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How NY’s Tech SWAT Team ramped up COVID response

When New York became the country’s coronavirus epicenter this spring, the state’s Office of Information Technology Services (ITS) launched a COVID-19 Technology SWAT Team to build IT solutions quickly -- and at no cost.

Believed to be the first of its kind at the state level -- and modeled after the 2013 revamp of Healthcare.gov and the 2014 U.S. response to Ebola at the national level -- the effort involved recruiting “private-sector experts to work pro bono on critical projects, assist in developing new applications, and help [state] employees build the new technical skills necessary for responding to the crisis,” according to the state’s COVID-19 Technology SWAT Team progress report.

Starting in March, ITS partnered with the Governor’s Office and the Department of Financial Services to set up volunteers to work alongside state staff in 30- to 90-day sprints. Between March and May, the team received interest from 7,300 volunteers and 3,500 organizations plus 5,200 submissions of support, according to the report. The effort resulted in 19 pro bono partnership projects developed with about 25,000 volunteer hours and at a savings to taxpayers of about $14 million.

Additionally, internal government teams developed another 21 projects that yielded almost 50 million service interactions and 342 million page views across 60 million users.

The Technology SWAT Team focused three main areas, said Scott Reif, the state’s chief communications officer: web and mobile development, data science and analytics, and end-user support and digital content strategy.

“We knew there was work that we needed to do with our websites, because of the traffic, because of the presentation,” Reif said, adding that the sites needed to be more user-friendly to meet growing demand. The Department of Labor (DOL), for instance, saw a 200% increase in web traffic.

“We prioritized companies that could provide teams or groups to work in certain areas, and then obviously vetted, did onboarding and, in the end, they really worked side-by-side with our state employees -- virtually, obviously -- but they worked to surge resources to respond to COVID,” Reif said.

For one of the projects, the state’s Digital Service Team worked with Acquia to improve DOL’s CORE content management platform across all state websites. They also made it easier to gather requirements, developed a feature to upload and replace documents and scaled how multiple website updates could be pushed to production.

That work involved a discovery session around architecture, best practices, development enhancement and the Drupal-based CORE Distribution that New York uses to spin up new websites. The team did a two-week development enhancement sprint that led to improvements in filtering and results displays.

“We worked with their team on the one side to continue developing on those enhancements to allow them to continue to stand up a new Labor site with all the functions and features that are going to be required in this new normal,” said Joel McManus, enterprise account executive at Acquia.

The company also partnered with ITS to stand up in three days the coronavirus.health.ny.gov website that provides information to New Yorkers on COVID-19 symptoms, testing sites and the latest updates in addition to forms for filing complaints of violations of health and safety restrictions. ITS used Acquia’s Site Factory to roll out new sites, so “they were able to pivot one day when the coronavirus really obviously accelerated,” McManus said.

Other SWAT Team projects included working with Cisco to deploy networking systems and access points to support field operations at testing sites, with Accenture to audit and streamline DOL’s website content and with HPE to support virtual desktop infrastructure capacity and remote work for state employees.

For another project, ITS and the state Health Department worked with Microsoft to launch a statewide COVID-19 screening platform that residents could use to self-screen, request and schedule tests and receive results from a state-run testing site. A similar platform is available for antibody testing. New Yorkers can find more than 750 testing sites on a map that ITS and DOH developed with Google and Castlight Health.

The departments also partnered with Apple to make New York the first state to integrate local coronavirus information on social distancing, testing and economic reopening into its COVID-19 mobile and website screening app.

In addition to health-centric work, ITS joined with Microsoft, Mastercard, Square and Codeacademy to create technical trainings for ITS, the Digital Service Team and other agencies on how to increase engagement while teleworking, hone digital skills and deliver digital services to New Yorkers.

“You’re talking about improving for the future, getting more skills to our state teams,” Reif said.

The ITS-led projects included one with Google Cloud to launch a redesigned unemployment insurance application that integrated the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance process. ITS and DOH also set up a dashboard to publicly report COVID-19 data such as cases, locations and recoveries by region, age and race.

To share lessons learned, the state created a playbook for others to use to create their own SWAT Teams. It provides details on how to get a team started, recruit and vet volunteers, foster communication among stakeholders and get executive leaders’ support.

“Although much of the context throughout this document was written with the coronavirus response in mind, the Tech SWAT concept could be deployed in response to any crisis,” the playbook states.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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