41 min read

Jen Pahlka and Raylene Yung: Creating the US Digital Response
Out of the Crisis Podcast Transcript

A few months ago, Jen Pahlka was planning on stepping back from running organizations and working on a book. Then the pandemic struck. Along with Raylene Yung, Jen has now put together the US Digital Response, an organization dedicated to connecting governments with the tech resources they need to address the current crisis. I spoke to Jen and Raylene about USDR, the trends they were seeing and how they thought we could get out of this crisis.

Show Notes

Panelists

Producer: Ben Ehrlich

Editor: Jacob Tender

The original audio can be found on Breaker, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.


Eric Ries

This is Out of the Crisis. I’m Eric Ries.

Odds are, you know someone who’s had to apply for unemployment benefits in this crisis already. We’re seeing claims at unprecedented numbers really unseen unemployment since the days of the Great Depression. So what do you do if you go to your local claim website, and the site was designed to handle 10,000 claims over the past three years, and now it’s doing 10,000 claims a day. Most government technology is not set up in an adaptable way, it’s not ready to handle the load of the crisis. Keep in mind, these are still the early days of the crisis. We don’t know how bad this is going to get. But what we do know is that we have to get coordinated. We need leaders in the public and private sectors to work together. We can’t wait for some mythical savior to arrive we have to act build with what we have. have what we know right now. For many years, I’ve had the privilege of working with Jen Pahlka to Code for America through her time in the Obama administration. Through our work together on things like the United States digital surface, and at naff, she has been an advocate for a more responsive, more resilient, more agile government. And if that sounds like an oxymoron, well, listen up. So it’s no surprise that she was one of the first people I call when this crisis hit, to ask what she was doing to make a difference. And of course, I came away inspired by her answer. She and Raylene Yung, who you’ll hear in a minute, have collaborated to form the USTR the United States digital response, activating an entire network of government technologists Lean and Agile practitioners to bring them together with state and local governments solving problems of immediate need. They have placed dozens or probably hundreds by now volunteers in partnership with government agencies, And many of those teams have shipped a year’s worth of work in a weekend. Raylene has worked at a number of top technology firms, like stripe and Facebook. And she and Jen have that civic spirit that ethos of rolling up your sleeves when it’s most needed. Together, they are leading a cross functional organization that is helping governments understand how to respond to this crisis. USTR is literally plugging the gaps for finding the places where our governments are not yet able to respond. Their work and the work of the hundreds of volunteers has been a source of great inspiration, even in these dark days. Here’s my conversation with Raylene and Jen.

So Raylene, Jen, thanks so much for taking time to talk. Do you mind just introducing yourself?

Jen Pahlka

I’m Jen Pahlka and up until January 31. I was reading the nonprofit that I founded called Code for America for 10 years and had planned for quite some time to step down. I just didn’t realize I was stepping down so I could step up into something else. I have experience working with government through code for American also spent a year at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as the deputy us CTO.

Raylene Yung

I’m Raylene Yung and I spent my career mostly working at tech companies primarily leading product and engineering teams at Facebook and stripe. More recently, I was a fellow at the Aspen Institute tech policy hub for working on USTR.

Eric

This is a pretty sober and deadly situation. How are you both doing and he tell us a little bit about your, your personal quarantine setup.

Jen

I have a very blessed quarantine setup. I feel very lucky. I live in Oakland, with my husband and now my dog and I have been with my daughter but she decided that Sebastopol was a better place to be during all this and is off with her. Her stepsister and her family up in Sebastopol, but I have a I guess the privilege really to be working quite a few hours a day, feeling busy and useful, which really reduces the stress. And I have a home office that my husband helped me set up in advance of my stepping down from Code for America. I was going to write to be writing a book in this office. I’m not writing the book, but I am happy with what I’m doing in here. And I am very lucky that it has two huge windows and views of the East Bay hills. And I just couldn’t feel more Yeah, blessed to be writing out this crisis with both important and meaningful work and in a very comfortable setting. And I wish I wish that for everybody.

Raylene

I live in San Francisco. I’m in the Mission District kind of similar, I think very lucky to have you know, a comfortable home that I can live in and I one of the first things that we did was my partner has a startup and We went to his office and borrowed a bunch of office equipment and set up some real home offices. So been lucky to have that. I would say for the quarantine, I think it’s made me really appreciate how much we can communicate with people digitally. So my parents and my brother live in Southern California, my brother is actually a surgeon. So you know, every day we’re checking in just to see how things are going at the hospital. And it’s also been an opportunity to just reconnect with a lot of friends over zoom calls or FaceTime kind of regularly.

Eric

Do you have a favorite pandemic quarantine tip?

