COVID-19: The New Role of Tech

April 16, 2020

Beyond testing California’s capacity to respond to a massive public health emergency, the coronavirus pandemic has forced state agencies and departments to rapidly ramp-up digital government capacity and deploy technology tools in highly visible ways, with serious ramifications for individuals and communities alike. The coronavirus, though obviously a tragedy, has given digital government a unique opportunity to prove itself.

In large part, we are seeing the real, and real-time, benefits of technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and Geographic Information Systems in our collective effort to track, manage and fight COVID-19. State leaders in the California Health and Human Services Agency have moved rapidly to create a COVID-19 portal and open dataset that includes the latest number of cases, deaths, and tests, as well as dashboards for hospital data and statewide case statistics. When combined with similar data across the nation and beyond, these powerful tools provide real-time aid to state and national leaders who must constantly monitor the presence of the virus, in terms of the number of cases and deaths, and project our future healthcare needs based on the virus’ transmission trajectory. Based on this and other relevant information, Governor Newsom has taken a number of actions to flatten the virus’ curve and save the lives of Californians.

This experience dramatically demonstrates the power of GIS and other digital technologies to inform government action and prioritize decisions about resource allocations in times of scarcity and great need. But the benefit of these technologies extends far beyond our current situation, and policymakers should consider the potential of these tools as the state recovers from the crisis.

The Commission has long advocated strategic use of technology to increase situational awareness for decision-makers and to make government programs more efficient, most recently in its reports Mapping a Strategy for GIS and Artificial Intelligence: A Roadmap for California. In these reports, the Commission offered recommendations to create the kind of leadership California needs to sustain and promote the use of important technologies across state government.

The pandemic is requiring many members of the public to ramp-up their own use of technology at home in order to comply with statewide shelter-in-place directives while accessing important educational services, non-emergency health and mental health visits, and public services of all kinds. For some, this may mean finding laptops or tablets for children to complete classwork or for families to apply for public benefits. But for others, it may also require procuring internet services.

In A Customer-Centric Upgrade for California Government, the Commission recognized the role of high-speed broadband as the foundational technology for connectivity and digital services and advocated for a whole-of-government shift to improve Californians’ interactions when accessing government services.

Today, California ranks 13th among states for broadband access. Nearly all Californians (94.1%) have access to broadband coverage or wired low-price plans (70%). This is a strong foundation to build the kind of customer-centric services the Commission envisioned in its report.

Yet, wide disparities in levels of connectivity persist across swaths of the state. Several rural counties in particular have comparatively less broadband coverage than the rest of the state. And research suggests the digital divide also is higher among certain populations, such as those with low-incomes or less education, and African Americans or Latinos.

California must work to close this gap so that easy access to government digital services becomes the norm for all of California, both in times of great trial and once we return to normal circumstances.

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