Last week, Code for America and GitHub hosted a conversation about projects that showcase the ways that our Brigade Network is stepping up to help community members who have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in various ways. Brigade members are working in the open, on their own and in collaboration with government, to volunteer their time to develop solutions and improve the lives of their neighbors.
The conversation highlighted projects from across the Network—and across the country.
- Gregory Johnson shared how Code for South is helping South Florida residents who are having difficulty paying rent due to lost income get information about their rights as tenants and ways to take action through EvictionProtection.org.
- Carlos Moreno walked us through how Code for Tulsa partnered with public schools, the nonprofit Hunger Free Oklahoma, and the state’s department of human services to build a SNAP screener to help families find out if they are eligible for food assistance—and how they are having conversations about how to connect to 18F’s SNAP API to scale and bring the service to other states.
- Code for San Jose’s Yan-Yin Choy shared how the Brigade is partnering with the city on SiliconValleyStrong.org to help impacted residents in multiple ways, from mapping places they can get free food to curating content for a chatbot that provides information about city services they might need as a result of COVID-19.
- And Code for America’s Tom Dooner, who has been leading the charge on Brigade integration with our GetYourRefund initiative, gave an overview of how volunteers from many different Brigades are collaborating on a national level to help put flexible cash in the pockets of the people who need it most.
To hear more about these projects and how you can plug in on other Brigade rapid response efforts (with technical or non-technical skills!), watch the conversation below and check out a Brigade in your community.
- Learn more about the Brigades and how to get involved in more than 80 communities across the country
- Explore the 2020 Brigade Network Priority Action Areas
- Learn more about GetYourRefund and access to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The tax filing deadline is July 15. Help us spread the word!
- Code for San Jose projects like the Resident Assistant Chatbot on SiliconValleyStrong.org
- Code for Tulsa‘s FoodInsecurity tool
- Code for South Florida’s work in equitable housing at EvictionProtection.org
Good morning. Hello. Welcome to this morning’s webinar. I know we still see some folks rolling in, but we’re going to get started.
Good morning. Thanks for joining Code for America today for our webinar People Power: Connecting Community to Government During COVID-19. I’m Marisa Levine, Associate Director of Events and Partnerships. My pronouns are she/her. I am delighted to be facilitating today’s conversation. I’m coming to you from San Francisco.
Now since we can’t all be in the room together, I’d love to start by asking you all to introduce yourselves in the chat. Tell us where you’re tuning in from, what you do, where you work. Let’s get a sense of who’s in the room. It’s a lot more fun that way if we can’t be sitting next to each other.
If you are not familiar with Code for America, at Code for America, we believe that the two biggest levers for improving people’s lives at scale are technology and government. We put them together and we help government work for the people who need it most.
To do this, we build digital services that enhance government capabilities, and we help others do the same across all levels of government. We organize thousands of volunteers across more than 85 chapters nationwide, who improve government in their local communities. These are our Brigades, part of our network, who you’ll be hearing a lot more about today. Our goal? It’s a 21st century government that effectively and equitably serves all Americans. You can learn a lot more at codeforamerica.org.
Now before we begin today’s webinar, a few important housekeeping points. Our code of conduct applies as much online as it does in physical spaces. We expect today’s session to be a safe and respectful environment for everyone and a place where people can fully express their identities. You can check the chat for a link if you’d like to see our code of conduct.
If you’re being harassed, or notice someone else being harassed, or have any other concerns, you can message my colleague Contasia Placide on Zoom chat, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are a few ways for you to participate today. As we start now, we’re going to run a quick poll to get a sense of who’s in the room, let everybody see what’s going on. To engage with us throughout the panel, you’ll notice two buttons at the bottom of your Zoom screen: chat and Q&A. A quick tip, if you’re on mobile, click on ‘Participants’ to see chat.
Like I said before, we welcome your introductions, your comments, and your energy throughout today’s conversation in the chat. You can submit questions by clicking on the Q&A button. We’d love if you can include your location and your role so that we have a sense of your perspective and your interest.
You can also see other questions that folks have and upvote them so that we know which the most popular ones are in case we can just get to a few. Please note the questions asked in chat will not be considered, so please make sure you’re dropping them into Q&A.
We also welcome your tweets. Find us @codeforamerica. You can also stay tuned later this week. If you had colleagues who missed or you need to jump off early, we’ll be sending out a YouTube video, and we would love to have you share with your community.
We also have a special thank you to today’s partner on this conversation, GitHub. If you’re not familiar with GitHub, you likely will be one day if you are concerned with tech. It’s the platform of choice for over 50 million developers and the world’s open-source communities. It’s the home for modern software development.
GitHub accelerates and transforms the way teams turn ideas into innovative experiences with the scalability, management, and compliance that agencies expect. It has a community-led approach to DevOps, collaboration, and security, and it empowers developers and government agencies to deliver better software faster through every stage of the lifecycle.
Plenty of Code for America projects leverage GitHub. When I got started at Code for America, I really loved looking at the civic tech project search on GitHub, which is on our Brigade website. So thanks, GitHub, for joining us today.
And on that note, I’m incredibly proud to bring together today’s panel to discuss how people power through our Brigade Network has advanced Code for America’s mission both before and during COVID-19 and will continue for years to come.
