We’re using tech to solve all our problems. But plenty of people still have problems with the tech.
Mar 3, 2021

We’re using tech to solve all our problems. But plenty of people still have problems with the tech.

Online-only appointment systems are leaving out people who lack internet access or devices. Could a Digital Service Corps help?

Part of the problem with the COVID-19 vaccine is that the tech to get it isn’t accessible to the people who need it most. Online-only appointment systems are leaving out people without internet access or devices, and clunky, buggy websites are testing everyone’s digital literacy. 

For Nicol Turner Lee, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, it’s part of a bigger problem that needs a big solution. We’ve got tech that’s unevenly distributed, plus a struggling economy that needs to transition to the digital age. So Turner Lee proposes that big solution in a recent piece for Brookings: a Tech New Deal and a paid civilian corps of tech-savvy people to do building, training and outreach. The idea is that maybe the next big disaster solution won’t leave people behind. 

The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

A headshot of Nicol Turner Lee, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Nicol Turner Lee. (Photo courtesy of Turner Lee)

Nicol Turner Lee: I was reminiscent when I was writing this piece around Franklin Roosevelt and what he had to do to get people back to work. One of the things that he did was create the Civilian [Conservation] Corps. We have become so dependent on technology — we use it for our groceries, we tap into it for our health care. And these companies have created a new stream of jobs, as we’ve seen other industries disrupted over the course of not just the pandemic, but the last few years. And in my mind, I’m thinking, “Why are we not thinking about a Digital Service Corps?” It’s scalable to have a civilian corps that is responsible for building the next wave of broadband infrastructure. 

I can’t tell you how much I feel this in my heart, that we’re missing opportunities when we dismiss the potential of technology, not just from a consumption standpoint, but from a production and development standpoint. I’m just worried that we’re missing an opportunity by again placing broadband — and I hate to say it, Molly — as a problem when it comes to just registering for your vaccine. Yes, that’s important. But it’s even more important for us to put our heads together and put people to work around this Tech New Deal.

Molly Wood: I mean, it does seem like the vaccine thing illustrates, in a way, this kind of mushy middle that we’re in, where we’re not actually ready to deploy technology as the solution to every problem. But we’re still trying to do it.

Turner Lee: That’s right. So we’ve got these hard issues, vaccination, and then it becomes, “Technology might be helpful through a website.” But there’s like no Digital Service Corps to build it. We need people to get into these jobs and get to work to build out our new communications network.

Wood: In the interim, what could make some of these problems less acute, like just the vaccine-site problem alone? Where could we start?

Turner Lee: I think cities have to go back and think about their strategies. They have to deploy a hybrid model to get people signed up — sit in front of barbershops, beauty shops, sit inside of that Walgreens and make sure people sign up — and ensuring that people have an email address, just like they have a post office address, so that we can get to them as we go through this process together.

The Centers for Disease Control teamed up with Boston Children’s Hospital and launched VaccineFinder, a website that allows Americans to search for locations that offer COVID-19 vaccinations where they live. (Photo courtesy of VaccineFinder)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

In Turner Lee’s piece for Brookings, she argues that technology needs to be a constant partner in all the Biden administration’s policies. And specifically that the Tech New Deal should be a concerted investment in broadband to close the digital divide, in workforce training, and it should make more diverse investments in technology, including startups. She calls it a “means to national and local economic revitalization.” It is an excellent read, and someone from the White House should probably call her immediately is all I’m saying. 

We’ve also got more stories on the uneven distribution of the vaccine and vaccine technology. There’s a piece from CNN about a software developer in Massachusetts who, while on maternity leave, built a simpler version of the vaccine sign-up website in her state. Basically she kind of started a one-woman volunteer version of the Digital Service Corps.

There are actually lots of people doing the same thing. There’s an Airbnb engineer in New York. Another group of volunteers in Massachusetts (their system must be really terrible). A group in California that made a site to track vaccine availability by county. And a couple of guys who created a system to try to connect people with extra doses so they don’t go to waste.

Granted, yes, these are all techies creating more tech solutions. But hey, if the next step could be training and phone banking and helping people actually use those solutions, then boom, we’ve got the corps. We’re ready to rock.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer