Guest column

How the pandemic advanced tech in government and education, according to this Houston expert

As we overcome the COVID crisis, and look to rebuild our economy and overcome future challenges, we need to learn from this experience and refuse to go back to the bad old days of red tape and stale technology. Photo via Getty Images

If you've logged onto a government website recently, you know that dealing with creaking, outdated government technology is about as much fun as a trip to the DMV. Held back by byzantine procurement rules, management-by-committee, and an aggressive commitment to decades-old UX principles, government websites and other tech tools are routinely confusing, horrible to use, and deeply inefficient.

Now, though, that could finally be changing. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to rethink our relationships with the technologies we use, from Zoom calls to e-commerce services. Increasingly, government bodies are finding themselves forced to move faster, adopt more up-to-date technologies, and work with private-sector partners to meet new challenges and quickly bring their services into the 21st century.

Getting an education

One of the most dramatic examples comes in the realm of education. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 93 percent of school-age children have engaged in distance learning since the pandemic began, and four fifths of them relied on digital tech to take the place of classroom resources. But with access to digital tech at home strongly correlated to household income, governments and education departments have had to move quickly to ensure every child has access to laptops and web connections.

Not everyone is a fan of remote learning, and as a parent myself, I know how hard it can be to have kids at home. But one thing we should all be able to agree on is that if we're going to rely on digital learning, then we need to make sure it's available to everyone, including those families that don't have access to reliable computers and WiFi connections at home.

Achieving that rapidly and at scale has required remarkable flexibility and creativity from policymakers at all levels. Those that have succeeded have done so by brushing aside the red tape that has ensnared previous government tech initiatives, and instead working with private-sector partners to rapidly implement the solutions that are needed.

Lessons from Texas

Here in Texas, for instance, one in six public school students lacked access to high-speed internet connections at the start of the pandemic, and 30% lacked access to laptops or other learning devices. To speed the transition to remote learning, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) launched Operation Connectivity — a $400 million campaign to connect 5.5 million Texas public school students with a computer device and reliable internet connection. To date 4 million devices have been purchased and are being distributed to kids, opening doors to greater educational and economic opportunities. Further work is in progress to remove other connectivity barriers like slow connection speeds in rural areas to help students and all Texans.

Rolling out such an ambitious project to our state's 1,200 or so school districts could have been a disaster. After all, many government IT projects grind along for months or years without delivering the desired results — often at huge cost to taxpayers. But Operation Connectivity has been different because it's grounded in a true partnership between the government and private-sector players.

Facing urgent deadlines, government leaders turned to Gaby Rowe, former CEO of the Ion tech hub, to spearhead the project. As a tech innovator, Rowe brought entrepreneurial energy and a real understanding of the power of public-private partnerships, and drove Operation Connectivity from the blueprint to execution in a matter of weeks. Tech giants including Microsoft, SAP, and Hubspot also quickly joined the effort, helping to deliver cost-effective connectivity and hardware solutions to ensure that every kid in our state could get the education they deserve. Since then, Operation Connectivity has distributed over a million devices, including laptops and wireless hotspots, to families in need, with costs split between the state and individual districts.

Private sector edge

To get a sense of how private-sector knowhow can spur government tech transformation, consider my own company, Digital Glyde. As part of the Operation Connectivity effort, we were asked to help design and build the back-end software and planning infrastructure needed to coordinate effectively with hundreds of school district officials scattered all across our state.

Ordinarily, that kind of effort would require a drawn-out process of consultation, committee-work, and red tape. But facing an urgent need to help our state's children, we were given the freedom to move quickly, and were able to implement a viable system within just a few days.

By leveraging cutting-edge data-extraction and image-processing tools, we helped Operation Connectivity to automatically process invoices and match tech costs to available COVID relief funding in record time. We achieved 95% accuracy within three weeks of deployment to ensure school districts quickly received reimbursements for the hardware they were purchasing on behalf of their schoolchildren.

Building on success

Operation Connectivity is just one example of the ways in which government actors have embraced tech and leveraged private-sector assistance to chart their way through the COVID crisis. From contact-tracing programs to vaccine distribution programs, we're seeing governments taking a far more pragmatic and partnership-driven approach to technology.

Of course, not every experiment goes to plan. In Florida, government agencies decided to use web tools to manage vaccination appointments — but implemented that idea using a commercial website built to handle birthday party e-vites. Unsurprisingly, the results were chaotic, with users having to scramble to grab appointments as they were posted to the site, and seniors struggling to wrap their head around a website designed for young parents.

Such stories are a reminder that governments can't solve big problems simply by grabbing at whatever tech tools are nearest to hand. It's vital to find the right solutions, and to work with partners who understand the complexity and constraints that come with delivering public-sector services at scale.

As we overcome the COVID crisis, and look to rebuild our economy and overcome future challenges, we need to learn from this experience and refuse to go back to the bad old days of red tape and stale technology. In recent months, we've shown what can be done when we pull together, and combine real governmental leadership with private-sector innovation and efficiency. We'll need much more of this kind of teamwork and tech-enabled creativity in the months and years to come.

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Varun Garg is the founder and CEO of Houston-based Digital Glyde

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Building Houston

 
 

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 158

New HX leader strives to unlock Houston's potential

Meet Natara Branch — the new CEO of HX. Photo courtesy of Natara Branch

For the past few weeks, Natara Branch has been on a listening tour of Houston's innovation ecosystem. Recently named the CEO of Houston Exponential, Branch says one word comes to mind when she thinks of the future of HX: Potential.

"I know that's an overused word," Branch says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, "but I think we really have to get everyone in Houston galvanized around the fact that we do have this potential so that people can see it and invest in Houston — both internally and externally. I really do believe Houston has so much to offer people who live or want to live here."

After spending over 18 years at the National Football League driving that organization forward, Branch says she was looking a role that would bring her back to her adopted hometown of Houston — a city she's been cheering on from afar during her tenure at the NFL based in New York City.

Branch joins HX as the organization changed ownership — it was acquired by Gow Companies, a company founded by Lawson Gow (who is the son of David Gow, InnovationMap's parent company's CEO) — and transitioned from being a nonprofit into being a for-profit company. Branch says that this transition shouldn't affect Houston entrepreneurs' interaction with HX other than improve on the experience as now HX is an entity for entrepreneurs and by entrepreneurs too.

"I'm an entrepreneur, I'm a consultant, I invest, and I work with entrepreneurs all the time," she says on the podcast. "I'm an entrepreneur at heart. ... If you're a founder, you know it's a unique experience. If you're an investor, it's a risky experience, and I've been on both sides."

Branch shares more on the show about her passion for the city of Houston, and how she's got open ears to anyone in the ecosystem who wants to contribute to the advancement of the city's tech ecosystem. And, as she explains, she is getting her fair share of feedback — but she has an ask for anyone who she's met.

"I am challenging people. You're not just going to give me feedback and sit back and watch. You're going to participate," Branch says. "I have not met one person who doesn't want Houston to win — they wouldn't be here if they didn't."

Next week, Branch is making her Houston debut to the greater community at the Houston Innovation Awards Gala, a collaborative event hosted by HX and InnovationMap, on November 9 at the Ion. She shares what all she's excited about for the event on the show. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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