Friday, May 22, 2020

Out of the Crisis #3, Jen Pahlka and Raylene Yung on creating the U.S. Digital Response

For episode 3 of Out of the Crisis, Jen Pahlka and Raylene Yung joined me to talk about the U.S. Digital Response. They co-founded it with former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officers Cori Zarek and Ryan Panchadsaram to help all levels of government with COVID-19 response and delivery of services.

Jen is the founder and former executive director of Code for America. She served as the U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 2013–2014, where she founded the United States Digital Service. Raylene is USDR’s CEO and a recent fellow with the Aspen Institute’s Tech Policy Hub. She was an engineering and product executive at Stripe and Facebook.

They've brought together a group of passionate volunteers across engineering, data science, content strategy, design, logistics and supply chain and disaster response to assist with open source solutions. Their tech teams are doing essential work to support public servants in their crisis responses efforts.

You can listen to our conversation on Apple Podcasts, Google podcasts, or wherever else you like to download podcasts.




I've also included a complete transcript of our discussion below.

Highlights from the show

  • Jen describes her background in government-tech partnerships. (2:52)
  • Raylene describes her background in tech and policy. (3:17)
  • Jen's quarantine setup and the importance of feeling useful. (3:42)
  • Raylene's quarantine setup, what she's doing to keep in touch with friends and family. (4:48)
  • Jen and Raylene's best quarantine tips. (5:50)
  • Raylene on her work around climate change and tech and the moment she realized COVID had become more important than climate change. (7:00)
  • Jen on the revelation of DJ Patil's COVID data set. (9:30)
  • USDR origin story. (9:56)
  • Ryan Panchadsaram's ask: who wants to raise your hand and help right now, inside and outside of government. (11:54)
  • Raylene on how USDR has been built like a startup and the exponential rate of growth. (12:44)
  • A look at the three waves of requests coming from government. (14:06)
  • Jen gives a New Jersey local government example of how the USDR works and how the organization is working at "The speed of need." (16:54)
  • Jen discusses making open source tools. (19:16)
  • Raylene discusses a project to help deliver food to homebound seniors that was put up on open Github and is now being repurposed and used by other cities around the world. (20:00)
  • Lessons about infrastructure we've learned in the pandemic--the weaknesses and our strengths.(22:24)
  • Jen on what we can do to plant seeds for recovery so we don't make these mistakes again. The problem of complexity in government systems and how barriers are falling during the pandemic. (23:37)
  • Raylene on keeping the motivation to stay forward-oriented and being forced to face the unsustainability of how our country and how we can change it. (28:32)
  • Finding ways to help and also care for yourself. How to channel your efforts and energy and stay informed. (32:35)
  • Jen on social distancing, locking down,  and flattening the curve. (33:59)
  • The value of being useful. (35:20)
  • Inspiring acts of leadership and working hard. (35:50)
  • Building community on text messages and threads. (38:30)
  • The real heroes in the crisis. (41:05)
  • The long-term impact of the crisis on government. (41:50)
  • Projects that should exist but don't yet, including filling the gap between no and low code tools and new tools. (42:29)
  • Where we go from here by coming together and new appreciation for government. (44:12)

Show-related links


Transcript, Out of the Crisis #3, Jen Pahlka and Raylene Yung

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. Now it's doing 10,000 claims today. 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 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 and what we know right now.

For many years, I've had the privilege of working with Jen Pahlka through Code For America, through her time in the Obama administration, through our work together on things like the United States Digital Service and 18F. She has been an advocate for a more responsive, a more resilient, more agile government. If that sounds like an oxymoron, well listen up. So it was no surprise that she was one of the first people I called when this crisis hit to ask what she was doing to make a difference. Of course, I came away inspired by her answer.

She and Raylene Young, who you'll hear in a minute, have collaborated to form the USDR, 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. 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. 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. USDR is literally plugging the gaps, finding the places where are 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.

Eric Ries: Raylene, Jen, thanks so much for taking time to talk. Do you mind each introducing yourselves?