Now at Code for America, we talk a lot about showing what’s possible in government service delivery by creating interactions with government so that they inspire change. Code for America’s been showing what’s possible for years through services we built like GetCalFresh, Clear My Record, and GetYourRefund.
But we’re also showing what’s possible on a national scale through the people power of our Brigade Network. This is thousands of volunteers, both technical and nontechnical … You don’t have to code, I promise … dedicating their free time to improving government services in their local communities, a truly human-centered approach to learning what folks need.
Because of that mix of skillsets, Brigade members respond to local needs with both technical and low-tech responses. Together, they’re leading the conversation on equitable disaster response and recognizing that impacted communities must be centered on their work. From getting tax refunds to helping neighbors, the projects are as diverse as the network itself.
The goal for our conversation today is to leave you inspired by the work of our panelists and their Brigades, and to eliminate the ways that people, whether as a Brigade member or through your organizations in governments, can also have an impact on the needs of your community especially in times of crisis.
Now I’ll do a quick introduction of our panelists. I’m going to invite them to turn on their video as I do so. Then we’ll jump right in.
We’ve got Yan-Yin Choy, Co-Captain of Code for San Jose; Tom Dooner, Senior Software Engineer at Code for America; Gregory Johnson, Founder and Executive Director at Code for South Florida and Civic Innovation at Microsoft; Carlos Moreno, Brigade Captain, Code for Tulsa; and Veronica Young, Senior Program Manager for the Brigade Network Program at Code for America.
So I’m going to invite all of them to turn on their videos. I’m going to stop sharing my screen. And here they are. Thank you guys so much for joining us today. We are thrilled to have you and welcome. It’s nice to actually get people from all over the place. Typically, I get to see Tom and Veronica right across from my desk. So this is actually a really nice treat for me.
It looks like I’m going to help Carlos turn on his video. Give me one second. There we go. See if that helps, Carlos. Yan-Yin, it looks like you maybe have the same problem. There we go. Awesome. Technology, guys. It’s the joy of Zoom. If nobody’s had a botched Zoom meeting, you’re doing it wrong.
Awesome. So, Veronica, I’m actually going to start with you. Veronica is our Senior Manager for the Brigade Network. It means that she’s got this great 10,000-foot view of the impact of the Brigades across the country. So I’d love to have you set the tone a little bit, maybe give us a deeper sense of the function and the scope of the Brigade Network, as well as why the Brigade Network is so well-suited to jump in during COVID-19 when it’s used to doing all kinds of things throughout the year?
Yeah, absolutely. Thank you, Marisa, for having all of us in for this time today. So, yes, as Marisa said, I get the pleasure of working with our around 80 distributed Brigade chapters across the country. And so, Brigade chapters are made up of almost entirely volunteers who work on projects in their local communities in order to further access to services in their communities, and also working alongside nonprofits in order to create projects to further those initiatives.
And so, we really have the pleasure of being able to work with a network of folks who are working on projects in their communities, and then actually can knowledge-share with other Brigades across the country and other civic technologists and folks that are interested in various places to have impact on a broad scale.
Particularly, this year, we saw that when COVID-19 hit, this was just kind of a great example of how the network can kick into action. We’ve done rapid response work in the past. So in particular, we’ve had a number of projects around the hurricanes that have hit over the last few years, starting with Hurricane Harvey and the response to that, creating information sites where people can find information about food and shelter and what needs are present when a hurricane hits. Then being able to redeploy essentially those projects when other hurricanes have hit over the years. Also, there’s been work to help in prevention of fires here in California.
Then this network really was able to be redeployed again in response to COVID. So at that time, we were able to create very quickly structures to be able to combat some of the needs that were coming about in our communities, particularly in the social safety net. And so, a lot of the projects focused around being able to find food for your families and other basic services that are hard to come by in the middle of a pandemic.
And so, some of those structures that we were able to create were Slack channels that were dedicated to certain types of projects. There was a COVID-19 core working group made up of members across the country, including Gregory here, who were able to really lead the initiatives on what projects were happening, putting all of that information into one place, and then knowledge-sharing about different aspects of those projects so that those aspects could be useful across the country. Then having weekly stand-up calls so that people could find out more information and participate.
I think it’s also important to note that the National Advisory Council played a key part in making sure that our rapid response work was part of our four-priority action areas for the year. So our goals are really to be able to highlight some of this work and then create tools and resources so that folks across the country can engage in these projects as they’re needed for their communities.
Veronica, have you seen a big uptick in people reaching out to get engaged? I know that when COVID-19 hit, even just in my own personal community, we all had this sense of what can I do? I feel like the more I learn about the Brigades at Code for America, it’s a great answer to what can I do.
Yeah, absolutely. I think my background is in organizing, particularly political organizing, and a lot of the issues that you’ve faced are trying to get people interested enough to be a part of the solution in their communities and to volunteer their time.
I think that we have a really unique and special aspect at Code for America that we have so many people that are so excited to jump in, and a lot of the issues are really about how can people plug in in various ways versus trying to recruit people to be interested and get excited. In this circumstance, people are really wanting to be of service and help in their communities.
So, yes, there is a ton of interest and excitement around being able to be a part of the solution, particularly in response to COVID-19. I think that the structures that I mentioned before were really great ways for people to be able to find tangible ways to plug in.
