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The Technology 202: Coronavirus could force state governments to change how they approach technology

with Tonya Riley

The coronavirus crisis could be a wake-up call for state governments to modernize the way they distribute benefits for the 21st century. 

Their decades-old computer systems are foundering under a surge in demand related to the coronavirus pandemic, as millions of Americans applied for unemployment benefits and food assistance. There's also an expected surge in demand for medical insurance as the job losses continue.  

The situation got so dire that governors had to put out a call for programmers versed in COBOL a more than half-century-old programming language. 

There’s a new push on the Hill to bolster funding to help embattled states. 

A group of Democratic senators led by Ron Wyden (Ore.) are calling on congressional leadership to ensure the next coronavirus-related package includes funding to allow the U.S. Digital Service and 18F, a digital hub within the General Services Administration, to offer the states tech support. 

The senators want to allocate $50 million in new funding for USDS, and $25 million for GSA's Technology Transformation Service, which houses 18F. The money would go towards hiring and deploying more technologists to facilitate the distribution of direct citizen services – and supporting states in purchasing new technology, specifically some that could shift some services to cloud computing. 

They’re also calling to ease regulations that would make it difficult for these federal government agencies to work with the states. 

“States and local governments need help so they can distribute aid to Americans, and the federal government has the resources to provide this support,” the senators wrote in a letter to Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other top leaders this morning. 

The pressure could result in long-term changes for government services even after the virus subsides. 

“We need the government to use digital tools to provide better customer service to the public, to allow them to access services they need,” said Tracey Patterson, senior director of social safety net at Code for America, a nonprofit that works with government on tech solutions. 

People trying to access social safety net services have long been vexed by the systems' technical shortcomings, Patterson said. She said in strong economic times, governments often cut back spending on these IT systems and simply maintain them.

The main thing holding progress back was prioritization,” Patterson said. “We spend money and time on things we care about – most governments simply did not prioritize the way our government IT systems function for poor people and people in need.”

With 22 million Americans now unemployed, the cost of not doing more to improve them is clearer. 

There's a precedent for crises forcing states to modernize their IT. 

The Great Recession was also a turning point, said Jennifer Wagner, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. She said states turned to digital solutions more as they saw funding slashed for staff amid mass budget cuts, at a time when demand for their services was on the rise. 

“That was a much more slow-developing disaster or challenge than this,” said Wagner. “State governments can do things with funding and a deadline. This presents a unique opportunity for states because they've had to scramble.” 

Wagner also said there's been an easing of rules that allow states to experiment more with new digital tools, like text messaging. 

But technology isn't a silver bullet, and people still need to be part of the process. 

Though people are accessing the services from home now, Patterson says that tech can't be the only part of government's plan. 

“The technology and the devices will change over time, but the need to put real people at the center, and provide them with human-centered service is how long-term change will be successful,” Patterson said. “Technology is one road to get there, but it is not the goal – it's the means to rebuilding trust in government and the services government provides.” 

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A powerful network of right-wing individuals and groups is amplifying the anti-quarantine protest movement. 

The “Convention of States," an initiative aimed at curtailing federal power, is wielding its national network and digital arsenal to make opposition to stay-at-home orders appear more widespread than is suggested by polling, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Tony Romm write. The initiative is running Facebook ads to undermine restrictions that medical experts say are needed to contain the coronavirus.

“Heavy-handed government orders that interfere with our most basic liberties will do more harm than good,” read one its Facebook ads, which had been viewed as many as 36,000 times as of yesterday evening.

The Convention of States project began five years ago with a donation from the family foundation of Robert Mercer, a billionaire hedge fund manager and Republican patron. Two members of the Trump administration, Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Ben Carson, secretary of housing and urban development, have supported it. 

“We’re providing a digital platform for people to plan and communicate about what they’re doing,” Eric O’Keefe, board president of Citizens for Self-Governance, the parent organization of the Convention of States project, told my colleagues. 

Yet polls show most Americans support local directives encouraging them to stay at home as covid-19 hits the country, killing more than 44,000 people in the United States to date. 

Joe Biden staffers are split over how to compete with President Trump online.

The campaign of the former vice president and would-be Democratic nominee is debating whether to bulk up internal staff or hire Hawkfish, a digital firm owned by former presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg, Politico's Alex Thompson reports.

Younger staffers want the campaign to bring on digital talent from other candidates while older staffers see the Bloomberg firm as a “silver bullet.”

Critics say Hawkfish doesn't have the experience more established Democratic digital firms offer.

“It would be a colossal mistake,” Shelby Cole, the digital director for Kamala Harris’s presidential run, told Alex. “On the Bloomberg campaign, it’s my impression that their team had a blank check to spend on digital — but that doesn’t mean they have experience running an innovative digital program that inspires supporters and mobilizes voters.” 

It could also alienate progressives who Biden needs in his corner. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) weighed in:

Time is running out: digital is king as campaigns are stuck in virtual limbo during the coronavirus. From Rodericka Applewhaite, former senior rapid response researcher for Pete Buttigieg’s campaign:

And Biden faces serious digital heat from Trump, who has four times the digital staff and a bigger social media presence. Biden's campaign said new hires would be announced soon but did not give a timeline.

More than 200 Charter Communications employees tested positive for the coronavirus.

The New York attorney general's office is looking into how the company handled the safety of workers during the pandemic, Rachel Abrams at the New York Times reports.