Jen Pahlka: I'm Jen Pahlka. Up until January 31, I was running the nonprofit that I founded called Code for America, for ten years. 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 in working with government through Code for America and also spent a year at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as the Deputy 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's Tech Policy Hub, working on USDR.

Eric Ries: This is a pretty sober and deadly situation. How are you both doing? Can you tell us a little bit about your personal quarantine setup?

Jen Pahlka: I have a very blessed quarantine. I feel very lucky. I live in Oakland with my husband and now my dog. 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 step-sister and her family up in Sebastopol. I have the privilege to be working quite a few hours a day, feeling busy and useful, which really reduces the stress. I have a home office that my husband helped me set up in advance of me stepping down from Code for America. I was going 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. I am very lucky that is has two huge windows and views of the East Bay hills. I just couldn't feel more blessed to be riding out this crisis with both important and meaningful work and a very comfortable setting. I wish that for everybody.

Raylene Yung: I live in San Francisco. I'm in the Mission District. Kind of similar I think, very lucky to have a comfortable home that I can live in. One of the first things we did... My partner has a start-up and we went to his office and borrowed a bunch of office equipment and set up some real home offices. So I'm 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. My parents and my brother live in Southern California. My brother is actually a surgeon. So everyday we're checking in just to see how things are going at the hospital. It's also been an opportunity to reconnect with a lot of friends over Zoom calls or FaceTime regularly.

Eric Ries: Do you have a favorite pandemic quarantine tip?

Raylene Yung: One fun one I've had is... For people who maybe work a lot on Zoom and calls, I actually thing calling people is very tiring, when you're staring at each other. It's this awkward, you say something and they say something. My new pro tip, I just get some friends, turn on a call and we just wander around the kitchen and cook dinner & eat. It's more just like you're live-streaming their lives. I think that's been very relaxing and feels a lot more like you're hanging out with someone in real life.

Eric Ries: That's great.

Jen Pahlka: I think mine would just be, use the time to do what Raylene said, which is, call the people you haven't called and check on the people that you neglect when life is busy. 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 Ries: I have to say, I really envy the people who are bored and looking for recommendations of what Netflix shows to watch. 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 have 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 Yung: I was in a funny boat. I, as I mentioned, was finishing this fellowship program. I've probably spent the last summer between three and six months going very, very deep on climate change and trying to understand the role of technology in it, the impact it's already having on the world. I was actually specifically looking at the climate impact on cloud computing and a bunch of things the tech sector is involved in. 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. I was staring at this writeup of it on my computer and watching one of the daily press briefings from the White House on the crisis. I hit me, I was like, this doesn't matter right now. It does, I'm not going to say climate change doesn't matter. It's incredibly important. But it just hit me that if there was anything that was going to top the priority list for what people are doing at this moment, coronavirus has really taken that top spot. It just became hard to concentrate on my other project. So that was probably the moment that it hit me, when something became more important than climate change, at least for me to focus on right now.

Eric Ries: How about you Jen?

Jen Pahlka: For me, I went on a trip. Code for America summit got canceled. It was supposed to be a couple days, I think it was March 11 through 13th so you can remember it was starting to get serious then. But we weren't told not to travel yet. I have to admit with a great deal of shame, that my daughter begged me not to go on the trip. 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. My mom really wanted me to come and I went. 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 her peers to take this seriously. 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 change their behavior, not to much avail I'm sorry to say. Though I think many of her friends were already taking it seriously.

I guess I'm ashamed to say that I realized the mistake on a trip and then tried to get home as quickly as I can. It really hit me when DJ Patil, who was the first US Chief Data Officer, called me and told me a little about what his modeling was showing. Then I realized this was not just about me having been on a trip but this is a really big problem.

Eric Ries: So let's talk about what US Digital Response was formed to do and maybe you can tell the founding story of it and some of the extraordinary people that have stepped up to be part of it and what they're doing.

Jen Pahlka: It starts from that moment when DJ called me. I was in my kitchen trying to cook dinner. 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. It's that moment when someone calls you to service, even if it's in 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 was able to muster and probably wouldn't have access to that.