Awesome. Thank you so much. I’ve been really energized. I pop into those Slacks myself. Just the volume of conversations and action that take place every day is overwhelming, in a good way, to me.
So before I bring in the other panelists to share some of the great projects that they’re working on, I like to start with a quick lightning round. Don’t want any of you sitting quietly, because that’s the most boring way to do a panel. So I’m going to start and I’ll call on each of you.
But I’d love for you to each share how you came to this work of being a part of the Brigades and a part of Code for America. What inspired you? Tom, I’m going to start with you because I see you in my upper left-hand corner.
That’s good. Hi, everyone. I’m Tom. I’m a Senior Software Engineer at Code for America. I got involved originally by showing up at a Brigade meetup one night in my hometown of Oakland. I got to know the people, became a fellow with Code for America, I see some folks that I worked with on the Fellowship project, and then I came on staff after that.
Awesome. We’ll be sure to share out some information about the Fellowship program because Gregory can also speak to that. But that’s another great way to get involved in the network. Gregory, over to you.
Hey, guys. Gregory, Founder of Code for South Florida. I got involved in the Brigade in 2013. I also come from organizing as well as technical background. For me, it was just about working on a project that was less about private sector and more about helping people, and I stuck with it ever since. So I’m six years in now.
Awesome. Thanks, Gregory. Yan-Yin?
Hi, good morning. I’m Yan-Yin. I’m one of the captains of Code for San Jose. I got involved probably about six years ago, which is when Code for San Jose first got started. I just moved back to San Jose from Sacramento and connected with one of the founders, Kalen, who told me about Code for San Jose. I just want to find a way to get involved with my local community. At first, I wasn’t involved in anything really technical. It’s mostly around open data policy advocacy.
Awesome. And Carlos? Last but not least.
Yeah. So I was volunteered. My friend, Luke Crouch, who works for Mozilla, saw Jen Pahlka’s TED Talk. He sent it to me and he’s like, “You’ve really got to see this,” because he knew that I was really involved in the community and community organizing, especially around things like transportation issues and social justice issues.
And so, I got really excited and I was like, “How can we help here in Tulsa?” He’s like, “Well, I just signed you up to be a co-founder of the Code for Tulsa Brigade. So congratulations, you’re in this already because I already sent the application to Jen.” So I didn’t know what I was diving into, but we’ve been going strong ever since 2012. So we’re really happy.
Awesome. Well, I love hearing these threads, though, of folks really wanting to get a sense of how they can have impact in their local communities, where you guys really know the problems that people are facing, as well as the best ways to plug in, because I will say Veronica is one of the most connected people I know, but she’s not going to know everyone in Tulsa or everyone in Miami.
And so, the boots on the ground and the ability for Brigade leaders, whether they volunteered or were voluntold, is really incredible to see, as well as the thread coming in from Yan-Yin of you don’t have to be technical.
I think everybody hears Code for America and immediately go, “Oh, if I don’t code, if I’m not a developer, how can I help?” What I’m excited to hear from all three of these panelists presenting projects is that there are a lot of ways for people to plug in, that it’s more about the passion for making a change and coming together with other folks with other diverse skills and less about knowing the latest coding language. I promise you, I do not know any of those and I still feel like a good part of Code for America.
So before we get into a lot of other conversation, what I really want to do is showcase some of the projects that people are working on, because I think it gives you the best sense of the unique ways that people are impacting their communities through Brigades.
And so, I am going to hand it over to folks. We’re going to hear a little bit about the problems that they were tackling, any of the challenges. Obviously these are tough problems. If they were easy, they would have been solved already. And what some of the current product and the future roadmap looks like, as well as maybe share how folks can get involved and what the current team looks like to make it seem pretty accessible to you.
We’re going to go east to west. Each of our panelists will have a few minutes. And so, we’re going to go Gregory in Miami, Carlos in Tulsa, and then Yan-Yin in San Jose. So, Gregory, over to you.
Sure thing. Let me share my screen. So just checking. Can everybody see my screen? All right. So, yeah, my name is Gregory again with Code for South Florida. I’m going to talk to you guys a little bit about our project called EvictionProtection.org.
Code for South Florida is a regional nonprofit that works across three counties in South Florida, which are the top in terms of population: Miami-Dade, Broward County, and Palm Beach.
So the origin story of how we got to this is we know this pandemic has impacted people in many ways. One of the ways that we saw it was really important was millions of Florida residents have lost their jobs and sources of income and, as a result, you have a hard time paying rent. The federal government passed a law called the CARES Act that protects tenants from getting evicted from their properties.
For this particular project, we were reached out by one of our nonprofit community partners we’ve worked with called Community Justice Project. They’re a network of lawyers who basically saw what was happening and said, “Hey, we want to build this tool that addresses this pain point. Would you be willing to mobilize a team of volunteers who could work on it?”
We had community leaders step up, Greg Bloom, who mobilized the team of about 10 or 15 people through open hack nights and reaching out and setting up times to do either video conference calls to work on this project. That’s how it got started.
So people ask me all the time what is eviction protection and how does it work. So if you go on the website, right now it shows you basically all 67 counties in Florida. You can search by county based by your zip code and see what eviction protection policies are in your area. These may change over time, so we make sure to give you an overview of what this looks like and then a reference link of how to get to that.
