A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

All Hands on Tech: Critical considerations for responding locally to COVID19

You’re likely suffering from information overload like the rest of us, so let’s get straight to it: Minimizing the pain of COVID-19 in our communities isn’t nearly as much about what we do as how we plan to do it.

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.
— Abraham Lincoln

TL;DR—Local governments and institutions must rapidly learn how to navigate Volatile Uncertain Complex Ambiguous (VUCA) realities by working with both coalition partners and volunteer-led Mutual Aid Networks. This means creating shared spaces for new flows of information and value based on key needs, resources, and response-ability. The time to do this is NOW.

What We’re Up Against
It’s important to establish that this is actually three crises rolled into one. The first and obvious is the pandemic and the threat to our health it poses, where peak demands for treatment are likely to outstrip supply in terms of hospital beds, ventilators, qualified care providers, etc. The second then is the financial and economic crisis, where as seen below the Dow Jones has dropped by A THIRD. Unemployment claims are spiking to “Holy Sh*t” levels, and we face the frighteningly real possibility of Great Depression era levels or higher. No one knows what will happen, regardless of interventions, bailouts, etc., anyone telling you otherwise is either fooling themselves or lying.

Finally, the third crisis has to do with our legacy institutions and systems’ inability to respond effectively to the wave of urgent needs. Their top-down structures prevent them from mobilizing as quickly as for example, local mutual aid groups, and their tendency to operate in silos has them scrambling to figure out how to coordinate across an ecosystem of shared purpose. In other words, they’re slow and aren’t used to operating in open collaboration. While the health crisis is undoubtedly the most urgent, I believe this crisis is the most important because how we address it directly impacts our capacity to respond to both the health and economic crises.

What We Must Do NOW
Thankfully there is already some level of appreciation for the need to establish common resources to aid in the process of matching resources to the needs that arise. There is not, however, a reliable level of understanding of how that works, what technologies are available to support it, or how to optimize for delivering on this scale with so many lives and livelihoods on the line.

Responding to a truly ‘all hands on deck’ emergency means uniting in common cause and operating in open collaboration with a focus on outcomes over politics and possessiveness. No single party can deal with this on their own; this can only be a team effort. The logos, egos, and politics as usual must give way to our shared humanity and solidarity. Practically speaking, this means governments and institutions are going to have to rapidly learn how to operate in tandem with grassroots efforts and mutual aid networks of all kinds.

The facts are that COVID-19 is going to make a huge number of people very sick; and that in many places there are nowhere near enough hospital beds, respirators, or qualified healthcare providers. These critical metrics must be elevated to the very top and held there so everyone knows exactly where the community stands vs. expected (peak) needs. Beyond the gaps in beds and respirators, metrics for shelter, food, and other essentials can be similarly elevated as needed. Making these figures extremely visible will galvanize efforts toward delivery of priority outcomes.

As we see already, most efforts are defaulting to what they know: google forms, spreadsheets, hotlines, and directories that all rely on massive amounts of manual matchmaking and which completely fall apart when it comes to connecting with, tracking, and verifying service delivery across an ecosystem. Because of the way we must avoid sharing physical space to organize, we are extra reliant on tech right now. The difference between “good” and “great” performance may very well be measured in lives. No pressure!

Example: Imagine you’re doing delivery for the food bank and you discover someone’s loved one has fallen ill. They won’t be able to go to the hospital and will need to be quarantined in their home, which requires a visit from a mobile quarantine unit and a regular schedule of additional support.

What do you do with this information? Call your coordinator at the food bank, who will then call/email someone else? Post it in a facebook group? How do we ensure that this critical data doesn’t fall between the cracks on the way to where it can be acted on? We aren’t talking about a memo about a committee meeting, we’re talking about someone’s life!

On the other side of the equation, if someone is willing to volunteer time or provide other forms of mutual aid, how do they know where to go? How do they let others know of their standing offer to help? We need a consistent place where people can make these needs and offers known to others without the large margin for error or exposing sensitive personal information to potential cyber-predators.

With a wave of needs on the one hand and a groundswell of offers on the other, you’re looking at a recipe for a digital marketplace. That doesn’t mean people are going to have to pay, on the contrary, much of this will be done in the gift economy as it should be. But the format of a marketplace is crucial here for a few reasons:

  1. People with needs/requests can submit them in a streamlined fashion that captures essential information, not all of which may be exposed publicly.
  2. People with offers can make them and have them become instantly visible, searchable, and findable by those who might be in need.
  3. Both of the above can occur without the need for a directory, operator, or other intermediation, meaning less labor can be spent there and more focused on actually getting things people need to those who need them.
  4. Teams, groups, agencies, etc. can have accounts in such a system and be able to take on cases in ways that prevent other groups from duplicating efforts/wasting precious time and energy.

The unique combination of conditions we face compel us to work together in ways which we may or may not already be comfortable with, and to rely more on technology than at almost any other time before. Our common cause must be to efficiently meet as many needs as possible, which can only happen when we keep key metrics and data on top, and allow access to anyone in the ecosystem without compromising anyone’s safety (looking at you, mutual aid groups sharing request-related spreadsheets publicly!). In order to accomplish these goals, communities need to have solutions for aggregating emergent needs, aggregating offers of time and resources, and creating conditions where people with one can find those with the other as directly (quickly) as possible.

As of the time of this writing, the best example I’ve found of a community already adopting this format can be found in NeighborExpress. If you are a local/state official, mutual aid group coordinator, or someone else interested in the solutions to these challenges, please do get in touch for future developments: Scott@Uncompromise.com.

Be safe out there, and may the Force be with you always.