While I was talking to him and cooking dinner, Megan Smith called, who was another former US CTO and was asking me the same thing, "What's going on? What are you doing? How are you going to contribute to this national crisis?" Initially it was a little bit unformed. It was, the states are going to need to be connected to each other. They're going to need to be able to spread best practices. They're going to need technology and data help. When I got off the phone with the two of them, I called Cori Zarek, who I have been working with in various capacities over the many years in this space. She is sitting now at Georgetown's Beeck Center, running a digital service's collaborative there and knew that she would have the right network and the right orientation for this. She said, "Yeah, yeah. We have to do something. Let's start." 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. Could we start spreading what's working from state to state, with having a network of people that we've worked with over the years that we could start to tap.

I think it was later on that night when she said, "Ryan already has a form up," and I said, "What form?" Of course, Ryan, our friend Ryan Panchadsaram, having worked on the rescue, knew that what you need in a case like this, is many, many, many extra hands with a certain skillset and also with a certain orientation. That orientation is, I will do what it takes. I am here to help. This isn't about me right now. This is about us. He had put up a simple Google form, saying, "Who wants to raise your hand and help right now?" It was already getting people. By late that night, we had merged the efforts of our three thinking and had started to get together a list of people in government and a list of people outside of government and started planning how to merge them.

Raylene Yung: I think the way I've been describing what we're doing and the journey we've been on. It's really for the start up folks. It's like starting up something, a start up, and having it go from... Someone was joking that we're going through each of the stages each week. First week, it's like small seed fund start up with three or four friends. The next week you have 10 people. It's a series A, a series B. The rate of growth has been staggering. So we started off with these two forms. We had a Google form where people signed up to volunteer. We had a mailing list of people that Jen and Cori and Ryan and others in state and local government. The question was, what do we do here with these two sides? We really designed it, in a bit, like a start up where we have, on one side, there's a recruiting team where we have volunteers who apply. We talk to them. We figure out what they're good at, where they can get plugged in. Then we have this government partnership team where we're talking to real users, who in this case are government groups, who are coming to us for requests for help and sharing things that we're seeing.

Eric Ries: For folks who aren't familiar, we've worked together for many years and have seen this government, private technology partnership in action. But I think for some listeners that may be a new idea. 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 Yung: Sure. Everything has been moving very quickly. So the way I'll describe it is, we've seen a few waves of the types of things that people are requesting. Each wave I think is roughly correlated to where people are locally in terms of the crisis. I would say one of the first things that we heard very commonly was what I've been calling insights and information. This is different states, cities or counties who are trying to just get information out to their residents. They want to know, is there a good tool online that helps someone self-assess whether they have COVID-19? So 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 the rate of the case growth and modeling and prediction tools.

That was the first wave of needs and I think everyone was 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 around healthcare and medical resources in a way. This was where the PPE Coalition comes in. This is tracking hospital inventories, the number of beds, location and number of ventilators and so forth. That's been the second wave of needs. A lot of it is similar. Some of it's communication. But a lot of it is also just getting the data, aggregating it, being able to take action on it.

I would say, the third wave that we are certainly in now. 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 seeing a lot of systems get overloaded with record numbers of applications. It just gives you a sense of it, we're working with a team in New Jersey. They say their old system got 3,000 applications over the last roughly 15 years. After all these changes and all the new things that are happening right now, they got 30,000 applications in the first day. If you just think about that. As you can imagine, none of the systems that were processing 3,000 over 15 years are really set up to process 30,000 in hours or days.

Right now, we're in this wave of benefits and trying to figure out how we can make it easier for people to get benefits and also help the government teams fulfill those benefits. I would say one other wave that is coming up as well and I think is very important, is I do think some areas are also starting to think about what's the recovery look like and how do people emerge from shelter in place? That's where I think things like contact tracing or self-reporting of symptoms and efforts like Masks for All, I think these are things now that are also starting to come up.