Raylene

One fun what I’ve had is I don’t know for people who maybe work a lot on like, you know, on zoom and calls, I actually think calling people is very tiring when you’re like staring at each other. And it’s kind of this awkward like you say something then they say something. So my new pro tip is I just put like, get some friends like turn on a call. And we just kind of wander around the kitchen and like cook dinner and like eat and it’s just more it’s more just kind of like you’re like live streaming there. lives I think that’s just been very relaxing and feels a lot more like you’re hanging out with someone in real life.

Eric

That’s great.

Jen

I think mine would just be use the time to do it. But really instead, which is called the people you haven’t called and check on the people that you neglect. When when life is busier, you know, as much as we are in a dire and really scary situation. Don’t be ashamed of the upsides of it and take advantage of them.

Eric

Yeah, I have to say, I really envy the people who are bored. Yeah, I’m looking for recommendations of Netflix shows to watch. But, you know, like we it’s a crisis, where some of us are called to do that, and anything that’s not violating the social distancing rules and anything that’s not falling into despair. I think we got to be proud of being able to do Where were you when you first had the realization that this pandemic was going to be not business as usual, but something really extraordinary.

Raylene

I was in a funny boat. I, as I mentioned, was finishing this fellowship program and I’ve probably The last somewhere between three and six months, going very, very deep on climate change and trying to understand the role of technology in impact to tap already having on the world. I was actually specifically looking at the climate impact of cloud computing and a bunch of things that I think the tech sector is involved in. And I remember I was sitting at home trying to write up this guide on how to understand carbon footprint and what we can do to reduce it. And I was kind of staring at this write up of it on my computer, and watching one of the daily press briefings from the White House on the crisis and I just, it kind of hit me I was like, this doesn’t matter right now. You know, like, it does. I mean, I’m not gonna say climate change doesn’t matter. It’s incredibly important, but it just hit me that like if there was anything that was going to talk the priority list for what people are doing with at this moment Coronavirus, has really taken that top spot and it just became hard to concentrate on my other project. So that was great. The moment that it hit me when something became more important than climate change, at least for me to focus on right now.

Eric

How about you Jen?

Jen

For me, I went on a trip Code for America summit got canceled, it was supposed to be a couple days. It was like March 11 through 13th. So you can you can remember that it was starting to get serious then, but we weren’t told not to travel yet. And I have to admit with a great deal of shame that my daughter begged me not to go on the trip. And it was my mother’s birthday. And I was seeing her before I was supposed to go down to DC for the Code for America summit. I my mom really wanted me to come and I went and as we were on the trip, I realized I shouldn’t be traveling, and that my daughter, as usual, was right. She, by the way, was busy on social media. She’s 16 trying to get all of you know her peers to take this seriously. I I looked at her Instagram the other day and she had put the blog post that was entitled This is not a snow day in her Instagram profile. And she was begging friends that were out in groups not taking this seriously to to change their behavior, not to much avail. I’m sorry to say that I think many of her friends were already taking it seriously. So, you know, I guess I’m ashamed to say that I kind of realized a mistake on a trip and then tried to get home as quickly as I can. But you know, it really hit me when DJ Patel, who was the first US chief data officer, called me and told me a little bit about what his modeling was showing that then I realized that this was not just about me having been on a trip, but this is a really big problem.

Eric

So let’s talk about what us digital response was formed to do. And maybe you can kind of tell the founding story of it and some of the extraordinary people that have stepped up to be part of it, what they’re doing.

Jen

It starts from that moment when DJ called me I was in my kitchen Trying to cook dinner. And he said, What are you doing? What are you doing about this? He had some stuff that he and some colleagues were going to do to help government. And it’s that sort of that moment when when someone calls you to service even if it’s in a an informal, helpful way. He was talking about what he thought needed to happen in California. And the fact that every state was going to need the kind of expertise that California was able to muster and probably wouldn’t have access to that. And while I was talking to him and cooking dinner, Megan Smith called who was another former US, CTO, and Risley was asking these are the same thing, what’s going on? What are you doing, how are you going to contribute to this national crisis and Initially, it was a little bit unformed. It was the states are going to need to be able to be connected to to each other, they’re going to need to be able to spend spread best practices. And they’re going to, they’re just going to need technology and data how when I got off the phone with the two of them, I called Corey zarek, who I have been working with in various capacities over the year. over the many years that I’ve been in this space, she is sitting out at Georgetown back center, running a digital services collaborative there, and knew that she would have you know, the right network and the right orientation for this. And she said, Yeah, yeah, we got to do something. let’s let’s let’s start. And we just started by getting a list together of people that we knew in states that we thought might be able to share ideas about what they were going to do and we start spreading what’s working from state to state we have a network of people that we’ve worked with over the years that we could look we could start to tap and I think it was later on that night when she said Ryan already has a form up and I said what form and of course Ryan, our friend Ryan sod drum, having worked on the healthcare.gov rescue knew that what you need in a case like this is many, many, many extra hands with a certain skill set, and also with a certain orientation. And that orientation is I will do what it takes. I’m here to help. This isn’t about me right now this is about us. It put up a live simple Google Form saying who what, who wants to raise your hand and help right now. And it was already getting people so you know, by that by late that night, we had merged the efforts of our, you know, our three thinking and had started to get together, you know, a list of people in government and a list of people outside of government and started planning how to merge them.

