In Awe

Crowdsourcing solutions to COVID-19; Mourning comes; Virus-proofing the vote; and much more.


This is civic tech: Starting today, we’re launching a new section of the Civic Tech Field Guide called COVID-19 Community Response. The idea is to for civic technicians to help community leaders facing immediate challenges find the best solutions to specific problems. Right now there is a virtual (and virtuous) flood of ideas being proposed and prototypes being built at hackathons across the world, and many impossibly long lists to scroll through. With the Field Guide’s COVID-19 Community Response, we’re aiming to surface real-world questions and then tap the wisdom of the civic tech crowd to get to more helpful answers. We’re starting with a question from Mike Bloomberg (not the ex-mayor) who was just made acting emergency manager for his town of 40,000 people and is struggling to keep people from congregating. Take a look at his question and, if you have an answer, chime in. If you have a question, start a new thread. And please help spread the word to others!

Longtime digital strategists Allyse Heartwell and Duncan Meisel have launched the COVID Memorial project, collecting and sharing the online memorials posted about COVID-19 victims by their friends and family. As they note, while “politicians and economists are running cost-benefit analyses, weighing the value of lives vs the value of stock portfolios, we are in mourning.” This is hard and important work; kudos to Allyse and Duncan for getting it going.

Say hello to Frontline Foods, a federation of several hundred organizers who are pooling their efforts to raise money, employ restaurant workers sidelined by the crisis and deliver meals to frontline hospital workers. “We are in awe of how quickly this desire to help coalesced into a national movement,” co-founder Ryan Sarver writes on Medium. We’ve been adding about one city a day to the program. We have a Slack workspace where volunteers pour in daily and raise their hands to help with skills as diverse as graphic design, software engineering, community organizing, nursing, fundraising, executive management, writing, hospitality, internal tools, 501c3s, and more.

Attend: The good folks at Organizing 2.0 and New Media Mentors are offering a free webinar Monday 2pm EDT on how to improve your “On-Camera, From Home” presence.

BetaNYC’s civic innovation fellows are offering free support to nonprofit or community based organizations with data or analytics needs.

CityInnovate has launched a Challenge Platform in attempt to match hospitals and government agencies with potential third-party solutions to resource shortages or technical assistance, but so far, as Ryan Johnston reports for Statescoop, “some cities are spread too thin” and lack the personnel and logistical capabilities to take advantage of it.

Trending: I’m keeping an eye on Coworker.org’s Coronavirus page, where petitions from workers at dozens of companies are taking off like wildfire, demanding relief and/or protection from the hazards they face on the job.

I’m also seeing more calls for using digital tools to improve the process of identifying new coronavirus cases and tracing their contacts. As Sharon Begley reports for StatNews, fast identification and contact tracing has helped countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore contain the pandemic. While this raises tough privacy issues, NextTrace, launched by a team led by Trevor Bedford, an infectious disease modeler in Seattle, is working “to build a decentralized reporting system in which anyone with confirmed Covid-19 can choose to register, anonymously, on an online platform. The platform will use cell phone location and proximity data from cellphones, for people who have opted in, to find individuals who might have been exposed to this case and advise them to be tested. The system would build a contact history for each case.”

In just one day, about 280 million masks from warehouses around the US were purchased by foreign buyers and earmarked to leave the country, David DiSalvo reports for Forbes, going inside the feeding frenzy of mask sellers and buyers now underway.

Hey, if you are one of the many people I’ve noticed sharing that they’re off to a “virtual cocktail party” or “virtual happy hour,” please stop. You are giving off a really bad Great Gatsby vibe. Call it a “community meetup” or “community check-in.” Sure, we all need some relief from stress, but really?

Related: “Over six days last week, the New York State Department of Labor’s phone system received 8.2 million calls. The system typically handles 50,000 calls,” Nick Reisman reports for New York State of Politics. “During the same period, the state’s online filing system received 3.4 million visits. Typically, the system gets 350,000 visits.” The agency is now asking residents to stagger their calls or website visits based on the first letter of their last names: A-F file on Monday, G-N on Tuesday, and O-Z on Wednesday. Thursday, Friday and Saturday will be left for people who miss their days.

A new survey of 1,200 families conducted by ParentsTogether found that nearly half have already lost income and the majority won’t be able to pay their rent or mortgage bills without cutting back on other basics like food.

Foundations that have long been involved in backing efforts to strengthen democracy in America are now trying to “virus-proof” the vote, Philip Rojc reports for Inside Philanthropy. And while the CARES Act included $400 million to support state election efforts, Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, comments, “Congress failed to include sufficient, urgently needed funds in the stimulus to help states run elections in a time of pandemic. This could wreak havoc in November.” Brian Kettenring, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, says $3 billion is needed. “Just like our healthcare system and our economy,” he said, “our elections infrastructure needs a massive infusion of resources to ensure that elections can proceed and every voter has access to the ballot during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Some tech companies, like Google and Cisco, have announced huge donations to help with COVID-19 response, but as Theodore Schleifer reports for Recode, not all is what it seems. ““Can’t make payroll on ad credits,” quipped Chuck Brown, an adviser to Bay Area nonprofits. “You’re just giving them a coupon to use their services and entrench their platforms into your nonprofit. It’s clearly a huge benefit for them — where if you truly supported the nonprofit sector, you would put cash on hand and you would give them zero restrictions.” (h/t Dorian Benkoil)

If you are one of those nonprofits, this new report from SeaChange, “Tough Times Call for Tough Action: A Decision Framework for Nonprofit Leaders,” is highly recommended reading.

Tech and politics: In an effort to tamp down misinformation, Google has banned nongovernmental advertising about COVID-19, but as Emily Birnbaum reports for Protocol, Democrats are complaining that the ban is a gift to President Trump. “To not allow political candidates to mention or discuss COVID-19 is something that has the potential to dramatically bolster Trump’s and Republicans’ chances of reelection,” Mark Jablonowski, the chief technology officer and managing partner of DSPolitical, a top digital ad firm that works with Democratic campaigns and progressive causes, commented. “We’re in the middle of the defining event of this election and potentially a generation,” he added.

Yes, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson really did have a cabinet meeting via Zoom, and left its meeting ID visible for all to see. The Ministry of Defense meanwhile has ordered its workers to stop using Zoom until its security implications were fully investigated.

Speaking of Zoom, Micah Lee and Yael Grauer of the Intercept point out that while the company says it uses end to end encryption to protect the privacy of its users’ conversations, it actually uses a weaker form of encryption that allows Zoom to access video and audio from meetings.

Remember that Google website that President Trump claimed was being built to enable Americans to check their symptoms and get testing information. Ah, good times. Well, as Robinson Meyer reports for The Atlantic, it was built, not by Google, but by a team from Oscar Health, a health-insurance company closely tied to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and the guy also in charge of solving peace in the Middle East.

Deep thoughts: If you’re looking for an overview to how long we may have to stay in lockdown, read this road map from the American Enterprise Institute. I’ll save you some time: It won’t be enough to merely “flatten the curve” this month and next; we’re going to need very strong systems for identifying, tracing and isolating new flare-ups before we can responsibly go back to “normal.”

End times: As always, XKCD explains it all. And these kids at the Bronx High School of Science know what to do when stuck at home!

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