Jen Pahlka: I can give you an example of one of the early things that happened where you could see the pattern. There was a guy in New Jersey government named Ross Dakin. 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 need this data scraped out of this data set." Simple project. This was before we had process, which we really appreciate now. I just forwarded it to a former Code for America fellow who I had seen put his record in our database for wanting to help out. 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 24-hour turnaround.

You asked a little bit about, why is this different and why government can't do this. 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. To outsource something, you need to write up a thing and spit it out. There's no time for a procurement at a moment like this, certainly not for small projects. There are a lot of bigger projects. So for Nick to be able to return this work to him in 24 hours, is a pretty big deal and it builds a lot of trust. So from there, Ross started throwing us bigger and bigger projects. The next thing he asked Nick to do... By the way, I like this. He says, "Nick, 20,000 small business owners, a dozen over-worked NJEDA officers, and I so appreciate you raising your hand." This is the New Jersey Economic Development Association.

But the next thing he asked him to do, there were all these small businesses that are now eligible for loans. It's really confusing for them. What are you eligible for? What can you get? Not knowing makes it even harder to plan. Again, within in about a day, Nick Doiron was able to put up an eligibility wizard, taking all that data into account, all that program information into account, and it was up there at what Ross would call, the speed of need. We're no longer operating at the speed of government. We're operating at the speed of need in this because people are there to just do it. Now other states can take that eligibility wizard, adapt it if they need to, and put it up even faster.

Eric Ries: That's something I remember from the Code for America days, this idea of doing implementations for one locality, one government and then open-sourcing it, getting other governments to standardize on it or to reuse it. Tell us a little about that, how that's going in this effort.

Jen Pahlka: We've seen a fair number of things be able to be borrowed. I think it still frankly doesn't happen as much as we'd like it to because it's very hard to get the word out to everybody. We're trying to use networks of networks, whether it's the Bloomberg What Works Cities crew or the National League of Cities or I just met today with Tech for America to remind people that they need to look around before they look down. Look around and see what else is there.

Raylene Yung: Yeah, a couple of weeks ago, 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 home-bound? It was an example, where we can build something maybe quickly for you that helps collect volunteers and helps you match them. We had a team who did that, who were staying up all night, hacking together a tool that the city of Concord could use. What we realized is part of it is we don't necessarily want to own this tool or even be responsible or looking at this data to match volunteers. That should really live in the city's hands. They should have that data and they should be able to do that. We took a totally different approach and basically opened up everything and made it more of a recipe that we've published on Git Hub. We have instructions on how to do this. So it's all set up using a CMS and a very basic and configurable back end. 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 walk away from it. So now it's something that's completely run by the city and we've seen cities around the world organically find us and then build their own versions as well.

So I think that's an extreme example of open source. It's not even just the code is there. 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 Pahlka: That story is a great example about reuse. That came to us through a LinkedIn message to me from a guy who was friends with the mayor of Concord. USDR 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 ask 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 Ries: Isn't that wild, in a crisis like this, how many of us have been on the receiving end of messages like that? A friend of the governor, someone who knows someone who knows someone who is in need?

Jen Pahlka: What you want to say is there's a system for that and they shouldn't need to do that. It ought to work. The system ought to work. 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 "normal" times. I do hope that some of the lessons that we learn from this is that we can't let our infrastructure get as frayed as it has been. This is really showing up the weaknesses but also showing us the strengths. The fact that we are rising to the occasion and getting it done, sometimes outside of normal channels, is very hopeful. But a lot of people are going, "Shouldn't this happen a different way?"

Eric Ries: Yeah. It's so 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 do 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.

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 we don't make these mistakes again?

