Throughout it all, politicians, engineers, and public health officials had to keep people’s information safe—and, perhaps even more of a challenge, convince the public they were succeeding at it.
What would it take to actually make government technology work well in the US? What are the basics of a healthy technological infrastructure that can work for the residents who need it?
We asked five experts to help us understand why it’s so hard to build good government technology, and for their advice on how to create a healthy technological infrastructure for the people who rely on the outcomes.
A fractured landscape of data
Cyd Harrell: “Government” in the US means a lot of different things. After the federal government, we’ve got 50 state governments, 3,000 counties—which play different roles in different parts of the country—and 20,000 municipalities.
So many different parties own pieces of the data needed to identify whether you, in a particular location, are eligible and can get an appointment at a place with a stock of vaccines. Not just governments, but hospitals, clinics, and drug stores, they all need agreements to share that data, and to make their systems work together, which they almost certainly don’t.
After all that, web design—and accounting for people who don’t have web access—may actually be the easy part.
Alexis Madrigal: A lot of the time, the actual technology isn’t that complicated. The problem is the system underlying the tech. When the federal government wants data that states don’t normally produce for their own work, someone has to put that data together. During an emergency, when everyone has shit to do, it’s not a priority. Without a national healthcare system, there’s no way to easily track tests or overall cases.
Legacy processes and systems, new vendors
Sha Hwang: I call working with legacy systems “software archaeology.” It’s like homes built before city infrastructure existed—they weren’t built to connect to city plumbing or a power grid. You have to find the one person who’s been maintaining the system for 30 years, updating a spreadsheet that’s a million rows long with a crazy color-coding system.
For new systems, there’s a phrase you hear a lot: government buyers want “one throat to choke” if something goes wrong. Big vendors like Deloitte and Accenture will bring in all the people needed for a project. But by outsourcing the potential blame, agencies also cede all the technical expertise. They get locked in. If the system fails, they have to rely on vendors who dug the hole to get them out of it.
Dan Hon: No one gets fired for hiring Deloitte or IBM. And when vendors keep getting the same kind of work they’ve done badly, there’s no incentive for them not to build a shitty system. Government requests for proposals are often written so they only fit one or a few vendors. You might see a yes or no box for, “Vendor must have worked on a healthcare system that serves over 500,000 people.” I don’t care whether that system exists, I want to know whether people who have to use it hate it.
Liana Dragoman: A lot of services are designed around how government works, as opposed to the needs of residents. If you’re trying to get a permit to use a soccer field, you shouldn’t need to know which specific department within Parks & Rec can give you that specific permit. Residents just want to go to the city website and fill out the form.
What’s one significant mismatch you’ve seen between public needs and government tech?
Navigating a system that’s complex by design
Hon: There’s a lot of regulatory complexity in vaccine distribution. But on the website or in the app, the experience is condensed down to, “Why can’t I find out if I’m eligible for a vaccine? I just want an appointment.”
The US has pledged to halve its carbon emissions by 2030
Is Biden’s pledge feasible? For now, there’s no specific road map to reaching this new target, but the White House is expected to release sector-by-sector recommendations later this year. To meet it, the US will have to radically overhaul its economy and drastically cut the use of oil, gas, and coal. Specifically, President Biden will need to push through a set of ambitious policies to spend $2.3 trillion to tackle emissions in high-polluting areas, such as cars and power plants, and accelerate innovation in clean energy and climate technology.
The reactions: Nat Keohane, head of the Environmental Defense Fund, an influential US NGO, tweeted that the new US target “meets the moment and the urgency that the climate crisis demands. It aligns with the science, pushes global ambition & accelerates the shift to a stronger, clean economy.”
“After years of US federal inaction to address its role in the climate crisis, today the Biden administration has presented all of us with significant reason for hope,” says Rachel Cleetus, policy director and lead economist in the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
How a tiny media company is helping people get vaccinated
More than 132 million people in the US have received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine, and as of this week, all Americans over 16 are eligible.
But while the US has vaccinated more people than any other country in the world, vulnerable people are still falling through the cracks. Those most affected include people who don’t speak English, people who aren’t internet-savvy, and shift workers who don’t have the time or computer access to book their own slots. In many places, community leaders, volunteers, and even news outlets have stepped in to help.
One of those groups is Epicenter-NYC, a media company that was founded during the pandemic to help neighbors navigate covid-19. Based in the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights, which was particularly hard hit by the virus, the organization publishes a newsletter on education, business, and other local news.
But Epicenter-NYC has gone further and actually booked more than 4,600 vaccine appointments for people in New York and beyond. People who want to get vaccinated can contact the organization—either through an intake form, a hotline, a text, or an email—for help setting up an appointment.
Throughout the vaccine rollout, the group has also been documenting and sharing what it has learned about the process with a large audience of newsletter readers.
We spoke with S. Mitra Kalita, the publisher of Epicenter-NYC, who was previously a senior vice president at CNN Digital and is also the cofounder and CEO of URL Media, a network for news outlets covering communities of color.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: How did you start setting people up with vaccine appointments?
A: It began with two areas of outreach. First, when I had to register my own parents for a vaccine and found the process to be pretty confusing, I immediately wondered how well elderly residents, their friends and neighbors, manage this process. I just started messaging them.