Raylene

I think the way I’ve been describing kind of what we’re doing and the journey we’ve been on, it’s like, it’s really, for the startup folks. It’s like, starting up something like a company, a startup and just having it go from like, it’s like someone was joking that we’re going through each of the stages each week. So you know, first week, it’s like, small seed fund start up with like, three or four friends. And then the next week you have like 10 people, it’s a series A and Series B. And it just kind of the rate of growth is really has been kind of staggering. So we started off with these two forums, we had a Google forum where people signed up to volunteer. And we had a, like a mailing list of people that Jan and Cory and Ryan and others new state local government. And the question is like, what do we do here with with these two sides. So we really designed it, like in a bit like a startup where we have a one side, there’s like a recruiting team, where we have volunteers who apply, we talked to them, we figure out what they’re good at where they can get plugged in. And then we have this like government partnerships team, where we’re actually talking to real users, which in this case, are government groups who are coming to us with requests for help and sharing things that they’re seeing.

Eric

For folks who aren’t familiar. I think this you know, we’ve worked together many years and have seen this kind of government private technology, partnership in action, but I think for some listeners that may that may be a new idea. So talk a little bit about the kinds of requests that are coming from governments and maybe answer the question of why is this not something governments can handle themselves?

Raylene

Sure. So everything has been moving very quickly. So the way I’ll describe it, as we’ve seen a few waves of the types of things that people are requesting, and each wave, I think, is roughly correlated to where people are locally in terms of the crisis. So I would say one of the first things that we heard very commonly was what I’ve been calling, kind of insights and information. So this is different states or cities or counties who have who are trying to just get information out to their residents. So they want to know, is there a good tool online that helps someone self assess whether they have COVID-19? So like a symptom checker, they might want to know, is there a basic tool that helps them keep an eye on the number of cases and they and the rate of case growth and modeling and prediction tools? So that was the first wave of needs and I think everyone was kind of wrapping their heads around what is happening locally, and how do we communicate what’s happening to our residents? I would say the second wave was really about More around healthcare and medical resources in a way. So this is where the PP coalition comes in. This is kind of tracking hospital inventories, like number of beds, location and number of ventilators and so forth. And that’s kind of in the second wave of needs. And a lot of it is is sort of similar sort of its communication, but a lot of it is also just getting the data aggregating it, me being able to take action on it, I would say kind of the the third wave that we are certainly in now is more around benefits. So now with cares and pandemic unemployment assistance, and a lot of programs that are coming out. But in addition to just in general, the increased demand on benefits, we’re just seeing a lot of systems get overloaded with record numbers of applications, you know, just gives you a sense of it is we had, we’re working with a team in New Jersey, and they said that, you know, their old system got 3000 applications over the last roughly 15 years after all these changes, and the The new things that are happening right now, they got 30,000 applications in the first day. And if you just think about that, as you can imagine, none of the systems that we’re processing 3000 over 15 years are really set up to process 30,000 in like hours or days, right? So right now we’re kind of in this wave of benefits, and just trying to figure out how we can make it easier for people to get benefits. And you know, and also help the government teams like fulfill those benefits. I would say one other way that you know, is coming up as well. And and, and I think is very important is I do think some areas are also starting to think about how do we what’s the recovery look like? And how do people emerge from shelter in place? And that’s where I think things like contact tracing or self reporting of symptoms is starting to an efforts like masks for all I think these are the things that are now also starting to come up.