Two, you see a map of about 10,000 properties that we open-sourced and put up, all showing that they’re protected from getting evicted based on what’s happening in this pandemic. Three, you can make an action item, which is you can go to norent.org, another tool which allows people to write a letter to their landlord if they’re a renter, with a pre-canned template of what you can say if you can’t earn and unable to pay rent. Last, you see a resource for renters about reaching out and getting legal assistance, if you may need, that all consists of areas here in Florida.
If you go to the website today, you’ll see check your county eviction policy. I went ahead and took a snippet of Miami-Dade County, and it breaks down eviction suspended, it breaks down evictions that are active, and it goes through active cases based on what your county is. Then this is a mapping feature that the team built.
So I’m going to touch on a couple of metrics that we use at Code for South Florida that rank how well this project went. For this week, we got an opportunity to work with five nonprofit organizations to get data and mobilize around this. We got about 25-plus volunteers that were technical and nontechnical to help organize it.
In our first month, which was a couple of months back, we got 5,000-plus people that were web visitors for the eviction protection tool. We then open-sourced the feature for the search by county, which anybody can find on our Code for South GitHub.
I would like to wrap it up of like what’s next for us. So for us in Q3, we have a couple of things that are pending and brewing. One is we are sunsetting our other donor management tools like DonorBox and other things in favor of GitHub Sponsors.
GitHub Sponsors has an individual and organizational view where you can basically raise money for projects that you’re working on through GitHub. We find this really easy for people to tap in and understand what products that are going on and how they can donate towards that and see really working and being developed in real time.
We’ll be introducing our new volunteer model with employers that we’re really excited about, working with the private sector to bring more people to work on Tech for Social Impact projects. Lastly, we’ll be introducing our data collaborative initiative with government partners that we’re really excited about here in Miami-Dade in South Florida. One of those projects is around air quality.
Yeah, we’re really just excited to take this momentum. We see the eviction protection project as one that’s going to be continued to be maintained by a community justice project. If you have any questions related to this, you can reach out to us at email@example.com.
If you want to be a volunteer or interested in being a potential partner and if you work in the government or funding space, happy to have a conversation about how we’re looking at some of our partnerships and measuring success and impact, as well as handing off projects to some of our government partners so they can work on them. Thank you.
Awesome. Thank you so much, Gregory. Just by also some way of context, which is helpful, the Brigades that are across the country all take many forms. We’ve got Brigades that have been around for a really long time, Brigades that sometimes have their own nonprofit structure. Gregory’s is a great example of a very robust Brigade that is down in South Florida, which is awesome. You’d definitely get a sense of the different ways that folks can partner.
Gregory, I have a question for you, just one quick follow-up. I know that this is something we think about a lot. How are you connecting with users? We talk a lot about user research and the human-centered approach at Code for America. How have you been able to interact with the people who need your services the most?
Sure. So we actually use the user research guide that Code for America has. I don’t know if it’s still in draft mode or not, but we’ve introduced that to our team. We have a civic user testing group that we operate in. That’s the core of how we operate in many things.
For instance, in our data collaborative initiative, as we pilot these sensors, the thing that we put in all of our partners’ face is we need to make sure we’re getting this in front of real people that can give feedback to it. Some of the volunteers, that’s the role that they played. If you’re nontechnical, hey, look at this website, look at this feature, tell us what you think, share it with your friends, and, yeah, leveraging that guide to get feedback. That way we make sure we’re building things that actually matter. So that’s how we look at it.
Nice shout out. Our qualitative research team is going to be sending lots of heart emojis over to Gregory later. Awesome. Thank you so much, Gregory. We’re going to move on to the next two presentations, and then we’ll have some chance to hear a little bit more about the approach. As well as if you have specific questions for any of our panelists, please put them in Q&A and we’ll try to get to them at the end, too. So, Carlos, you are up. Carlos Moreno from Tulsa. Carlos Moreno from Tulsa.
Carlos, you’re muted.
Oh, here we go. All right. Can everybody hear me now?
Awesome. My name is Carlos Moreno. I am the in-house graphic designer for a Head Start agency here in Tulsa and I am also the Brigade captain for Code for Tulsa. We want to share a project that we built, and it is a screener for the SNAP program.
So for those of you who don’t know, SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It’s basically a reboot of the Food Stamp Program that you might remember from the ’30s and ’40s and it was rebooted in the ’70s. It basically just provides food benefits for qualifying families based on their need and the number of people in their household.
I want to give a few shout outs to all the volunteers who worked on this project. I am not a programmer. People Jim Gillispe and Christ Stevenson and Chris Doe were the programmers on this project. There were a lot of volunteers who worked on the policy aspects of SNAP and how someone qualifies. There’s a lot of folks who volunteered on the user side of things, making sure that the tool that we built was easy for people to use.
And so, this is actually a project that we kicked off in about the summer of 2018 and worked a long time on it. It just launched pretty recently, right on time when schools were starting to plan for spring break.
Of course, in Tulsa, our schools never came back from spring break, so it’s good timing, because at the time the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, which administers the SNAP program here in Oklahoma, they started getting overwhelmed with a bunch of calls and a bunch of questions. Families really found the process to apply for SNAP very difficult, and they were flooding the office with questions and phone calls and emails. Everybody was overwhelmed and confused.