Jen Pahlka: I'll start on something I think people don't pay much attention to. It's not just infrastructure in the sense of better technology systems, which of course I'm happy to talk about until the cows come home. It's complexity. We have let our systems become wildly overly complex and it's not until the volume gets so high that you realize that's just a dumb way to do things. Or actually let me restate that. It's not that you don't realize it, it's that people aren't 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. In regular parlance, that's food stamps, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. 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 in assistance to actually have healthy food for their families? This is really not fair." Now, in the crisis, the food and nutrition service of the USDA who regulates this at the federal level, has issued guidance that we can skip the interview, which is one 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, an interview can 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 that I can't get into 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." Suddenly, people are saying, "Oh wait actually it turns out, a middle ware layer will probably fix this and we'll have it done in a few weeks." I'm so glad that's happening. It's going to help a lot of people, but why didn't we do it that way before? Part of the answer, unfortunately, is that not enough people understand the experience of folks that have to interact with government when they 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. If we did, I think we would fix them and I hope we take this opportunity to really change things.

Again, it's not just technology. It's simplifying the rules and simplifying and streamlining the processes that currently make the technology overcomplicated.

Raylene Yung: Yeah I have just two quick things. I think one is certainly the idea that Jen is capturing 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. They actually ask people that 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 we're examining the criteria and the processes we use to get people help. That's certainly one.

The other one I think, speaking more from a tech person outside of government, that I hope people take away from this, particularly if you're volunteering with USDR. The government is not so far away and so inaccessible. 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. We're looking at the city of San Francisco's website or the state of New Jersey's websites and the resources that are made available. I think they are actually 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 understand what those things are and maybe even try to contribute in positive ways to your communities. I hope that's something that stays on after all this.

Eric Ries: That's been a real theme of these conversations about leadership in a time of crisis, that so many of the things that you are called on to do in a crisis, you should have been doing all along. It just reveals to you that you were supposed to be doing it. I think a lot of us are having trouble falling into recrimination and blame and even feeling guilty or even ashamed at the things that we did pre-crisis which is 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 Yung: I think there's something that definitely in the way our team is structured. We're very, in general, very iterative and forward looking. I joke that every day we'll change anything we need to, to help us be more effective and move forward. I think we see that in our projects. We see that in our approach. So part of that to me, is just the general positive outlook, which is, the impact that we can have tomorrow can probably be bigger than the impact that we had today. That's certainly what keeps me going. I think it's something we factor into a lot of the way we're approaching this work.

Jen Pahlka: I think we have 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. As much as I am terrified about the impact of this health crisis, the economic crisis as well, on so many 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. To me, just being part of, on a day to day basis, groups of people who are going to fight for that change and force that change in small ways and big ways. Eric, there's a lot of things that I see you doing that appeal to me, like big structural changes that were underway beforehand.

Eric Ries: Thank you.

Jen Pahlka: Like your Long-Term Stock Exchange. 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 Ries: Yeah, thanks for the kind words of course. People who I've been talking to and this has been a nonstop 24 hours a day on the phone couple of weeks, are split seems to me into two fallacies. Some people have despair and think nothing good can come of this. Some people are very optimistic but assume that they'll be a silver lining and these good things will happen, this will accelerate the changes. My view is 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 are by no means, automatic. If you study history, lots of crises can wind out strengthening liberal democracies but they can also destroy them. 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 Pahlka: That's why we wear sweatshirts that say, "It's up to us," and have stickers. I think you know, my husband wrote a book called, What's the Future? He's happy to tell people that the subtitle 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 Ries: All right. Some people who are listening to this are, as we speak right this minute on their couch, are making the mistake of going to social media and watching this human and economic catastrophe play out in real time and sinking into despair. I think that's a very normal human thing to do. If you're having that experience right now, my heart goes out to you. Don't beat yourself up. This is very natural. But let's say 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 Yung: One of our volunteers actually said, "During scary times I process my emotions by feeling useful any way I can." I love that. I think that sentiment is great. 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 was reading every tweet and watching every press conference and feeling what was happening and what could I do. I think my advice is, find some way to help. I'll split that up. 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 really try to make sure that you're focusing on your own health, please do that.