The second was when a restaurant [from our small business spotlight program] reached out and said, “Do you guys know how to get vaccines for our restaurant workers?” Because I had been navigating some of this for the elderly, I started to help the restaurant workers. There started to be a similar network effect. One of the workers at this restaurant has a boyfriend who is a taxi driver; when I helped her, she asked if I could help her boyfriend; then the boyfriend texted me with some of his friends; and it kept spreading in that way.
Q: How is Epicenter-NYC filling gaps in vaccine distribution right now? What is your process like, and who are you helping?
A: We’ve had between 200 and 250 people reach out to volunteer. The outreach efforts range from putting up fliers, doing translations, and calling people to literally booking the appointments.
I don’t care if you’re a Bangladeshi taxi driver in Queens and your cousin is in New Jersey. We’re going to help both of you. A woman on the Upper East Side who’s 102 years old who is homebound and needs a visit is absolutely going to get Epicenter’s help.
What we’re doing now is continuing the route of connecting people to each other and opportunities. There’s a lot of matchmaking going on. We can sort through a list of about 7,500 to 8,000 people who said they need help, and then find places in proximity. We’ve become this wonderful marriage—a centralized operation that also embraces decentralized solutions.
Q: We know that vaccination rates lag in many communities that were hit the hardest. Why is that? What issues and barriers are people experiencing?
A: Just before the latest Johnson & Johnson pause announcement, I said, “We’re at a point where everybody remaining is a special case.”
I think we’ve leapfrogged to vaccine hesitancy without solving for vaccine access. We don’t see a lot of hesitancy, but we do see a lot of concerns over some issues. Number one would be scheduling. We’re dealing with populations that are working two, maybe three jobs, and when they say “I have this window on Sunday at 3 p.m. until maybe 6 p.m., when my next shift starts,” they really mean that’s the only window.
Q: People have been asked to prove who they are, where they work, and where they live in order to qualify for a vaccine. This was especially true when eligibility was more limited. How did you help people face barriers around getting the documents they needed?
A: New York State has been explicit in saying you can still get a vaccine even if you are undocumented. But that messaging doesn’t really match the on-the-ground reality.
Police in Ogden, Utah and small cities around the US are using these surveillance technologies
One afternoon, I accompanied Heather West, the detective who’d been perusing gray pickups in the license-plate database, and Josh Terry, the analyst who’d spotted the kidnapper with the Cowboys jacket, to fly a drone over a park abutting a city-owned golf course on the edge of town. West was at the controls; Terry followed the drone’s path in the sky and maintained “situational awareness” for the crew; another detective focused on the iPad showing what the drone was seeing, as opposed to where and how it was flying.
Of all the gadgets under the hood at the real time crime center, drones may well be the most tightly regulated, subject to safety (but not privacy) regulations and review by the Federal Aviation Administration. In Ogden, neighbor to a large Air Force base, these rules are compounded by flight restrictions covering most of the city. The police department had to obtain waivers to get its drones off the ground; it took two years to develop policies and get the necessary approvals to start making flights.
The police department purchased its drones with a mind to managing large public events or complex incidents like hostage situations. But, as Dave Weloth soon found, “the more we use our drones, the more use cases we find.” At the real time crime center, Terry, who has a master’s in geographic information technology, had given me a tour of the city with images gathered on recent drone flights, clicking through to cloud-shaped splotches, assembled from the drone’s composite photographs, that dotted the map of Ogden.
Above 21st Street and Washington, he zoomed in on the site of a fatal crash caused by a motorcycle running a red light. A bloody sheet covered the driver’s body, legs splayed on the pavement, surrounded by a ring of fire trucks. Within minutes, the drone’s cameras had scanned the scene and created a 3D model accurate to a centimeter, replacing the complex choreography of place markers and fixed cameras on the ground that sometimes leave major intersections closed for hours after a deadly collision.
When the region was hit by a powerful windstorm last September, Terry flew a drone over massive piles of downed trees and brush collected by the city. When county officials saw the resulting volumetric analysis—12,938 cubic yards—that would be submitted as part of a claim to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, they asked the police department to perform the same service for two neighboring towns. Ogden drones have also been used to pinpoint hot spots after wildland fires, locate missing persons, and fly “overwatch” for SWAT team raids.
This flight was more routine. When I pulled into the parking lot, two officers from Ogden’s community policing unit looked on as West steered the craft over a dense stand of Gambel oak and then hovered over a triangular log fort on a hillside a couple of hundred yards away. Though they’d never encountered people on drone sweeps through the area, trash and makeshift structures were commonplace. Once the RTCC pinpointed the location of any encampments, the community service officers would go in on foot to get a closer look. “We get a lot of positive feedback from runners, hikers,” one officer explained. After one recent visit to a camp near a pond on 21st Street, he and the county social service workers who accompanied him found housing for two people they’d met there. When clearing camps, police also “try and connect [people] with services they need,” Weloth said. The department recently hired a full-time homeless outreach coordinator to help. “We can’t police ourselves out of this problem,” he said, comparing the department’s efforts to keep new camps from springing up to “pushing water uphill.”