And so, as people who want to help and as programmers, our first instinct was to just dive in and say, “Oh, we can build a better mousetrap. We can build this better website and launch it for everybody.” As we really got into the weeds and started understanding the policies and understanding the experiences of people who were trying to apply for SNAP, we really took a step back and thought about a different approach.
As we learned from the GetCalFresh program in California, this issue is important now more than ever. We’re starting to see tons of people who were in need of things like food assistance and housing assistance. So we really knew that this project that we were about to launch was getting pretty urgent. And so, we really wanted to build a tool that not only was easy for families to use, but reduce the administrative burden on the Oklahoma DHS so they could process more cases.
When we started this project, we really quickly put together a list of must-haves. We wanted the project to be mobile-friendly. All of our families, over half of them were using their cell phones to access things like housing benefits and food benefits.
We wanted it to be very simple. We wanted it to be bilingual and the ability to … So right now it’s available in Spanish and English, but we wanted the availability to add more languages in the future.
We wanted Hunger Free Oklahoma, which is our nonprofit partner, to very easily be able to update the information so that the information that families were receiving was accurate and up-to-date.
We wanted to build a tool that not only was easy for users, but also, and this was the most important aspect of the project, put somebody in touch with that family that could walk them through the rest of the process. So it wasn’t just a, “Hey, you qualify for SNAP,” or, “Hey, you don’t qualify for SNAP. Good luck.” No, we really wanted to provide somebody with what are the next steps and how to move forward.
And so, here is our SNAP screening tool. I’ve got the URL there at the top. You can take a little test drive for yourself if you’d like. Again, mobile-friendly, very simple, lots of graphics and icons to guide people through the process.
We also use GitHub to build the project on. In addition, we worked with Hunger Free Oklahoma to also use GitHub and we showed them around, gave them a little tutorial and some basic GitHub best practices, and especially use the documentation feature for their staff to be able to do things like update the contact database using Google Sheets and collaborate with us through GitHub. So that was a really useful tool to use as we were building this project.
And so, this was a very specific pilot with Hunger Free Oklahoma and the Tulsa Public Schools system. And so, in the future, what we’re envisioning is to be able to roll this project out and make it available for every state. We can make the screener a little bit generic, take out all the Tulsa-centric information, and provide two versions of the screener, one that’s more generic but one that also keeps this referral aspect going to it.
The third thing, which is the most exciting thing, is through the process and as we were getting it launched, we found out that another organization, 18F, had come up with an API that has every single state’s qualification requirements for the Food Stamp Program. So we’re in the beginning phases and working with Alexander Soble to test out their API and pilot it and see how it works. If we can get it up and running for Oklahoma, I’d be really excited about getting it up and running for everyone.
So hello to everybody out there from Tulsa. If you’d like to jump in and help out and talk about how you might be able to implement a SNAP screener in your state, then let me know. Thanks a lot.
Awesome. Thank you so much, Carlos. I feel like this is a great example of the potential to scale, which is something I wanted to talk about before, which is that the Brigades and the civic tech space don’t really live in a vacuum. The fact that there’s a network, literally what we call our community of Brigades and fellowship, really speaks so strongly to being able to find out and re-leverage things in different ways.
And so, I love hearing you talk about this as not just something for Tulsa, although you built it specifically for a community and with a community that needs it. But the combination of technology and relationships could send this to the moon, or at least all 50 states.
Right. Yeah, exactly. One of our most successful projects, which was CourtBot, we actually redeployed from a fellowship program in Atlanta and we were able to collaborate with Code for Anchorage. Shout out to Code for Anchorage. And so, that really sort of … Right off the bat, we had this collaborative spirit of we’re forking projects from other Brigades and we want other Brigades to support our projects as well. So, yeah, very community-oriented in that sense.
Very different from the actual startup space. I did not feel this energy when I worked in startups. So it’s a very different [crosstalk 00:32:03].
Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Carlos. If you guys have specific questions for Carlos, drop them in the chat. Now we are over in my coast, in my timezone, and over to Yan-Yin Choy from San Jose.
Hello. I’m going to share my screen. Can you see that?
Yeah, just go into full present mode.
Hi, everyone. Again, my name is Yan-Yin. I’m one of the co-captains of Code for San Jose. I’m going to be talking about a couple of our COVID-19 projects.
So one of them was to basically help design information to help San Jose residents navigate issues related to COVID-19, maybe helping with employment services, or figuring out how to pay for rent and mortgage, or getting tested.
We’ve had volunteers basically curate content and refine translations for a resident assistant chatbot, which went live on SiliconValleyStrong.org in mid to late April 2020.
So a bit about the project. Our volunteers basically conducted surveys and interviews and defined a list of intents or answers that the chatbot can provide. They helped curate content. After it was launched in April 2020, another group of volunteers helped refine translations. The chatbot’s available in Vietnamese and in Spanish as well.
Our volunteers used basically a lot of content strategy skills such as stakeholder relationships, data analysis, conversation design, as well as project management and translation. They used Google Forms and Google Sheets to basically do this research. Although they eventually started editing the information just directly in the back-end in Heroku.
Our project partners that we worked with is the city of San Jose MOTI, which stands for Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation, specifically Apoorva and Clay. They basically reached out to us in early April and I started recruiting volunteers.