Jen

I can give you an example of like one of the early things that happen we could just sort of see the pattern is a guy in New Jersey. Is the government name Ross, Jake and I happen to know him because he was a Presidential Innovation fellow several years ago, he sends over a little thing. It’s like I just, I just need this data scraped out of this thing out of this, this data set. Sort of simple, simple project. This is before we had process which we really appreciate now. And I just forwarded it to a former Code for America fella who I’d seen put his his record in our database for wanting to help out. And I’m looking at this thread now and he just returned it to him with all the work done and the data all where it needed to be the next day around the same time so Sir 24 hour turnaround at us a little bit about you know, why is this different? Like a government can’t do this and government normally if it needs something technical done, it doesn’t have a lot of people who can do stuff like this. Mostly government outsources everything and to outsource something, you need to write out the thing and get it out and there’s no time for a procurement A moment like this, certainly not for small project, but there are a lot of bigger projects. So for Nick to be able to return this work to him, you know, in 24 hours is a pretty big deal. And it builds a lot of trust. And so from there, Ross started throwing us bigger and bigger projects. And the next thing he asked Nick to do, by the way, I like this, he says, Nick 20,000, small business owners a dozen overworked MJ MJ Ed. Officers, and I so appreciate you’re raising your hand, right like these, these is New Jersey Economic Development Association. But the next thing he asked him to do was they’re all these small businesses that are now eligible for loans. It’s really confusing for them what what are you eligible for what can you get? What should and not knowing makes it even harder to plan? And yeah, again, within about a day, Nick, Darren was able to put up an eligibility wizard taking all that data into account all the program information into account and it was up there at what Ross would Call the speed of need. We’re not we’re no longer operating at the speed of government, we’re operating at the speed of need. And it’s because people are there to just do it. And now other states can take that eligibility wizard adapted if they need to, and put it up even faster.

Eric

That’s something I remember back from the Code for America Day is this idea of doing implementations for one one locality one government and then open sourcing it getting other governments to standardize on it or to reuse it. Tell us a little bit about that, how that’s going in this effort.

Jen

Yeah, we’ve seen a fair number of things be able to be borrowed. I think it still doesn’t frankly, happen as much as we’d like it to. Because it’s just very hard to get the word out to everybody. So we’re trying to use networks of networks, whether it’s the Bloomberg what cities crew or the National League of Cities, or just met today with tech for America, to just remind people that they need to look around before they look down, you know, look around and see what else is there.

Raylene

Yeah, a couple weeks ago, you know, the city of Concord, California reached out with a request of how do we help get volunteer help to get food to senior citizens who are homebound. And it was an example, we’re like, well, we could build something maybe kind of quickly for you that helps collect volunteers and match and helps you match them. And so we had a team we did that they really like we’re staying up all night, like kind of hacking together a tool that the city of Concord could use, what we realized is like, part of it is like, we don’t necessarily want to own this tool, or even be responsible or kind of looking at this data to match volunteers that should really live in the city’s hands, and they should have that data and they should be able to do that. So we kind of took a totally different approach and basically opened up everything and made it more of a recipe that we published on GitHub, and we have kind of instructions on how to do this. So it’s all set up using like a CMS and, and a back very basic configurable like back end. And now what we do is if a city writes in and says, We want to coordinate local volunteers, we help you set up your own version of this service, we actually give you the keys to the data. And we kind of walk away from it. And so now it’s something that’s completely run by the city. And we’ve seen, like cities around the world, just organically find us and then build their own versions as well. So I think that’s kind of an extreme example of open source. It’s not even just the code is there, it’s like, we actually help you get it up and running. But we don’t even have to see any of the data in the end.

Jen

And that story is a great example of reuse. But that came to us through a LinkedIn message to me from a guy who was friends with the mayor of Concord. And, you know, they didn’t USTR didn’t even exist yet. But it was the kind of thing that signaled to me if people are that desperate to get solutions that they’re just going to sort of, you know, asking a friend who might know a friend, we really need to show up and be able to answer the question can you help with a big Yes.

Eric

Isn’t that wild in a crisis like this How many of us have been on the receiving end of messages like that, you know, a friend of the governor or someone who knows someone who knows someone who’s in need.

Jen

Yeah, and you what you want to say is like, but there’s a system for that. And you know, they shouldn’t need to do that. It ought to work, the system ought to work. And the reality is that some of the systems work pretty well some of the time. But this is really showing that our systems don’t work as well as they should even in quote, unquote, normal times. And I do hope that some of the lessons that we learn from this as we can’t, we can’t let our infrastructure get as frayed as it has been. This is really showing us the weaknesses, but also showing us the strengths, right, the fact that we are rising to the occasion and getting it done outside of normal chance, sometimes outside of normal channels, is very hopeful, but a lot of people are going shouldn’t shouldn’t this happen a different way?