But if you are looking for ways to externalize and help other groups, there's obviously us, US Digital Response of course. I also think 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 a door of every neighbor because he knows there are senior citizens who live in his neighborhood that may not know where to find help and may not know how to sign up online for help. I think you can certainly channel some of your efforts that way. I also think just being informed and learning about what's happening in the world is also valuable. It's not always bad to read the news. I think that something that's really unprecedented, certainly in my lifetime around this, is what a global phenomenon it is. I think the world, in many ways, feels a lot smaller than I think it ever has. I think it's also an opportunity to learn about what's happening in the world.

Jen Pahlka: We're already helping each other. I know many people have done what Raylene described with their neighbors, including my daughter, who I'm really proud of. We're helping each other just by locking down. We are starting to flatten this curve and that's one way we take care of each other.

Eric Ries: It's a strange circumstance where staying home, not going out depriving yourself of certain pleasures, that's actually probably the most important thing. Boy, if there's anyone listening to this who still has not gotten the memo on why social distancing is important, we'll show links in the show description. Please, if you do nothing else, obey social distancing and advocate either the company you work in, the leaders that you're in connection to, your political leaders, to make sure that we get behind that. We still have mayors and governors in this country, who to our great shame, have not yet even ordered a Shelter in Place, let alone the even more draconian measures that are now going to be required in some 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 of one of the things that has surprised me greatly in the past few weeks is we need a new more politically correct term for Tom Sawyering. This phenomenon of calling people up and telling them, yes you're ready, you can do this. Go get them. A number of 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 asks, including drop everything and please work on this full time. Nurses need you. Teachers need you. The people that are in need right now. Several of these people have been like, "Thank God you called. I'm so grateful because I was sitting on my couch. I was super stressed and now that I have something to work on, I actually feel better." That was a big surprise to me. I've been in other crisis relief situations but I think this has an 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 stories my grandparents used to tell me about, the times they went through.
Talk a little bit about some of the people who have inspired you or just the acts of leadership and getting into it, how that's affected your experience of the crisis.

Jen Pahlka: I just wanted to tell a quick story, sort of exactly the same thing. We onboarded a guy named Mike Flowers. He was Bloomberg's Chief Analytics Officer for awhile and had done a bunch of tech and data stuff. I thought, oh God he can help. It was a Friday at 5:00 or something I get this Slack message from him, "I got onboarded at 2:00." It's 8:00 east coast time for him. "I got onboarded at 2:00 and I have not had a moment of rest since 8:00." I said, "Oh I'm so sorry Mike," and he said, "Are you kidding me? This is the best thing that's happened to me. I haven't had a chance to breath and I love it because I'm helping."

Eric Ries: Please name some names. It's great to both praise people but that also sets us up with future interviews and gets people curious to learn more about their projects. Please, if there are specific USDR spin-off projects or volunteer opportunities that are live right now, please do name drop them.

Jen Pahlka: I'll do one more then. Raylene mentioned the Neighbor Express, which is the platform for helping connect volunteers with people in need in a particular community. I mentioned that this came from a LinkedIn message from the mayor of Concord. When I got that, there's a woman who is 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. It's this thing where you say, "Hey this need came in. Could you take care of it?" Her answer was about as short as, "Yes." There's no questions. There's no, "Am I getting paid?" Or, "What does it look like? What are you expecting of me? How will this live on?" It's just yes. To my mind, she disappeared for a couple of days and the next thing I know, Neighbor Express is up and running. Her thing than is, "Okay great. We're going to get this to a bunch of other municipalities that need it, but in the meantime, can you give me more?" I don't even remember all the other things are that she's working on now. I think PPE Coalition is one of them.

Eric Ries: I was just going to say, she jumped right into the breach at a time when I was incapacitated, working on PPE Coalition and rolled up her sleeves and took on whatever was needed. It's been very inspiring to see.

Raylene Yung: I can give a couple shout outs. First, huge gratitude to everyone on the Core team. For the first couple weeks, we were working essentially every waking hour. Alex Allain, who used to be at DropBox, joined and came no questions asked. We've only met in person maybe a few times and I talk to him every day now.

