a seamless transaction. You have to manually change the percentage to zero, or a different amount if you prefer. ActBlue Charities, which also hosts some COVID-19 donation pages, asks politely for a 10% but makes the option of “no tip” really easy to find and use. Dark patterns, anyone?

My current brainstorm is to see if local dentists, who have all closed their offices to all but emergency cases, have extra PPE like medical scrubs that they can donate straight from their storage closets. The local American Dental Association district offices in the Bronx and Westchester are pitching in with an email blast to their members; stay tuned.

In NYC, there’s a volunteer network called #NYCPPE that has sprung up to connect front-line health-care workers with trusted medical suppliers, and they’ve managed to deliver more than 14,000 masks to 150 people at various hospitals. Hack Manhattan is raising money for a network of maker spaces, NYCMakesPPE, that are producing PPE in their shops. They say they’ve delivered nearly 7,000 face shields and masks so far.

How civic tech is responding: Code for All is the global network of organizations working to empower citizens to meaningfully engage in the public sphere, born out of the Code for America model. Here’s a Google Doc tracking all the Coronavirus/COVID-19 initiatives coming out of its various country organizations. One effort that is looking for help: Project Lockdown, which aims to map all the lockdowns underway around the world.

Code for All has also organized a weekly global group discussion, every Tuesday at 5:00 and 16:00 GMT for folks to share how the civic tech ecosystem is responding to the pandemic.

The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project is now tracking COVID-19 Emergency Tenant Protections and Rent Strikes across the US.

Housing Justice For All is collecting and sharing the personal stories of New Yorkers on this impact map.

Mike Bloomberg (not the mayor) reports over on our Civic Tech Field Guide Coronavirus Community Response page that his city of Holyoke, Massachusetts, has launched HolyokeAtHome to reward local residents who make the best videos showing how they’re staying home.

New resources: Say hello to HowWeFeel, a new self-reporting app built by a volunteer team of scientists, doctors and technologists, aims to help researchers monitor the rise of COVID-19 symptoms across the country. Users anonymously self-report their age, sex, ZIP code and any healthy symptoms; aggregate data is shared with public health professionals. For each new self-reporter, HWF says it will donate a meal to people in need.

WhyImStayingHome.com is a new visualization tool built by Yaron Shemesh using Johns Hopkins CSSE modeling data that lets you see what happens to the curve depending on whether everyone stays home or varying percentages of the population go out and stop physical distancing.

HelpfulEngineers is a 3.400-strong nonprofit incubator, started in Portugal, of engineers and doctors working to design solutions to the crisis, like this Origami Face Shield.

Need help making a mask? Go to Masks4All.

Privacy, shmivacy: Independent security researcher Bruce Schneier runs down all the privacy issues with Zoom, the video-conferencing tool now in common use. My two cents: if you aren’t a privacy hawk, now is not the time to tell distressed and digitally-awkward users like your elderly parents to stop using Zoom.

Tech organizing: Gig workers at Shipt, Target’s delivery platform, are staging a walk-out today, demanding “demanding $5 of hazard pay per order, 14 days of paid sick leave for all workers regardless of whether they’ve received a positive coronavirus test, personal protective gear for all gig workers, and a return to a clear, commission-based pay model,” Lauren Kaori Gurley reports for Motherboard.

These kinds of wildcat actions appear to be having an effect, even if most workers aren’t really walking off the job. Thursday Instacart announced that it would start providing masks, disinfectant wipes and thermometers for its workers after its shoppers held a strike earlier in the week, Charisse Jones reports for USA Today.

Speaking of organizing, some guy named Sifry has a new piece in The New Republic exploring how we organize when any physical gathering is dangerous and the digital organizing arena is inaccessible to the poor and rife with surveillance.

Oh, look, lobbyists for Big Tech companies are, as before, trying to game the system to their advantage, David McCabe reports for The New York Times. Uber, as usual, is the worst, trying to get lawmakers to shield it from lawsuits over how it classifies workers if it provides those drivers with medical supplies or compensation during the COVID-19 crisis.

Deep thoughts for civic tech do-gooders: On Medium, our friend Greg Bloom points to the “Principles of Equitable Disaster Response,” a collaboratively written document from a distributed team of community organizers drawing on their experience trying to be helpful as the hurricanes of 2017 bore down on the United States. He then elaborates, recalling lessons from his own effort running the Irma Response network: sometimes it is better to do nothing than to rush to “do something.” To wit, “The ad hoc networks of ‘digital humanitarians’ that emerge in response to any given publicized crisis tends to generate more light (visibility) than heat (impact) — and sometimes, their good intentions result in wasteful or even harmful mistakes.”

End times: Seriously, someone trained a machine learning model on this? (Don’t skip the comments.)

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