Eric

Yeah. You know, it’s interesting you say that because that has been such a theme already, in the few conversations that I’ve had, trying to get our arms around how we get out of this mess, this combination of our decrepit infrastructure and the neglect that we have shown to making the necessary long term investments during the good times, combined with this incredible resilience and inspiration that comes from ordinary people stepping in to fill the gaps, when they shouldn’t even really be needed to do that, because the system should have been invested in. So let’s talk a little bit more about what are the lessons you hope people will learn from this crisis? And what could we be doing right now, to plant the seeds for that recovery so that we don’t make these mistakes again?

Jen

Well, I’ll start in something I think people don’t pay much attention to, you know, it’s not just infrastructure in the sense of, you know, better technology systems, which of course, I’m happy to talk about till the cows come home, but it’s complexity. We have let our systems become wildly overly complex. And it’s not until you know, the volume gets so high that you realize that’s just Sir, this is this dumb way to do things or actually, let me restate that it’s not that it’s not that you don’t realize that it’s that people aren’t they’re not looking at it. Because a lot of the complexity that makes government hard to manage mostly affects low income people and other people who don’t have as much of a political voice. For example, there’s a lot of barriers to receiving SNAP benefits. That’s, you know, in regular parlance, that’s food stamps and supplemental Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. And food advocates have been saying for years, why do we put such an enormous administrative and logistical burden on people to give them just a couple hundred dollars a month and assistance to actually have healthy food for their families. This is really not fair now in the crisis. The Food and Nutrition Service Have the USDA who regulates this at the federal level has issued guidance that we can skip the interview, which is one of the biggest, biggest barriers for people. It does beg the question, why did we have the interview in the first place? I think in a perfect world interview could be a great thing that actually helps people and connects them to other benefits. But that’s not how this works in the current state. There’s another story of this just now that I can’t get to the specifics of, but where you have things that really should be easy and have been incredibly hard, and people have been saying, No, that can’t happen. It’s going to take five years of regulatory work and technology work hand in hand to get it to happen. And suddenly, people are saying, Oh, wait, actually, it turns out, a middleware layer will probably fix this. We’ll have it done in a few weeks. And I’m so glad that’s happening and it’s it’s going to help a lot of people. But why didn’t we do it that way before and partly The answer, unfortunately, is that not enough people understand the experience of folks that have to interact with government when they are, you know, need assistance, not enough people in power really know what it’s like to get unemployment insurance or to get snap or to get Medicaid. And if we did, I think we would fix them and I hope we take this opportunity to really change things and it needs again, it’s not just technology, it’s rule simplifying the rules, and simplifying and streamlining the processes that make the you know, the currently make the technology overcomplicate.

Raylene

Yeah, I just had to kind of quick things. I think one. One is certainly the idea of pensions, Catherine with regressive bureaucracy. I think, right now, so much more burden is placed on people or groups that actually need more help, that it’s kind of backwards, right? They actually ask people who need help to jump through more hoops. And I think that’s something that’s going to become more clear, as we see certain systems get overloaded and reexamining the criteria and the processes we use to get people help. That’s certainly one. The other one, I think speaking more from kind of a tech person outside of government that I hope people take away from this, particularly if you’re volunteering with USTR is that the government is not so far away and so inaccessible, I think, in our teams and our volunteer groups, everyone is working day in and day out side by side with people who work for the government. And we’re looking at, you know, the city of San Francisco’s website, or the city, the State of New Jersey’s websites and the resources that are made available. And I think they’re actually like, right there and very accessible. And I hope that this does encourage people to whether it’s to work in government or to just look at what their local cities and states offer to their residents, and to kind of understand what those things are and maybe even try to contribute in positive ways to your community. I hope that’s something that that stays on after all this.

Eric

That’s been a really theme of these conversations about leadership in a time of crisis that so many of the things that you were called on to do in a crisis you should have been doing all along. That just reveals to you that you were supposed to be doing it. And I think a lot of us are having trouble falling into recrimination and blame, and even feeling guilty, or even ashamed of the things that we did pre crisis, which makes it hard to move forward and make the investments that we need to make now or even to feel like it’s too late. We missed our chance. We missed our window. How are you keeping that motivation to stay forward oriented?

Raylene

I think I think there’s something that is kind of definitely in the way that I think our team is structured is we’re very general, very iterative and forward looking. You know, I kind of joke that every day will change anything we need to to help us be more effective and move forward. And I think we see that in our projects. And we see that our approach. So part of that, to me is just the general positive outlook, which is the impact we can have tomorrow can probably be bigger than the impact we had today. That’s certainly what keeps me going. And I think is something we factor into a lot of the way we’re approaching this work.

