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3 ways a volunteer programmer can help in a pandemic

DevOps pros can help local and state agencies battle COVID-19. Here are three ways they can volunteer their time during a pandemic.

While doctors and nurses take the front lines in the fight to contain the coronavirus, an army of volunteer programmers and software developers are working behind the scenes to help all medical professionals better understand the virus, its spread and its toll.

Many of these volunteer developers have turned to the U.S. Digital Response (USDR), a coalition of volunteers -- mostly technologists -- that look to tackle challenges faced by governments and government services.

Improved access and analysis

More than 5,000 volunteer programmers have already pitched in. The USDR helps orchestrate over 150 projects with state, city, county and local governments, according to M. Jackson Wilkinson, co-lead for the RTCovid team at USDR, the umbrella organization for several developer-led efforts to address the challenges of COVID-19.

Among these efforts are CovidTracking, CovidActNow and PPE Coalition (personal protection equipment). Wilkinson's team, nicknamed RTCovid (for Real-Time Covid), is a crew of about 15 that dives into tricky internal data challenges to help the governments of large cities and states.

"Sometimes that's building complete applications, other times it's getting existing processes automated and other times it's just a few Zoom calls with guidance," he said.

Nearly every project starts with a local or state government agency that asks an IT pro for help. Some examples include database application management or the ability to predict hospital capacity. While the guidance is usually easy, making data readable and easily consumed is another matter. "We helped data flow more freely into well-designed dashboards for leaders to make informed decisions," Wilkinson said.

As technologists, we can't just sit on the sidelines and hope that someone else will take care of it.
M. Jackson WilkinsonUSDR RTCovid team Co-lead

Whether the need is for volunteer developers who can write code from home, do basic data entry or perform data cleansing, USDR looks for IT pros with a wide variety of technology, business and communication skills.

"The biggest requirement is to be flexible and non-dogmatic," Wilkinson said. "We all have our thoughts about the right way to do things, but in these contexts, we need to do the best we can under the time and resource constraints we find."

Support for individuals in a time of crisis

Having good personal connections can help a programmer land a key volunteer spot in a pandemic. That was the case for Peter Karman, an open source technologist at TrussWorks who is now on loan to serve as the USDR manager for the state of Kansas. Karman said he was asked to coordinate in Kansas because he had served on Governor Laura Kelly's transition team in 2018 and he personally knew many people in the governor's office.

Karman is the main point of contact between Kansas municipal and state governments and the USDR network. When requests for help from Kansas arrive in the USDR queue, Karman speaks with the government representative and assesses how USDR can help. He then helps identify and coordinate volunteers.

Karman said most state governments now see huge traffic increases on websites that handle unemployment requests. On a busy day prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the site usually served 5,000 visitors. The average daily website traffic to the site in April was over 90,000. He works closely with the Kansas Department of Labor to improve website stability and performance.

Support for big and small businesses

With nearly 40 million Americans out of work, the unemployment rate is at its highest since the Great Depression. Another equally grim statistic is the number of small and mid-sized businesses that are either still closed or struggling to survive.

Jacob Simon, a software engineer and consultant for Apero Health, is also a USDR volunteer who works with a multidisciplinary team to create a product that helps small businesses cope with the financial burden due to COVID-19.

"I have been working in various technical roles for the past five years, with specific experience in the lending space, so there was a fairly natural fit with this project," Simon said.

Simon also works on a website that informs small businesses about their eligibility for various financial programs, and directs them to the funding source. "We saw some promising results in our initial rollout with New Jersey, and we're now working with a few other state governments to replicate that for their constituents," he said.

Software developer volunteer opportunities

These are three typical examples of the type of crisis applications volunteer developers may join if they were to sign up with USDR. Other examples include platforms that match hospital staffing shortages with qualified workers, or apps that help deliver food to quarantined citizens.

"We can't all work on the front lines, but there will be countless ways to help our communities in the coming months and years," Wilkinson said. "As technologists, we can't just sit on the sidelines and hope that someone else will take care of it."

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