We’re especially grateful for all our volunteers. Ken Knight was our volunteer lead and helped coordinate the team of three folks to work on content design and research, including my colleagues at ServiceNow where I work, Fernando Joffre and Morgan Quinn, as well as Sara Hudson, who is a former US Digital Service fellow. We had a number of our volunteers help with translation refinement, Ron, Minh, Emily, and Cesar.
Some of the challenges that the content design team faced was trying to figure out conversation design and thinking about what’s the happy path that we want users to follow to get to a specific answer. If users are having trouble navigating the chatbot, what’s the repair path? How do we get people to reframe the question before they drop off and not use the chatbot anymore?
The third thing was to help keep the language accessible for everybody at a middle school reading level. We wanted to accommodate immigrants and ESL speakers, even though we did provide the chatbot in Vietnamese and Spanish. But making the language accessible to everybody was a big priority. But the challenge was also making sure we maintain a level of professionalism and using standard government jargon, which was tricky.
But I’m going to give you a quick demo of what the chatbot looks like. So this is the Silicon Valley Strong website. On the bottom right, if you click on the chatbot, it will pop up. As you can see, there are some top questions, but let’s say maybe you’re trying to figure out something related to testing. So you just type in your phrase and then some sort of question and answer will pop up with some more information.
So going back to presentation, the other tool that we worked on was Find Free Food Near Me. Again, the city of San Jose reached out to us, specifically folks from the IT department, Julie Kim and Joel Clark. They wanted us to help them create a tool to help residents look up free meal and groceries in Santa Clara County to get through the COVID-19 crisis.
What we did was we wanted to address some of their priorities, which was make it mobile-responsive, make sure we improve the web accessibility, and also improve the UX by making design fit what was designed in the mock-up.
We’re very thankful for our fellow volunteers. I contributed to some of the code, as well as Dane Olsen and Kevin Mershon. Our project is actually open-sourced. We put it on GitHub.
We went live in May, but we continue to make some tweaks here and there. The city of San Jose will either reach out to us on Slack or sometimes try the GitHub issue if they find some sort of problem that they need help with fixing.
So the initial site, on the left, you can see look like that. The new tool, on the right, it’s a screenshot of what the current tool is. It looks like that. It’s also available on the SiliconValleyStrong.org website, which is a project under the city of San Jose Mayor’s Office.
I encourage everyone, if you’re interested in collaborating or just chatting about ideas, please join us for a virtual meetup. We typically meet twice a month, and we actually have a meetup tonight, 6:30 PM, Pacific Time. You can also go to our website to learn more information or submit a project idea. Feel free to send me an email if you are interested in collaborating. Thank you so much.
Awesome. Thanks so much, Yan-Yin. I feel like you touched on a lot of the questions that I’m actually seeing people ask in chat, around how do you get involved and can I do something if I’m not a developer and some things about language, which is really great.
And so, I love that you illustrated just how important easy access is to things. I think we talk a lot at Code for America, I know we talked in our prep call, around how fancy tech is not the answer. It’s really cool to see how you leveraged simple things and really trying to make sure that something was accessible as opposed to sparkly necessarily for people to get what they needed.
As you guys are thinking … And I think one request for you, Yan-Yin, would you drop links to what you just shared in the chat? I know everybody’s really eager to go play with some of the sites that everybody is sharing. So that would be awesome, too.
And a link to the meetup tonight would be excellent. If you’re feeling excited and actionable, now is the time, folks.
Because we are starting to get a little short on time, I’m going to jump over to Tom Dooner, who’s going to share about a really great collective action project that’s going on. Folks who are dropping questions into the Q&A, I’ll probably try to bundle those in for our panelists afterwards because I’ve got a few things I want to touch on with them as well. Our panelists may also jump into Q&A to answer some of those for you, too. But with that, thank you, Yan-Yin, and over to Tom Dooner.
Hello, everyone. Thanks for joining today. I’m going to screen share. Marisa, please let me know if you cannot see this. Assuming everything’s working here. Hello, everybody. I’m Tom Dooner. I’m the Senior Software Engineer on the Brigade Network team at Code for America.
By now you’ve heard three great stories of the great work that Code for America Brigades are doing every week. I want to tell you a story of how Brigade members across the country stepped up to help people get their tax refunds and their stimulus checks in this time of need.
There’s a tool called GetYourRefund, and what is that? At Code for America, our staff product teams, we are also working on products in addition to how the Brigades work on projects. So there’s a natural connection between what we’re doing at Code for America staff and what Brigade members, volunteers nationwide are working on. So the story today is about how we built a connection between those groups of people. GetYourRefund was the first example of this.
We started working on GetYourRefund in late 2019 after learning how many people rely on the earned income tax credit or EITC, but don’t receive it because of the barrier of filing taxes. Even people who do file taxes, who are able to make it over the barrier, oftentimes will often end up paying half of their tax refund to a for-profit tax preparation service.
We think that that is not ideal, so we built getyourrefund.org to connect people with tax preparation services that are free, trustworthy, clarifying, thorough, and accessible, provided by IRS-certified volunteers throughout the country. We partner with providers in the IRS’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, also known as VITA, to directly help these users.
This is the GetYourRefund product. I actually don’t want to talk too much about it. You can check it out at getyourrefund.org. Also, our code is open-sourced and available at GitHub.com/CodeforAmerica.