Jen

I think we’ve had not just insufficient investments in infrastructure and all the other things that we’ve just talked about, but we have a society that is profoundly unequal. And as much as I am terrified about the impact of this health crisis, but economic crisis as well, on some people, I am also hopeful that it forces us to face that this is simply an unsustainable way of running a country and that big change comes out of it. And to me just being part of on a day to day basis groups of people who are gonna fight for that change and force that change in small ways and big ways. And Eric, there’s a lot of things that I see you doing. That feels to me like big structural changes that were underway beforehand, like your Long-Term Stock Exchange. You know, if this crisis accelerates the changes that needed to happen that are more fundamental, than at least some good will have come out of it. I don’t unfortunately, feel like I can say that it will net out as a good thing because of so much devastation that seems to be inevitable.

Eric

Yeah, thanks. Thanks for the kind words, of course, and people, people who I’ve been talking to, and I mean, this has been a non stop 24 hours a day on the phone a couple of weeks. Our split seems to me like into two fallacies. Some people have despair and think Nothing good can come up with this. And then some people are very optimistic, but kind of assume that there’ll be a silver lining or these good things will happen. This will accelerate the changes. And my view is kind of in between, which is that we can have those opportunities. We can make something positive come out of this, but it requires all of us to step up and lead to get those outcomes. They’re by no means automatic. If you start History, lots of crises, you know, can wind up strengthening liberal democracies, but they can also destroy them. And I wonder where you net out on this idea that we all have a role to play in trying to get to those positive outcomes, rather than the more dire ones?

Jen

Well, that’s why we wear sweatshirts that say it’s up to us and have stickers and I think you know, you know, my, my husband wrote a book called what’s the future and I’m he’s happy to tell people that the subtitle is what I was my addition and it’s what’s the future and why it’s up to us. I very strongly agree that nothing is inevitable, and what we all do matters.

Eric

So all right, some people who are listening to this are as we speak right this minute on their couch, making the mistake of going on social media, and watching this human and economic catastrophe play out in real time and thinking in to despair, I think that’s a very normal human thing to do. And if you’re having that experience right now, my heart goes out to you don’t beat yourself up. It’s this is very natural. But let’s say that they want to take inspiration from your example. And they want to get involved. How can they get off the couch and get in the fight?

Raylene

One of our volunteers actually said, you know, during scary times, I process my emotions by feeling useful any way I can. And I love that I think that sentiment is great. And I think it’s really been the driving force for a lot of the work that we’re doing. I was also one of those people who’s reading every tweet and watching every press conference and feeling kind of like what was happening, what could I do? So I think my advice is find some way to help I think in all put that up I think, I also believe in self care. So if right now is the time for you to take care of yourself and go on long walks and, and really try to make sure you’re focusing on your own on your own health. Please do that. But if you are looking for ways to kind of externalize and help other groups, I think there’s obviously us us digital response, of course, but also There’s lots of local volunteering opportunities. There are people in communities who are trying to deliver food to needy residents, I have another friend who slipped a piece of paper underneath the door of every neighbor, because he knows that there are senior citizens who live in his neighborhood that may not know where to find help and may not know to sign up online for help. So I think you can certainly channel some of your efforts that way. And, and I also think just being informed and kind of learning about what’s happening in the world is also valuable. So it’s not always bad to read the news. And I think this is something that’s, that’s really just unprecedented, certainly in my lifetime around this is what a global phenomenon it is. And I think the world in many ways feels a lot smaller than I think it ever has. So I think it’s also an opportunity to just like, learn about what’s happening in the world.

Jen

And we’re already helping each other. I mean, I know many people who who’ve done what Raylene described with their neighbors, including my daughter, who I’m really proud of, but we know we’re helping each other just by locking down I mean, we are starting to flatten this curve. And that’s one way we take care of each other.

Eric

It’s a strange, strange circumstance where staying home not going out, depriving yourself of you know, certain pleasures like that’s, that’s actually probably the most important thing. And boy has anyone listening to this who still has not got the memo on why social distancing is important. We’ll put some links in the show description, please, if you do nothing else, obey social distancing, and advocate for the company, you work in the leaders that you’re in connection to your political leaders, to make sure we get behind that we still have mayors and governors in this country, who to our great shame have not yet ordered even a shelter in place, let alone the even more draconian measures that are now going to be required in some of those states because of their failure to act. It’s interesting that you talked about this being part of your own way of coping with the crisis because one of the things that has surprised me greatly in the past few weeks, you know, we need a new more politically correct term for Tom Sawyer ring. Like this phenomenon of creepy People up and telling them Yes, you’re ready, you can do this. Go Go get them. A number of the people that I have called and asked to get involved in a whole bunch of different relief efforts, especially some who I’ve been making pretty dramatic asked, including, like, drop everything. And please work on this full time. You know, nurses need to teachers need you that people are in need right now. Several people have been like, Thank God you called, I’m so grateful. Because I was sitting on my couch. I was I was super stressed. And now that I have something to work on, I actually feel better. And that was a big surprise to me. I’ve been in other kind of crisis relief situations, but I think this has a kind of existential dread attached to it. That’s different than anything that’s happened, certainly in our lifetimes, or certainly in my experience, it feels a lot more like the things the stories my grandparents used to tell me about the times that they went through. Talk a little bit about some of the people who have inspired you or just you know, the acts of leadership and getting into it, how that how that’s affected your experience of the crisis.

