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Open-source solution to CARES Act grants management

Reusable open source code is at the heart of a free suite of tools to help states manage and account for how they spend coronavirus stimulus grants.

Built with application programming interfaces by volunteers at U.S. Digital Response (USDR), the suite, which has no specific name, helps states apply for, track and disburse grants from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“It was clear it was going to be a big need,” said Robin Carnahan, who leads government partnerships at USDR.

“It was something that had come up in the last financial crisis [in 2009], and USASpending.gov grew out of that,” she said. “Understanding that [USAspending.gov] was open source code that could be reused and repurposed for this, we were able to spin up a team pretty quickly.” Carnahan was formerly Missouri’s secretary of state and led 18F’s state and local practice.

USDR itself is new, founded by former U.S. deputy CTOs and tech industry veterans as the pandemic took hold in the United States. Their goal with the organization is to connect pro bono tech experts to public servants responding to the COVID-19 crisis.

USDR volunteer Dave Zvenyach, former senior technical adviser at 18F, led the development of the CARES Act tool suite. With it, state governments can deploy automatic scripts to find newly available CARES grants, track the status of internal grant approvals and clearance from other state agencies, build workflows for approving subgrants and comply with transparency and reporting requirements.

It involves a scraper-like application that pulls information from Grants.gov, filters it and loads it into a cloud-based Airtable database. The suite includes Airtable forms for getting information from internal state actors; Gatsby, a web application static site generator; and Render web services. Netlify provides hosting, and all repositories are public on Github.

To use the suite, states must be able to use the spreadsheet-database tool Airtable, Zvenyach said, adding that he and his team are increasingly bringing in Microsoft .NET resources. The applications are responsive and work on both desktop or mobile devices.

“We want to be in a position where we can be flexible enough to support their stack, so if they have particular constraints, we’re not going to precious about, ‘We’re not going to support you,’” said Zvenyach, who is the product director at Hangar, which funds and builds companies that support government tech needs. “We’re intentionally trying to keep this relatively modular so that if one state needs one thing and another state needs another, it’s not a full package.”

The team produced a minimum viable product in less than a day for use by the state of Rhode Island. They are continuing to add functions and refine that first iteration, and a second state -- Ohio -- is preparing to roll out its tracking suite. Several other states are also in various stages of deployment.

With speed, “there are tradeoffs,” Zvenyach said. “We’ve had to make some tweaks along the way, where if we maybe started over, we would have done it a little bit different, but now the benefit is we’ve got that experience and can give those new states the benefit of those learnings.”

Going from processing hundreds or thousands of grants in typical times to suddenly dealing with potentially trillions of dollars from the stimulus “is a burden on the jurisdiction, so we’ve been focusing on just even identifying which grants are available to the workflow automation on the backend to really allow states to … focus on getting funds into the beneficiaries’ hands,” Zvenyach said. “And then on the backend, making sure that there is transparency and that accountability that goes with it so states can get ahead of this.”

Currently, USDR’s grant-tracking tool suite focuses on use at the state level, but some cities and counties are direct recipients of the funds, too, so the team is looking for ways to expand to cover those.

USDR, which went from a couple hundred volunteers to 5,000 within a month, works with more than 60 state and local government and non-governmental organizations on other topics, too. For example, it helped the Louisiana Department of Health launch Louisiana Health Work Connect to match furloughed medical workers with hospitals short on staff, and it helped three cities stand up volunteer-matching systems to connect volunteers with vulnerable populations for delivery of groceries and other necessities.

“Basic principles we work on are to quickly address whatever the need the government has and make their job easier and to leverage existing tools and resources to be able to do that,” said Carnahan, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation.

“Whatever we build out, whether it’s code or whether it’s a method or process, it’s set up to be reused by others,” she said. “What’s really clear is that we have 50 states and 3,400 counties and 19,000 cities that are all facing many of the same problems at the exact same time, and there’s really no reason that everybody ought to reinvent the wheel.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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