But what I do want to talk about today is how the movement of civic technology and the Brigade Network has met the need for products like this. We published a blog post about this, which Marisa can drop the link to in the chat, or I will after this. But what I want to highlight today is how people power and online collaboration makes this possible.
When coronavirus forced VITA sites, which normally provides in-person tax clinics, to all shut down, almost overnight, the VITA program ground to a halt. They were not able to help the low-income people in their communities access their free services to get up to $7,000 in federal, state, and local tax credits. These clients really need those credits and turning to a for-profit tax preparation company is less than ideal.
So this was an incredible opportunity for us to empower VITA organizations and to directly help many people who rely on VITA’s services. But only if we could scale up to meet the moment.
To give some idea of the scale that would be required, we initially intended to do the entire tax season with only four VITA partners because we wanted a relatively small pilot to begin with. But almost overnight, when coronavirus affected all of these sites, we now had over a hundred VITA organizations expressing interest in GetYourRefund.
And so, we knew that if we were going to help as many people as possible, we needed people power to help meet that need. And so, that’s where the GetYourRefund volunteer team comes in.
This is a group of star volunteers from across the country, some of whom were brand new to the Brigade Network, some of whom had been around for a while. I don’t think Carlos is in this picture, but Carlos was involved as well. Gregory as well will talk about that in a minute.
The idea here is that GetYourRefund volunteers help us meet that need for scale by taking the lead on onboarding new partners, by providing the community-based VITA organizations with much needed advice, training, and in some cases just a friendly face, a local face, to help them through the process.
GetYourRefund volunteers produce training materials. They’ve produced a series of dozen YouTube videos that they update about how to use the product, how to train your staff to help clients with the product, and produce documentation, frequently asked questions, that kind of thing.
GetYourRefund volunteers also help serve clients directly. They step into our live chat functionality where users ask their tax questions or just want to know how they can claim their stimulus funding.
One example of this all coming together actually happened in Miami. It’s a story about how Gregory, as the captain of Code for South Florida and Code for Miami, brought this work, was able to use the processes we developed to bring on new partners in Miami, train them, support them. I think we started with four partners in Miami and now I think we’re going to be up to six soon. And so, I think just this national work can have a very local impact as well.
I should also say I saw a couple of folks from the volunteer team on the call today, so thank you for that. Thank you for all the work that you’ve done. We’re so grateful for the 40 or more active volunteers that we have, and we’ve had over a hundred people so far on the volunteer team at one point or another.
Tax day is coming up soon. I hate to say it because I still have not done my taxes. But tax day is coming up soon, and so we’re looking forward to next season and the off-season, so to speak. Although it’s likely that many of these VITA providers will continue working past the deadline.
We’re looking back at the success of being able to onboard dozens of new partners to help thousands, and hopefully tens of thousands, more clients because of the volunteer effort that everyone has put in.
And so, just, yeah, incredible work to the GetYourRefund volunteer team. I think I speak for all of us when I say we’re looking forward to building off this work next year, to expand the breadth of the team, and integrate it more closely with VITA next year so that we can help as many people get their refunds. Thank you.
Awesome. Thank you, Tom, so much. Tom, if there are additional opportunities now, maybe you can drop in ways that folks can get involved. I would say that for any of these projects, a first step is always get involved with your local Brigade because Brigades are going to be a funnel to anything that’s a little bit more out of the ordinary, like what Tom’s working on. But we’re seeing a lot more around collective action, and you’ll actually hear some of that from Veronica before we end today’s program.
So with a little bit of time left, I have a couple more questions for our panelists. I’ll actually ask all of our panelists to turn their video back on and join us because I’ve got questions for all of you. The two questions that I have, and I’ll jump to different folks, are after having seen all of these different projects, if a couple of you can chime in, what does it look to join a Brigade? Because I’m really hoping that there are people on this chat who are like, “Yes, I’m excited. I want to do it tonight. How do I do it? Where do I sign up?”
I would love maybe Carlos, if you want to kick that one off. Then if anybody else wants to chime in, that would be great. And Veronica and Yan-Yin, feel free to turn your video on as well.
Yeah, I mean I’ve got to be honest and say that, for us, more inclusion and more feeling a sense that people can be welcomed into the Brigade is something that has been a recent challenge for us. We were called out a couple years ago for the Brigade being this collective of tech bros.
We really had to look deep within ourselves and ask what is it about our meetings, what is it about our events and who we’re allowing to give presentations and who we’re asking to speak, and look at all of that and figure out how we can make changes so that we can make sure that everyone feels welcome and included.
It’s not perfect, it’s an ongoing process, and it’s been a long road. I’m proud to say, though, that of the five or six projects that I can think of off the top of my head, they’re now all being led by women. So I’m very proud of that.
Certainly not perfect and certainly we have a long way to go, but we’re just now starting to put into place things like we started a welcome repo on GitHub so that people can get oriented into what our Brigade is all about and the things that we are focusing on and a little bit about the projects that we’re working on.
So that even is still a work in progress as we continue to build that. Then, of course, everything going virtual lately has been a challenge as well. So, yeah, it’s not easy, but we’re trying and just try to get better day-by-day.
Awesome. Thank you for sharing that. I appreciate that transparency. I can also say that I’ve seen so much iteration, that the spirit of iterative work and change and accepting feedback and looking for community feedback is something I found to be so strong for Code for America and the Brigades. Going to my first Brigade Congress last year, I felt that energy of people just really being open to trying and learning and getting feedback. To me, that’s been an incredible part of watching this community.