Jen

I just wanted to tell a quick story but sort of exactly the same thing. We are on boarded a guy named Mike flowers. He was Bloomberg chief analytics officer for a while and done a bunch of tech and data stuff and that Oh God, he can help. And it was like a Friday at five o’clock or something. And I get this slack message from him. I got on boarded it too. It’s five o’clock it’s eight o’clock East Coast time for him. I got on 42 and I have not had a moment of rest since eight o’clock. And I said, Oh, I’m so sorry Mike. And he said, Are you kidding me? This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. You know, I haven’t had a chance to breathe and and I love it because I’m I’m you know, because I’m helping.

Eric

Yea please name some names. It’s great. It’s great to both praise people. But then also that sets us up for you know, future interviews and gets people curious to learn more about their projects. And please, if there are specific USTR spin off projects or volunteer opportunities that are alive right now. Like please do name drop them.

Jen

Well, I’ll do one more than Raylene mentioned the neighbor Express, which is the platform for helping Connect volunteers with people in need in a particular community. And I mentioned that this this came from a LinkedIn message from the mayor of Concord. But when I got that there’s a woman who was a former Code for America fellow named Jessica Cole, who also happened to just be in the tech policy hub, fellowship with Raylene I actually didn’t even remember that. But it’s this kind of thing where you say, hey, this need came in. Could you take care of it? And I mean, her answer was about a short is yes, you know that there’s just there’s no questions. There’s no, am I getting paid? Or, you know, what does it look like? What are you expecting of me? How will this live on I mean, it’s just Yes. And to my mind, she kind of disappeared for a couple of days and the next thing I know, neighbor Express is up and Running and, and and heard thing then is okay, great. We’re gonna get this to a bunch of other municipalities that need it. But in the meantime, can you give me more? I don’t remember what all the other things are that she’s working on now. I think Kiki coalition is one I was just gonna say she was she jumped right into the breach at a time when I was incapacitated working on PP coalition and just rolled up our sleeves and took on whatever was needed. It’s been, it’s been very inspiring to see.

Raylene

Yeah, I can give a couple shout outs I think, you know, first like huge gratitude to everyone on the core team. I think we that for the first couple weeks we were working on essentially every waking hour and Alex Elaine, who can we switch via Dropbox join comm no questions asked. We’ve only met him personally a few times and talk to him every day now. But a couple other things. I think the team have Kovac now. So like max Henderson, Igor Kaufman, many others. I think we’ve been joking around like, especially with Max that it’s like making friends in the in the 90s where you make online friends, you know, You never meet them. Just chat with them. I think Eric, you and I are kind of like this as well where we’ve texted and called and never met. So I think that’s happening all over kind of internet right now. I think recently, Ben Silverman and jack Joe with, you know, people from their network is launched how we feel. So I see a lot of these kind of sibling efforts all over happening. And I think it’s wonderful. And I think we’re kind of building this community of people, all on text messages and WhatsApp threads. But I think it’s a real community. And I think everyone’s really pouring a lot of energy into this.

Eric

God willing, we get through this crisis. We’ll all be lifelong friends, and we’ll get to meet in real life one day.

Jen

I hope so. I hope so too. We’ve we’ve got a bunch of people who worked on this sort of data automation for hospitals in Pennsylvania, who I think must have just worked all night on it one day because it’s quite a beautiful piece of software that it really helps Pennsylvania. ingestion see a lot of data that it needed to have in one place. You know, the professionalism of it is astounding. But when you realize how quickly they turned it around, I can’t imagine that they slept.

Raylene

Yeah. Yeah, I guess like just a couple shots like Erica Reinhardt was on the core team. But I was also just mobilized and worked with multiple other projects. And Tiffany Whoa, who was leading that effort on the on the dashboard that Jen’s mentioning for Pennsylvania.

Eric

It’s astonishing what people can get done in two days during a crisis that they would have sworn would have taken two years beforehand.

Jen

Yep. Yeah, we had a team put together an MVP for epidemic unemployment assistance, application form. And I yeah, they they got it done pretty much overnight, and it looks fantastic. And it’s very impressive. And that’s Eric Reinhardt and Tyler clay camp and Dylan. And I’m forgetting Dylan’s last name, but a whole bunch of other people. And yeah, like they don’t even know each other, but they work like them. As far as I can tell, they work like a team that has Their cadence down from just years of shipping great product together.

Eric

So who do you think are the real heroes of this crisis?

Jen

Well, we we get to work with a bunch of heroes in public, sir in all kinds of public service. And I do say a lot of them, unfortunately, are still going to the office and exposing themselves because they haven’t prepared properly to have everyone work at home. But we do have to acknowledge that the folks that are staffing hospitals, doctors, nurses, and others that need to be in there are putting their lives at risk. And I can’t thank them enough. I know many of our volunteers, and even our core team members are doing this because they want to help those in they have family members or loved ones who are on the frontlines in hospitals and our hearts go out to them.

Eric

What do you think will be the long term impact of the crisis?

Jen

In my world, I mean, I’ve spent the last 10 years trying to figure out how to make government better and make it work for people and responsive to people’s needs, and treat people with dignity and respect and of course spend government money well, and I think there’s gonna be a lot of good long term impacts and some bad ones. And I think we can avert some of the bad ones, by getting in there quickly and showing that there’s a better way to do this. You know, reminding folks that, yeah, if we can do it this way, in a pandemic, we should be able to do it this way, all the time. I think we can change government to work better for people through this.

Eric

My friends at help with covid.com recently reached out to me with one of my favorite questions, which was, what are some projects that should exist, but don’t so that we can suggest volunteers go work on them? Do you want to suggest something that you wish existed but didn’t?

Raylene

So I think there’s been a lot of no code, low code tools that have come up continuously, but I’m really excited about them. I think there’s so many out there and we were on a call with someone who was like, hey, right now we know we know that to us. Google Docs is like the coolest thing since sliced bread. And we know there’s much better bread out There, we just don’t know where it is and how to use it yet. And I think there’s something there. I feel like right now the low code, no code tools are amazing. But you still have to kind of know what they are and like, kind of know how to configure them and use them. Yeah. So I still think there’s some gap there between Google Docs and like, retool and air table and all the tools that a lot of us are using. So give a shout out to my friends at bubble. There you go. bubble burst. Yeah. And I think, you know, I think there’s some gap that can be closed there, especially for very simple apps that a lot of people we see are trying to a lot of, it’s around communication of consistent events, schedules, like communication, and I just think maybe there’s something in the middle there that helps bridge the gap. So

Jen

Yeah, you know what else there should be is more I’m sure this is there, but we should highlight it more is just training for public servants and people like me even on things like air table, just there’s, there’s a new set of tools that you don’t have to be technical to use and make management of data easier and we should just get people trained up

Eric

There’s dozens of these pop up organizations now working on relief efforts. And if we made that training available to all of them, we could accelerate. I don’t know how many thousands of people’s work overnight. That’s a great idea. So where do you think we go from here? How do we get out of the crisis?

Jen

Well, I don’t think I have anything particularly insightful to say other than we have to flatten that curve, take this seriously, stay inside as long as it takes to reduce the deaths. And then we have to rebuild our economy. And I think that second part is unfortunately harder and buy rebuild the economy. I don’t just mean that money should start to flow again. I think it means that we have to use what government is meant to do, which is to be a backstop. We’ve seen it happen. You know, it’s the I don’t think, you know, the effort that it takes to wage a war is a terrible metaphor here. Not that we’re waging a war but that is We all come together when there’s a war we have in the past at least, and the, you know, the interventions that were required during the Great Depression, we have to take seriously that we have an institution called government for times like this, and that that institution of government is meant to keep people from starving and falling into, you know, unimaginable poverty. We haven’t been doing a good job of it leading up to this, as you said, and we do bear shame for that. And I think that’s appropriate. But that’s the work and I think I hope a lot of people rediscover an appreciation for government is going to be needed now more than ever.

Eric

This has been Out of the Crisis. Out of the Crisis is hosted by me Eric Ries, produced by LTSE’s Ben Ehrlich, and edited by Breaker’s Jacob Tender. Music composed and performed by Cody Mark. Out of the Crisis was created in partnership with Breaker the best platform to create and listen to podcasts. For more information on ways you can help, visit Helpwithcovid.com. I have several projects on there and feel free to message me that way. I’m also @ericries on Twitter and if anyone has ideas or is working on a project related to solutions, please do reach out to me. Thanks for listening.

I'm building products that build the next generation of companies at LTSE. This blog is where I share my personal thoughts.

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