About half of the workers tested are office-based employees. Employees had previously raised concerns about the company's refusal to allow employees to work from home. Because Charter provides communications services, it's considered an essential business. But the company was slow to enact precautions such as distancing the hundreds of employees within the office or informing them of infections, according to employee accounts.

A “significant majority” of office and call center employees are now working remotely,  spokeswoman Cameron Blanchard told Rachel. Blanchard would not comment on the number of coronavirus cases.

Some employees maintain the company isn't doing enough to protect workers. “Our families at home are under mental agony, thinking of us getting exposed to virus at work,” an anonymous employee wrote in a petition on “A little flexibility working during this time really helps all.” 

Trump tracker

A prominent tech trade group is “very concerned” about Trump's forthcoming executive order on immigration.

“We are very concerned about the negative impact this order would have on the U.S. economy.  We urge the Administration to ensure that any action taken does not harm ongoing efforts to respond to the coronavirus and help us restore the American economy in the short, medium, and long term,” TechNet President and CEO Linda Moore wrote in a statement yesterday. 

“High-skilled immigrants have been a key part of the solution to our nation’s COVID-19 response, working hand in hand with their U.S.-born colleagues to meet this challenge.” 

President Trump on April 21 said he planned to suspend immigration for people seeking permanent residency for the next 60 days amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Video: The Washington Post)

It's still unclear whether high-skilled H1-B workers will be targeted by the order, which would halt immigration for green-card holders for 60 days, my colleagues Nick Miroff, Maria Sacchetti and Tracy Jan report. The order would allow temporary workers on nonimmigrant visas to enter. 

But any attack on a key pool of talent for the tech industry could spark backlash from tech executives who have long been critical of Trump's stances on immigration. 

Coronavirus fallout

The coronavirus is flipping fortunes in the Valley.
  • Only 44 Silicon Valley start-ups raised cash last month about a third as many as in January, Bloomberg News reports
  • Congress still hasn't clarified the rules for venture capital-backed start-ups applying for coronavirus business relief despite an impending vote on additional funding.
  • Some venture capitalists are urging start-ups to think twice about taking the money anyway, the Wall Street Journal reports.

But the pandemic has helped home entertainment and communications companies:

  • Netflix saw subscribers increase by nearly 16 million despite stalled numbers last quarter, CNBC reports. Revenue also increased to $5.77 billion, up from $4.52 billion last year.
  • Snap also saw a rise in users, giving its stock a bump yesterday, Bloomberg reports. Users grew to 229 million daily users in the first quarter, 5 million more than analysts projected.

Agency scanner

The Food and Drug Administration authorized the first at-home covid-19 test kit. 

LabCorp, a diagnostics company, will produce the test, Nicole Wetsman at the Verge reports. First responders and health-care providers will get priority access to the kits. A number of start-ups tried to push their own at-home kits before agency approval.

The choice could be controversial: LabCorp had two data breaches in the past year, exposing more than 8 million private records.

The Federal Communications Commission also ramped up its coronavirus response, distributing $3 million in grants toward telemedicine: 

Hill happenings

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) wants the leaders of Apple and Google to be “personally responsible” for protecting coronavirus tracing data.  

“The public statements you make now can be enforced under federal and state consumer protection laws,”  Hawley wrote in a letter Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai. “Do not hide behind a corporate shield like so many privacy offenders have before. Stake your personal finances on the security of this project.”

He expressed concerns that the location-tracking data the companies are using could be paired with other data sets to reveal users' identities. Both companies have dismissed those concerns. 

Apple and Google both referred the Hill to privacy protections for the project that were publicized previously. 


10 Million People Watched the Dropkick Murphys Play Online. Is That a Business Model? (The Wall Street Journal)

Netflix says Tiger King is as popular as Stranger Things (The Verge)


Marc Rotenberg has left his role as executive director and president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the organization announced yesterday. General Counsel Alan Butler will serve as interim executive director. 

The announcement doesn't cite a reason for Rotenberg's departure. But he faced scrutiny by employees for continuing to show up to work in early March after a doctor directed him to take a test for the coronavirus that later came back positive, Protocol's Issie Lapowsky reported last week.

The board is still looking into the issue, she reports:

Bookmark this

In the Coronavirus Era, the Force Is Still With Jack Dorsey (Vanity Fair)

Steve Bonnell made big bucks following a simple plan: Play video games. Troll your fans. Fight the online right. (Mother Jones)


Coming up:

  • Code for America will host the second of its virtual Summit events - ‘Delivering a Human-Centered Social Safety Net in a Time of Crisis’ Thursday at 9am PT.  The webinar will focus on how governments are meeting unprecedented challenges posed by COVID-19 and the importance of a human-centered approach to delivering social safety net services.

Have an event you want our readers to know about? Email

Rant and rave

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) went viral for a very controversial tuna sandwich recipe. MSNBC's Nick Ramsay captured the senator's instructions on Twitter:

You can watch the whole video on Instagram. But some viewers may find it disturbing. My colleague Laura Michalski:

Before you log off

YouTuber Patrick Starrr is a beauty expert with more than 9 million social media followers. Dave Jorgenson asked him for beauty tips for his office Zoom calls.

YouTuber Patrick Starrr is a beauty expert with over 9 million social media followers. Dave Jorgenson asked him for beauty tips for his office Zoom calls. (Video: The Washington Post)