Gregory or Yan-Yin, does anybody want to chime in on that? And I’ve got one more question, but I want to field to the group, too. Any takers? Nobody wants to rock, paper, scissors? We can move on to the next one, too. Gregory, go ahead.
So the best way is to go to Code for South … For us, codeforsouth.com and then hit ‘Volunteers’. We’ve been very intentional. We did a big restructuring of how we operate. So the way we set it up is you sign up to that volunteer. The way the process works, you get a follow-up email with all the details of diving in. And we have pathways. So it’s like are you technical? Are you nontechnical?
For us in Miami, because of where we are, and just in South Florida, we have a mix of women, men, it doesn’t matter, different race, so we also set a code of conduct up based on the Club for America’s model. In the volunteer step, we actually ask you to make sure that you check and read this. We have a list of all the people that have done that to make sure that we’re making sure the space is open for all.
For leadership and paid staff, we make sure it’s very transparent, like if you’re joining this team, everybody gets an understanding of who gets paid what. So everybody in the same role gets paid the same thing. Based on experience, that may change.
As well as we’re looking to bring on a woman leader in the space for Broward, because we recognize that it’s just super important to make sure we have a diverse leadership. Right now we have an all-male team, so we’re really excited to bring that on in the next two weeks.
If you’re a volunteer, you just want to see how that looks like, I just recommend going to codeforsouth.com, looking at ‘Volunteer’, and you can get a little taste of how our system works.
Awesome. Sounds like maybe Carlos and Gregory have some talking. Everybody can be learning about different onboarding experience, as I know that there’s a lot of really cool work that goes in and a lot of things that Veronica and Tom and other folks on our network team at Code for America really helped to make sure folks are able to implement.
I’ve got one more question. I think we definitely see some government folks on here. I know you’re probably thinking, if you work for a community organization or a government, how can you best partner. I think I want to toss that one over to Yan-Yin and maybe Veronica, or Tom, if you want to jump in, to share what does that look if somebody wants to work with you? Because I think that that’s really where the scale and the impact come into play.
Yeah, absolutely. I can speak to that. I mean both of the projects I just mentioned, it was a result of the city of San Jose actually reaching out to us. But we already have a lot prior built relationships with the city of San Jose, especially since one of our co-founders used to work with the city of San Jose’s innovation department.
But, yeah, we always love partnering with government folks or nonprofit folks. Typically, the process is somebody usually knows somebody on the leadership team, but we also try to actively reach out to potential partners and see if people will come speak to our Brigade and share more about what departments are doing so that we can be more aware of all of the different roles that departments and agencies play, or nonprofits, in the community.
Thanks so much, Yan-Yin. Then, Veronica, I’m going to toss it to you because I know we’ve got a really exciting opportunity coming up from Code for America that ties pretty strongly to this.
Yes, absolutely. So on September 12th, we’ll be holding our Eighth Annual National Day of Civic Hacking. National Day of Civic Hacking is really a great way to engage with the network and the work that Brigades across the country are doing.
So this year, the focus will be on COVID-19 response and the social safety net. We’ll have at least three guided actions in which folks can participate to be able to be part of that work. Carlos is on the National Day of Civic Hacking committee, and there’s a committee working right now to make sure that there are various pathways for entry.
So one thing that I want to highlight that has been mentioned and Yan-Yin really spoke to is that you don’t have to be a technologist to participate. National Day of Civic Hacking is a great way to participate in these actions without necessarily feeling like you’re committing to leading a whole project or something like that. So it’s definitely a great way to be involved and be part of the work, and also see what some of the impact that you can have being part of these projects that will be created.
So projects may be around redeploying a current social safety net project that has been created and used in response to COVID-19. There could be ways to participate in advocacy efforts to further policy that helps folks in your community access the social safety net.
We could be looking at the impact of COVID in our communities and how that ties against the social safety net blueprint that Code for America has come out with and seeing how our communities and their current services are able to match up to the principles that we’ve laid out.
So there’s lots of different avenues for participation, and it’ll be really fun. Last year, we had over a thousand people being part of these events in person. We’ll be online this year, but I think that makes even another way to connect with folks across the country in a way that you don’t normally get to.
Awesome. Thank you so much. Like I said, once you’re excited, it’s good just to know where you can head. So between signing up to go to Code for San Jose’s meetup tonight or checking out our National Day of Civic Hacking website, that’s really where we’re at.
So we are just about at time. I know that it’s hard to jump from webinar back into meetings, so I want to take a second and thank our excellent panelists, Yan-Yin Choy from Code for San Jose, Carlos Moreno from Code for Tulsa, Gregory Johnson from Code for South Florida, and Veronica Young and Tom Dooner, both from Code for America. We really appreciate you guys joining us today and giving us some hope and momentum for all of the cool things that are going on in our communities and that have the capacity to really impact folks.
For those of you jumping off, today’s webinar has been recorded and it will be shared on YouTube in the coming days. So definitely encourage you to keep an eye out for that.
You can visit us online. We are at codeforamerica.org. We’ve got lots of great content, opportunities to support our work. And, of course, we are on Twitter.
So thank you all and we look forward to seeing you at our next event next week around Modernizing Congress. Have a great day.