A couple other things. I think the team at COVID Act Now, like Max Henderson, Igor Kofman, many others, I think we've been joking around, especially with Max that it's like making friends in the 90s where you make online friends. You never meet them. You just chat with them. I think, Eric, you and I are kind of like this as well. We've texted and called and we've never met. I think that's happening all over the internet right now. I think recently Ben Silbermann and Jack Cho, people from their network has launched How We Feel. I see a lot of these civilian efforts all over happening. I think it's wonderful and I think we're building this community of people all on text messages and WhatsApp threads. But I think it's a real community and I think everyone is really pouring a lot of energy into this.

Eric Ries: God willing we get through this crisis, we'll all be lifelong friends and we'll get to meet in real life one day.

Raylene Yung: I hope so.

Jen Pahlka: I hope so too. We've got a bunch of people who worked on this 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 really helps Pennsylvania ingest and seed a lot of data that it needed to have in one place. The professionalism of it is astounding but when you realize how quickly they turned it around, I can't imagine they slept.

Raylene Yung: Yeah. I guess a couple shout outs. Erika Reinhardt who is on the core team but has also mobilized and worked with multiple other projects. Tiffany Ho who is leading that effort on the dashboard that Jen's mentioning for Pennsylvania.

Eric Ries: 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 Pahlka: We had a team put together an MVP for pandemic unemployment assistance application form. They got it done pretty much overnight and it looks fantastic and it's pretty impressive. Erika Reinhardt and Tyler Kleykamp and Dylan... I'm forgetting Dylan's last name. But a whole bunch of other people. They don't even know each other but they work, as far as I can tell, they work like a team that has their cadence down from years of shipping great product together.

Eric Ries: Who do you think are the real heroes of this crisis?

Jen Pahlka: We get to work with a bunch of heroes in all kinds of public service. I do say a lot of them unfortunately are still going to the office and exposing themselves because governments 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 other 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. They have family members or loved ones who are on front lines in hospitals and our hearts go out to them.

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

Jen Pahlka: In my world, I've spent the last ten 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. I think there's going to be a lot of good long term impacts and some bad ones. 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, reminding folks that 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 Ries: My friends at 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 each want to suggest something that you wish existed that didn't?

Raylene Yung: 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 that there's so many out there. We were on a call with someone who was like, "Hey right now that to us, Google Docs is the coolest thing since sliced bread. We know that there's much better bread out there but we just don't know where it is and how to use it yet." I think there's something there, where I think right now the low code, no code tools are amazing but you still have to kind of know what they are and kind of know how to configure them and use them.

Eric Ries: Yeah.

Raylene Yung: I still think there's some gap there between Google Docs and ReTool and AirTable and all the tools that a lot of us are using.

Eric Ries: Give a shout out to my friends at Bubble.

Raylene Yung: There you go, Bubble, of course. Yeah. I think there's some gap that can be closed there, especially for very simple apps where a lot of people we see are trying to... A lot of it's around communication of consistent events, schedules, communication. I just think maybe there's something in the middle there that helps bridge the gap still.

Jen Pahlka: You know what else there should be... I'm sure this is there but we should highlight it more, is training for public servants and people like me even, on things like AirTable. 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 Ries: 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.

Where do you think we go from here? How do we get out of the crisis?

Jen Pahlka: 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. I think that second part is unfortunately harder. By rebuild the economy I don't just mean that money just 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. I don't think the effort that it takes to wage a war is a terrible metaphor here, not that we're waging a war but that we all come together when there's a war, or we have in the past at least. The interventions that were required during the Great Depression, we have to take seriously that we have an institution of government for times like this. That institution of government is meant to keep people from starving and falling into 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 hope a lot of people rediscover an appreciation for government. It is going to be needed now more than ever.

Eric Ries: This has been Out of the Crisis. Out of the Crisis is hosted by me, Eric Ries, produced by LTSE's Ben Erlich and edited by Breaker's Jacob Tender. Music composed and performed by Cody Martin. 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 I have several projects on there and feel free to message me that way. I'm also Eric Ries on Twitter. If anyone has ideas or is working on a project related to solutions please do reach out to me. Thanks for listening.
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