A state in crisis turns to tech gurus

New York’s top tech official talks about collaborating with private industry on coronavirus response.

New York State Interim Chief Information Officer Jeremy Goldberg

New York State Interim Chief Information Officer Jeremy Goldberg Submitted

Jeremy Goldberg has lots of responsibilities as the state’s interim chief information officer and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s right-hand man on technology and innovation. And then the coronavirus hit. With more people than ever working from home, taking classes remotely and accessing government services online, all eyes are on Goldberg and his team of information technology specialists to ensure the state’s digital services run well.

To aid that effort, the state has launched the COVID-19 Technology SWAT Team, an initiative to recruit nongovernment technologists to volunteer to help with information technology-related coronavirus response projects.

Already, tech giants Microsoft and Google have joined the initiative, as has the tech industry group Tech:NYC. And while the names of new partners haven’t been released, Goldberg said the state received over 500 submissions from companies and individuals wanting to get involved in the first 24 hours after launching the initiative.

City & State checked in with Goldberg to get the latest on the SWAT team, the projects they’ll be working on, and why public and private sector technologists are a perfect match. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The COVID-19 Technology SWAT Team sounds pretty serious. What’s the goal of this initiative?

This is a first in the nation service partnership with leading global technology companies to support New York state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s leadership, the state has moved with urgency and professionalism and resilience to tackle the coronavirus head-on. And so this is part of this effort. We’ve received unprecedented and unsolicited inbound interest from civic-minded technologists from across the country to support our response efforts. We welcome that support, and we will work with this team to scale our response efforts in the coming weeks and months. As you can imagine, the need is great during these unprecedented times – many more individuals are working remotely and New Yorkers want real, accurate, up-to-date information as quickly as possible. The SWAT teams will support our response efforts by utilizing the digital expertise and mobile and web applications, content, data analytics, operations and other areas of need as they arise. Nearly every facet of the response has some type of technological component that we are supporting and participating in.

What are some of the specific projects these teams will be working on?

We’ll be rolling out projects over time – I’m not going to scoop any of the announcements or any follow-up here. The focus areas will generally be on public health information and guidance and making it more accessible across the different mediums and platforms, enhancing social services in terms of those that are most impacted by COVID, (making them) much more accessible and reliable, data analytics to drive forecasting and resource allocation, making COVID testing and resources more accessible digitally, and leveraging digital products and analytics to support field operations that the governor is leading. Those are a couple of areas, broadly speaking.

The SWAT Team is taking submissions from both groups of employees at tech companies as well as individual technologists. In practice would these teams be working together on the same projects?

Initially, the idea is that the teams from the companies that are dedicating resources will work together as one unit with our state technology experts as well as our agency partners. And there are possibly options and opportunities for some of these teams from different companies to also integrate and to work together.

You said you’ve received a lot of interest from civic-minded technologists – just regular people who want to help. How many people are we talking about?

There has been an outpouring of interest and response and generosity that was coming in. But since we went live with the tech SWAT program, for example, the level of interest and support is probably nearly unheard of in terms of the civic technology world. In the first 24 hours after the program went live, we received nearly 500 submissions from a combination of companies and individuals, representing nearly 1,000 interested volunteers. And that is really a credit to New York’s aggressive response and strong technology vision, and most certainly Gov. Cuomo’s leadership during this crisis. I know the question that might be in your mind is while we may not be able to – and I say may not be able to – accommodate all of the volunteers, we are extremely grateful for all the inbound (submissions) and are looking for ways to support their involvement. Those numbers continue to rise as far as the expressions of interest.

Some people are talking about technology in a new way in response to the coronavirus pandemic, musing that companies have a chance to shine and come to the rescue in some ways right now. Is that your read as well?

My read is what the governor has also expressed and has underscored is that the heroes and the people that are making an impact are the people on the front lines. And those are your first responders, and those are the people that are responding to the urgent needs every single day. And while technology is a tool, and technologists are a part of this partnership, it requires all hands on deck. There is an opportunity here for industry and technology companies to be a partner in this effort.